It is the silent epidemic that claims billions of dollars in revenue each year, but the biggest cost by far for a company that hires a bully is the trauma experienced by staff in the firing line.
Workplace experts say that if bullies are not dealt with appropriately, low productivity, absenteeism and even physical illness can eventually seep through into the company's brand name, goodwill and bottom line.
While bad managers can come in many guises, bullies have one thing in common: they deliberately use repeated, continued behaviour that is designed to make a staff member feel bad, said conflict resolution consultant Joe Moore of Kimber Moore and Associates.
This is the legal definition of bullying used by the Occupational, Health and Safety Association (OHSA), Moore said. “It's important to understand this as we tend to use the term loosely in everyday language. Bullying is intentional and harmful."
The Beyond Bullying Association in Australia estimates between 2.5 million and 5 million people experience some aspects of bullying at work.
“If you have 100 employees, and a quarter are exposed to bullying type of behaviour each year, it's going to affect the bottom line. These people don't work productively; they're scared and consumed with thinking how evil the bully is.
"They spend time avoiding the person until they become sick and take time off,” said Moore.
The Productivity Commission estimated workplace bullying cost employers in Australia $10 billion per year as a result of absenteeism, staff turnover and compensation claims.
Job insecurity is one of the key reasons people may not speak out. With more employees moving into contracting roles, some fear losing their jobs as they don't have the same protection and entitlements as full time employers, said Moore.
“We have to get serious about bullying and stop hiring people with a history of bad behaviour in the first place.”
Psychologist Brad Dolph of RightPeople said employers could inadvertently create a culture of bullying when the behaviour moved down from one management level to the next. So hiring just one bully at a senior level could ultimately prove a very costly decision.
“Everyone puts their best foot forward at an interview, and these individuals can be quite charismatic during the interview process,” he said.
“We employ tools such as risk management assessments which have been specifically designed to show up overly aggressive and bullying style attitudes".
The beauty of these assessments is that they can be conducted prior to employment and used across all levels in an organisation, said Dolph.
While social media helped to bring attention to bullying among other sectors of the community, he said an increase in the number of women coming into management roles has also had an impact.
“Women no longer tolerate the gender difference issues such as the boy's club."
However, he conceded some women in positions of authority were equally capable as some men of bullying colleagues.
Double checking the candidate's previous track record and references at the interview process was critical, said Moore.
“Ask them how they would handle a particular work situation and watch their response. Tell them, if I were to ring your ex-workers what would they say about the way you performed under stress and how you worked with your colleagues?”
But what about those being bullied from the bottom up?
Business mentor, Jacob Galea, said employees could sometime gang up on their managers.
“It's a tribe mentality to bully the leader. This puts the leader at risk and can also show him up to be weak in front of his boss. Many times I've seen men and women in senior management cry or become quite emotional as they recount their bullying experience,” he said.
The first thing a victim of bullying must do is speak to the person concerned and ask them to stop, said Moore.
“The best time to approach the person is when you are not angry, then they're likely to listen. Both parties need to be relatively calm.
"Tell the bully what they said or what they did and how this has affected you. Seek ways you can work together.”
It's also important to understand why the bullying is taking place, what's causing it to happen and work towards a solution. Galea also recommends confiding in someone you trust.
“Have a good think tank session. Talk to a mentor or someone you can trust and don't avoid the problem. You can work through it, I've seen it.”