Sunday, March 25, 2012


A large firm had a growing amount of turnover in its staff and when the managing partner investigated, he heard many staff members and former employees talk about the bullying behavior of a couple of the other partners in the firm. The managing partner wanted to preserve his good relationships with his partners, but also wanted to stem the turnover and address what many saw as abusive behavior in the firm.

Bullying has reached almost epidemic levels among children and adolescents, especially with the rise of social networks allowing people to spread rumors, slander, and even private photos or videos of those who they don’t like. An often more subtle form of bullying can also occur in the workplace among adults, in which people mock, undermine, or dismiss the efforts of others. Many reasons, no doubt, underlie this behavior, ranging from growing job insecurity to increasing workplace competition to rising levels of rudeness in a fast-paced world. The question is: what to do about it?

The managing partner in this firm knows that he has to do something, given his knowledge of the situation, but what to do isn’t exactly clear. His partners could claim that the comments of disgruntled or former employees simply represent sour grapes. They could also see his confronting them about this issue as, itself, a form of bullying, abusing his role as the managing partner. Therein lies the paradox of bullying. To stop bullying, you have to become a bit of a bully yourself, which can make the real bullies look like victims and start a whole new round of bullying on their part as a result.

Although the question of how to deal with bullying can be confusing, the ethics of the situation remain clear. Bullying almost always represents an abuse of power, with the bullies usually more senior or of higher rank than their victims. As such, bullying violates the most fundamental rule in ethics, that of reciprocity, which would have us do to others as we would want them to do to us, as the Bible puts it, or to treat others as ends in themselves and not means to our ends, as Kant phrased it. Ethics serves us best as a decision-making tool, guiding us to do the right thing in situations like this. And that notion of reciprocity offers perhaps the best advice on how to deal with bullies.

You should treat bullies, in other words, as you would want them to treat you. Don’t bully them, but speak to them about their behavior calmly and directly, conveying the facts about how others see them as bullies and asking them how they plan to change their behavior accordingly. Some bullies do not see themselves as such and so they have the right to know how others see them and to have a chance to alter their behavior. Bullies, of course, may try to bully the conveyor of this message, which no one wants to endure. But if that happens, it offers an excellent opportunity to point out to them the very behavior under discussion.

If the bullying doesn’t stop, then the reciprocity has to take another form. Do for the victims what you would want them to do for you if you were in their place. That might take a variety of forms, from withholding compensation increases to bullies until they stop, isolating them in ways that minimizes their ability to abuse others, and even looking for ways to force them out of the organization. Unfortunately, bullies sometimes only respond to the bullying of others, the ultimate in reciprocity.

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