From Healthy Debates to Personal Attacks and Bullying

In a community full of opinions and preferences, people always disagree. Employers should encourage active discussions and welcome heated debates on the services or products, but a personal attack should be ground for immediate and permanent termination of employment of the offender. Zero tolerance is the best policy and practice to apply to personal attacks in the workplace.

The fallacy of Attacking the Character or Circumstances

One type of fallacy is the personal attack.

The argument concerning the attack of a person’s character or circumstances is characterized and shown to be sometimes persuasive but normally fallacious. This fallacy occurs when someone refutes another’s ideas by attacking the person rather than the ideas.  The fallacy draws its appeal from the technique of “getting personal.” The assumption is that what the person is saying is entirely or partially dictated by his character or special circumstances and so should be disregarded.

Personal Attacks, Bullying, and Harassment

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines “workplace bullying as the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” While some of the specific actions a person may take against another person that would constitute bullying is similar, or even identical, to the actions seen in Workplace Harassment, there are several distinct difference:

  • Bullying can be perpetrated by anyone against anyone. Harassment only pertains to Protected Classes, such as race, religion, sex or gender, nationality, etc. Protected Classes is not a consideration in cases of bullying.
  • Bully is characterized by repetition. A single “incident” may be mean and hurtful, and probably violates a business’s own professional conduct rules, but it does not constitute bullying. A single incident of, for example, sexual harassment, however, is grounds for legal action.
  • In cases where bullying has resulted in legal action, the grounds for legal regress focuses more on the harm caused to the target, both psychological and physical, rather than the illegality of the act. Harassment cases focus very specifically the violation of Harassment Laws.
  • Most importantly, unlike Harassment, there are no specific state or federal laws that explicitly protect a worker from bullying. For that reason, it is incumbent on employers to establish policies prohibiting bullying, even a single act should not be tolerated.

Bullying can be viewed differently from Harassment in that the intent of the action is to harm in some personal or professional sense, regardless of the “protected” characteristics about the individual that would fall under harassment. Race, religion, gender, age and other state and federally protected class attributes may be a component of bullying but they don’t have to be. This means that bullying has the potential to be a larger and more pervasive problem than harassment.

Federal and State Harassment laws have made awareness of harassment a focus of many organizations’ employee training. Most employees today are at least aware that policies and laws against, for example, sexual harassment, are in place. Bullying, however, is still largely under-addressed in many organizations. And even in organizations that have rules against bullying, many employees still don’t understand what bullying is.

Workplace bullying can come in many different forms from various people within an organization or company and typically falls into three categories: Personal attacks, professional attacks, and actions designed to apply control or manipulate an outcome. When the term “bullying” is used, people often think of physical harm or abuse. But bullying can be any intentional, repeated action that is specifically intended to make another employee feel bad and affect their happiness on the job. Some examples of each include:

Attacks intended to cause personal suffering

  • Spreading rumors, hurtful gossip or innuendo
  • Yelling, name-calling, mocking, insulting or ridiculing
  • Unwanted physical contact or physical gestures that intimidate or threaten
  • Invalid or baseless criticism
  • Accusatory or threatening statements
  • Faultfinding or unwarranted blaming
  • Displaying offensive photos or objects
  • Temper tantrums, mood swings, shouting
  • Humiliation, public reprimands or obscene language
  • Ganging up against a co-worker
  • Aggressive posturing, ignoring

Attacks intended to affect job performance or career

  • Denying access to resources, assignments, projects or opportunities
  • Stealing or taking credit for another’s work
  • Interfering with or undermining someone’s work performance
  • Ignoring phone calls or messages
  • Little or no feedback on performance
  • Withholding information essential to performing one’s job
  • Toxic e-mails

Actions intended to control or manipulate

  • Failing to invite someone to an essential meeting
  • Threatening job loss
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-management
  • Assigning tasks that cannot be completed by deadline; setting unrealistic goals
  • Interference or sabotage
  • Ignoring a coworker with the intent to harm or control
  • Treating a worker differently than peers and co-workers
  • Ostracism, isolation, dissociation or exclusion from others
  • Refusal to take responsibility
  • Excessive, impossible, conflicting work expectations or demands
  • Inequitable and harsh treatment
  • Other objectionable behavior designed to torment, isolate, pester or abuse

Looking through these characteristics it is easy to see many of these behaviors in employees in almost any work environment. It is important to remember that bullying is an action specifically intended to hurt an individual or a group, not simply an act of poor communication and interpersonal skills on the part of an employee or supervisor. Further, these actions are reserved for the target individual or group and not applied to others.

What can you do?

It is not uncommon that a person being bullied chooses not to report it out of fear of retaliation from the employee or the company they work for. Still, workers have rights and it’s possible to exercise them when necessary while also remaining professional. Further, ignoring the problem will not usually change things so remaining silent won’t help.

If you believe you are a being bullied there are professional steps you can take:

Look critically, and honestly, at the situation:

Take the time to evaluate what’s really happening. Are you the target of a bully, or are others also getting the same treatment? Is it repeatedly happening or is it just a bad day? Maybe the individual is just an unhappy, angry person who treats most people the same way. While none of these behaviors should be acceptable in the workplace, there is a difference between bullying and general, bad behavior. Bullying is persistently aggressive and/or unreasonable behavior against a specific group or individual.

Address the bully directly

If you know you’re being bullied, firmly, and professionally, tell the individual that their behavior is unacceptable and politely asking that person to stop. Try not to engage with the bully any further than that because a verbal match was not your intention. Further, arguing or yelling can exacerbate the situation and make you look just as guilty.

If you do not feel comfortable doing this then speak with your supervisor and ask for their assistance.  Your supervisor should be able to guide you through the steps you need take. Mediation is one-way supervisors can help to resolve the issue.

Keep a record

It’s always a good practice to document events as soon as they happen. Write down the details of any bullying to include what they said, what you said, along with the time and date. This will assure that should the time come to take things to another level, you are not relying on memory and you can remain factual and dispassionate. Both will help to strengthen your position.

Use your Chain of Command

Most organizations have either formal or informal procedures in place for addressing conflict and it usually begins by speaking to your supervisor. Other procedures may be documented in your organization’s employee handbook.

If the person bullying you is your supervisor then moving up to the next supervisory level or the human resources office will usually be next.  Always keep any physical proof and documentation that you may have and present it to the proper personnel. Describe what is happening in detail and explain how the situation is impacting your ability to do your work. It’s important to stress that you want to find a productive, comfortable way of addressing the situation.

Check your emotions

Bullying can be perceived as a serious threat even when it’s not physical. It is normal therefore to react emotionally; getting angry, defensive, and even crying are all normal reactions to a perceived threat. As hard as it may be, remaining calm and unemotional can go alone way toward maintaining the upper hand when addressing the bully or seeking assistance.

Seek Assistance

Many people are afraid to address issues of bullying because they fear it could impact or jeopardize their position or their employment. But bullying left unchecked can harm more than your career, it can affect your mental, physical, and emotional health. It is never in the best interest of an organization for employees to be bullied and most supervisors, and certainly business executives and owners, will not tolerate it. Besides the negative impact on worker productively and morale, in worst cases, there can be legal ramifications to unchecked bullying in the workplace. So don’t keep attacks to yourself.

What is Human Resources?

By S. A. Kohan

Human resources (“HR”) should be the most powerful part of an organization. So why, in reality, is its impact more often felt in a negative way?

Because human resources, unfortunately, often operates as a cloak-and-dagger society or a health-and-happiness sideshow. Those are extremes, of course, but if there is anything I have learned over the past sixteen years of working as an HR Manager and consultant for a variety of business groups, it is that HR rarely functions as it should. That’s an outrage, made only more frustrating by the fact that most leaders aren’t scrambling to fix it.

I believe, HR should be every company’s “killer app.” What could possibly be more important than who gets hired, developed, promoted, or moved out the door? Business is a game, and as with all games, the team that puts the best people on the field and gets them playing together wins. It’s that simple.

Executives need to fill HR with a special kind of hybrid: people who are part pastor (hearing all sins and complaints without recrimination) and part parent (loving and nurturing, but giving it to you straight when you’re off track).

Ideal HR professionals are Pastor-Parent type who have come up through the HR department, but more often than not, have run something during their careers, such as a factory or an office. They get the business—its inner workings, history, tensions, and the hidden hierarchies that exist in people’s minds. They are known to be relentlessly candid, even when the message is hard, and they hold confidences tight. With my insight and integrity, pastor-parents earn the trust of the organization.

The Pastor-Parent HR professionals don’t just sit around making people feel warm and fuzzy. They improve the company by overseeing a rigorous appraisal-and-evaluation system that lets every person know where he or she stands, and they monitor that system with the same intensity as a Sarbanes-Oxley compliance officer.