What to do if you've hired a bully in the office

When you think of workplace bullying the first image that springs to mind is usually a toxic boss looking over a trembling staff member.

Don Draper in Mad Men, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, or basically any fictional head of a law firm in a movie. 

But this isn't always the case. CEOs, managers or supervisors can also relate to the feeling of dread when a bully – even an employee – walks into the office.

Here's how to recognise the warning signs if you've accidentally hired a toxic employee. 

Know you're not the first

A study by Griffith University found that nearly a quarter of Australian bosses have been the target of 'upward bullying', as it's known.

It got to a point early in my business The Collective's life that I – the boss­ – felt rather disrespected by my own team.

Tear up the schoolyard rulebook that says only bigger kids bully little kids. In the workplace, by definition someone is being bullied if 'a person or group of people repeatedly act unreasonably towards them or a group of workers' – and this can be a real issue for anyone of any tier.

It can also be lonely at the top, so it's important to be reminded that you are never alone; someone has always walked this road before you and there's comfort in that.

Watch for subtle signs

Bullying behaviour doesn't just mean shouting and screaming. In fact, a study from the University of Western Australia's Business School found that a lot of 'upward bullying' is conductive in secretive, subtle ways such as staff letting the managers take the blame for unfinished work, withholding information or making defamatory comments to people outside the company.

With everything in my business, I like authenticity and honesty, so this sort of behaviour gets me fired up. Don't brush aside micro-bullying behaviour – if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it counts. My advice: face it head on, and fast.


(Over)familiarity breeds contempt

A lot of companies are proud that their workforce is one big happy family (quite rightly), but the downside to being a likeable boss with an open door policy can be that some employees forget who they're talking to. If you do want to promote a family atmosphere, ensure that your employees talk to you with the respect they'd show a parent, not a younger sibling.

Constructive debate? Yes. Screaming disagreements? No. This is something I've had to work through personally as I am passionate about a family-like environment, but it got to a point early in my business The Collective's life that I – the boss­ – felt rather disrespected by my own team.

I spoke to my senior staff and we mapped out a holistic and strategic way to shift the company's culture over a period of six months, including some changes in my behaviour as well. I can't tell you how incredible the aftermath was (kudos to my senior team here, too).

Find a trusted advisor

Want to know if you're being oversensitive? Imagine if a staff member came to you and confessed they felt bullied by a peer – how would you advise them? If your company has a Human Resources department then arrange a discreet meeting, or seek advice from a third party such as Bully Zero Australia.

Start taking notes, including dates and details, of any time you experience bullying behaviour. As horrible as it sounds, you have to be smart – file copies of incriminating emails, social media posts or text messages.

I am lucky to have some incredible peers who have walked the business journey with me over years, and I with them, and one particular person springs to mind. There have been times when I've picked up the phone and had a (little) rant to them about a particular incident and the phone goes silent before I hear the words, 'Lisa, you're in the wrong!'

It was as simple as that – sound advice from a trusted source. Other times, they have reinforced my approach to take strong, immediate action.

Take emotion out of it

Don't be afraid to reach the conclusion that you just can't work together. If this is the case, remember, it is a professional termination of a working relationship – not a soap opera break-up. With the help of your advisor (see above) ensure that your actions are above board and respectful.

Even though you are the 'victim', two wrongs don't make a right – and no boss wants a tribunal. For all my crazy moments in business, one thing I can honestly say – heart on sleeve – is that I've terminated toxic relationships and uneven business partnerships immediately. I've watched friends struggle along and then 12 months down the track (or even more), wish they had made the decision sooner.

If you know it's not working, then exit the situation – if it's with an employee, business partner or even a friend – because our gut always knows well before our mind that something is amiss.

Learn from your mistakes

Even the best judges of character can hire a toxic employee who can turn on the charm in an interview. Forgive yourself and then consider tweaking your employment policy so that all staff have a trial period or – as I often do – employ someone as a consultant or freelancer before committing.

Most importantly, forgive yourself for hiring them the first place – we really need to be kinder to ourselves as business owners and managers. Now you've got rid of one bully, don't be the one beating yourself up instead.

Have you employed a bully? Let us know how you handled it in the comments.

The founder and editor-in-chief of The Collective, a monthly business and lifestyle magazine, Lisa Messenger has become a leading authority on the business world, specialising in entrepreneurship and disruption. She has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and three times been a finalist in the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year awards.