How to Not Hire a Workplace Bully

When it comes to bullying at work, the best defense is a good offense. The most effective way to keep bullies from destroying morale and stifling productivity is to not hire them in the first place. That’s not an easy task to accomplish, however, as there is no simple question that can separate the bullies from the non-bullies in the interview process. But there are subtle ways to determine whether someone would be a good fit for your organization. There are also steps you can take to deter bullies from even applying.

Workplace bullying is a serious, widespread and all too frequently ignored problem. The most recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute indicated that more than one-fourth of all workers have “direct experience” with bullying at work. What’s more, companies are eager to sweep bullying under the rug instead of dealing with it directly: 72 percent of employers “deny, discount, encourage, rationalize or defend” abusive behavior.

Before and During the Interview Process

Your employment brand is the promise you make to potential employees about what your organization stands for and what it’s like to work for you. It is an encapsulation of your personality as an organization.

Make it clear in your employment brand that bullies are not welcome in your company. You can do this in several ways, including:

  • Make honesty and respect part of your company’s code of conduct, and publicize this code on your website
  • On social media, highlight the stories of employees who display the types of behaviors you expect from employees
  • Make sure that senior executives are modeling the traits and characteristics that are expected from all employees — if bullying is tolerated at the top, it will be tolerated throughout the organization
  • Have a no-tolerance policy for workplace bullying, and make it well known

In the interview process, make it very clear that the way to succeed at your organization is to work with others, not stomp on them. If an applicant believes they can’t get ahead by bullying, they’ll take their resume somewhere else.

Be Aware of Types

Bullying can be physical, but most often issues in the workplace include verbal (insults, intimidation) or social (gossip, humiliation in front of others). Being aware of the different kinds of bullies may help you weed them out earlier on. Some of these bullies are:

  • Manipulators: These bullies try to get ahead by flattering anyone that promotes their agenda and stomping on everyone else. They try to control the agenda, hurt working relationships and may even steal credit for others’ efforts.
  • Assassins: These bullies promote themselves by defaming and diminishing coworkers in the eyes of their peers. They often do this with forethought and malice. An assassin might be found dressing down (and embarrassing) coworkers in front of peers around a conference table.
  • Gatekeepers: These are the kinds of bullies that use their relationship with a higher-up to promote their agenda and squelch other ideas. The leaders often don’t know that there is an issue because workers can’t contact them without provoking the gatekeeper’s ire.
  • Inadvertent offenders: Not bullies, per se, these workers are pushy, find it hard to monitor their behavior, and have an overbearing demeanor. They come across as bullies to coworkers, who may find the behavior offensive and even hostile.

In the Interview Process

There isn’t one question that can identify who is a bully. However, there are some areas that can help determine if a candidate is willing to deviate from the norms of generally accepted office behavior. Be sure to ask questions about these topics:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Risk-taking
  • Negativity
  • Teamwork

In each of these areas, yes-and-no questions don’t go far enough. Look for antecedents of troubling behavior and workplace deviance by asking deep questions. You may choose to ask specific questions about management styles and conflict-handling techniques. Again, there’s no simple way to indicate that an applicant is a bully, so it’s important to ask the questions that will paint an accurate picture of the person’s tendencies and behaviors.

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