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Bully-Proofing the Workplace

The best way to deal with bullies? Don't hire them.
Bully-Proofing the Workplace


Snide remarks in front of others.

An “in crowd” that excludes others.

Spreading untrue rumors.

These are classic bullying tactics that most of us have, unfortunately, experienced at some point in our adolescence, and the things that make many glad to have their high school years behind them. But what happens when these bullying tactics jump from the high school hallways to the cubicle maze? From lunchroom to boardroom? After all, bullies do get older—and not all “grow up.”

Workplace bullying is a very real, and often serious, problem. It is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including non-verbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done.” A 2010 survey by the same organization found that 35 percent of adults experienced some form of bullying, and an additional 15 percent reported witnessing it happening to others, meaning that half of all employees have had personal exposure to these damaging events.

For the targets of bullying, the effects of this stress can impact both their personal lives and their physical and mental health. Research done on hospital workers in the U.K. revealed that nurses reporting to a supervisor who lacked respect, fairness, or sensitivity had a 20 percent greater risk of heart disease than those reporting to a considerate and empathetic supervisor. Another large-scale study found that bullying by supervisors or co-workers lowered job satisfaction, generated emotional exhaustion and depression, and led them to consider quitting.

While it’s difficult to estimate a dollar amount of lost productivity because of bullying, as talent management professionals, we know unequivocally that the effects of low engagement, turnover, and team dysfunction have a direct correlation to an organization’s bottom line.

One of the challenges of workplace bullying is that it can be subtle and difficult to prove. If the supervisor is the bully, the employee may be reluctant to even raise the issue with HR for fear of retaliation or job loss. If the bully is a peer, it becomes a matter of one employee’s word against another’s and, even then, the behavior is subjective. Was it bullying or warranted constructive criticism? Good natured ribbing or mean-spirited degradation?

For any organization that values its employee morale and wants to avoid becoming a workplace that workers dread coming to each day, bullying is an issue that needs to be considered and addressed by leaders at all levels. In fact, legislation has been proposed in more than a dozen U.S. states to address the phenomenon and increase accountability. Internationally, several countries, including Australia, have enacted laws that include jail time for bullies.

The most effective way to bully-proof your organization is to simply not hire bullies. The more non-bullies in your company directory, the less likely bullying behavior will be tolerated. But, of course, everyone is on their best behavior during the hiring process, and in real life, bullies just aren’t as easy to spot as the cartoon variety, with menacing scowls and slingshots in their back pockets. Myopic hiring tools that look only at what someone has achieved but that ignore how they got there can even favor bullies whose success has come at others’ expense.

Armed with a good selection system and an understanding of what bully-prone attributes, experiences, and behaviors look like, we contend that you can, in fact, select out bullies.

There are two key strategies when using your selection system to flag bullies: identify characteristics that are predictive of bullying, and identify characteristics that are opposite of, or counter to, bullying behaviors. And, like with any selection situation, a multi-faceted approach using a mix of tools (pre-employment assessments, job simulations, and interviews) is most successful.

Pre-employment Assessments

Pre-employment assessments (or tests) can be an effective tool for collecting predictive information about bullying behaviors by looking for anti-bullying behavior, such as identifying evidence that the candidate enjoys building relationships and supporting coworkers and customers.

For situational judgment assessments, which assess a candidate’s approach to solving work-related problems, they can be scored to select those who choose alternatives more supportive of a collaborative environment.

If you use personality assessments, in which candidates report about their attitudes toward work and others, certain characteristics can be measured that generally identify people who will get along well with others, aren’t prone to bursts of anger, work well under stress, and care about co-workers.

Job Simulations

Job simulations can be especially effective at identifying productive work behaviors. Job candidates, however, are keenly aware of their actions and will be on their best behavior—they most likely aren’t going to berate the assessors or the roleplayers (although, amazingly, we have seen it happen).

But you can present situations that provide a chance for the candidate to demonstrate counter-bullying behaviors, such as teamwork and relationship-building behaviors. For example, what do they do when a coworker or direct report makes a mistake that angers a customer? A non-bully-prone candidate will likely respond to the situation with behaviors illustrating empathy and understanding prior to jumping in to solve the problem.


The interview can also be tailored to assess bullying. We know that past behavior predicts future behavior, and a behavior-based interviewing system is therefore the most effective type of interview for predicting job success.  For the same reasons, it can also be an accurate predictor of bullying.

Questions such as “Tell me about a time when you had conflict with a team member. How did you resolve the situation?” are ways to bring to light bullying tendencies. A more positive spin would be to ask a question about a time or situation in which the candidate recognized that a co-worker needed help.

As with any other selection objective, selecting to avoid bullies is about risk reduction, and it’s impossible to reduce that risk to zero. But if you set the bar high on interpersonal skills and look across your selection data for illustrations of a candidate’s empathy, agreeableness, emotional stability, and relationship building skills, your selection system becomes a powerful tool in creating a more positive and productive work environment.

Scott Erker, Ph.D., is DDI’s senior vice president of selection solutions.
Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is a manager in DDI’s assessment technology group.


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