Tips for Supervisors, Managers, Chairs

Supervisors and managers should maintain a workplace free from bullying and abusive conduct. This includes handling reports of bullying in a timely and effective manner while taking interim steps to alleviate and address bullying in the workplace among subordinates.

  • Inform yourself
  • Assess the problem
  • Support the target
  • Address the bullying behavior
  • Engage the work group

Inform yourself
As a manager or supervisor, it is your responsibility to recognize bullying and abusive conduct when you see it and take action to intervene. Training to support you in this effort is available through Staff Training and Development.

Assess the problem
Keep in mind that most people will not openly engage in bullying behavior when managers or supervisors are present. For this reason, you will probably have to rely on the target and other employees to bring the problem to your attention.

When an employee comes to you with a complaint, it will be up to you to determine whether the behavior being described fits the pattern of abusive conduct/bullying. See What is Workplace Bullying/Abusive Conduct? to build a better understanding of how to assess the problem.

Here are some useful questions to use with employees presenting complaints, to help you determine whether a pattern of bullying exists.

  • What is the behavior?
  • How often does it occur?
  • In what circumstances?
  • When did it start?
  • How does it affect you? [At work? Outside of work?]
  • What has been your response?
  • Are others affected? How?

Support the target
Once you have determined that a pattern of abusive conduct/bullying may exist – what steps can you take to support the target of the behavior? While each situation may differ in its details, here are some generally useful guidelines.

  • Assure the target that you will take action to intervene, while protecting his or her anonymity.
  • Ask whether others have seen or experienced the abusive conduct/bullying behavior; if so, ask for their names.
  • Agree on a plan to protect the target from further abusive conduct/bullying. (Sample components: a third person is always present when the two meet; work responsibilities are reassigned; communication guidelines are established for the entire work group; etc.).
  • Provide contact information for the Employee Assistance Program, and encourage the target to make use of this confidential resource for individual support as needed.
  • Check in at regular intervals to ensure that the problem is under control and the employee feels supported.

Address the bullying behavior
When bullying behavior occurs, it is important to address it as soon as possible. The longer a pattern of bullying is allowed to continue, the greater the impact to the employee and work group.

Be prepared before approaching the alleged bully. You may wish to make a few notes to keep your conversation on track. Consider consulting with your Employee Relations Analyst about how to frame the problem, and/or with Campus Conflict Resolution Services for help putting your thoughts into words that the alleged bully may find easier to hear.

Here are some general guidelines.

When speaking with the alleged bully, be calm, direct, and firm.

  • Describe the problematic behavior in objective terms.
    Example: “I noticed that each time our new staff member spoke during the meeting, you raised questions about her judgment or made unfavorable comparisons between her and her predecessor.”
  • Explain why you see it as a problem.
    Example: “I’m concerned that this may undermine her confidence, and put a damper on free and full participation in our meetings.”
  • Be specific about what change(s) you would like to see.
    “I would like you to avoid making unfavorable comments like these in future meetings, and to come to me instead if you have concerns about this staff member’s performance.”
  • Explain that you will continue to monitor the situation and provide feedback.
  • Caution the alleged bully against retaliatory behavior towards the target.

After you describe the problem, ask for the alleged bully’s thoughts. Be prepared to respond to denial and blame.

  • Denial: “I don’t think anything like that was going on.”
    Response: “Well, whether it happened this time or not, I don’t want to see it in the future.”
  • Blame: “That person is such an idiot – she really has nothing to contribute.”
    Response: “Regardless of what you think of your coworker, I expect you to treat her with civility and respect. ”

Following your meeting with the alleged bully, monitor progress and give feedback -- positive or negative -- as soon as you have the opportunity.

  • Positive: “I noticed a big change at the meeting today . You refrained from making negative comments about X,  and I think the discussion opened up as a result. Thanks very much for making the effort.”
  • Negative: “Again at today’s meeting you made unfavorable comparisons between X and her predecessor. This is not acceptable, and it needs to stop.”

If the behavior continues to be a problem, notify the person that you plan to address it through performance management.

You may also encourage the person to take advantage of the EAP program, for support in the process of modifying their behavior.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid being too general about the problem.
    “We could all hear you yelling at X” is a more direct and powerful message than “You should be nicer to him.”
  • Avoid confusing the person with the conduct.
    “This [specific] behavior is a problem” is a more useful statement than, “You need to change.”
  • Avoid identifying those who approached you about the problem.
    “Several people have brought this to my attention,” “A number of people have observed,” or “I have personally noticed” are all ways of protecting anonymity.

Engage the work group
The impact of workplace bullying is usually not limited to an interaction between two people. Often, the entire work group is affected by the problem, and they must be part of the solution. Here are some ideas to consider.

  • Invite employees to participate in the workshop on workplace bullying offered by Staff Training and Development
  • Review the Principles of Community or other performance expectations, discuss how they translate into action, and ask everyone to renew their commitment.
  • Encourage reporting of bullying behavior, and ensure confidentiality.

Remember as a manager, you have significant influence over the culture and climate of your workgroup. Resources are available to support you in turning around unhealthy workplace dynamics.