Taking on a workplace bully
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Confronting an office bully takes courage. (Design Pics/Thinkstock)

Q: My manager is treating one of my colleagues unfairly, yelling at her when she makes even the smallest mistake and looking for reasons to blame and punish her. She verbally attacks my colleague in front of the rest of us for things that are not against the rules and not a big deal. I think it is beginning to affect my coworker's health. Isn't this kind of treatment by a boss unethical?

A: The short answer: Yes. It’s always unethical to make other people feel unsafe, disrespected, or marginalised at work — and especially those who report to you.

“If we think about a strong ethical culture as a house with wooden beams, respectful behaviour is the centre, load-bearing beam,” said Linda Fisher Thornton, author of 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership and chief executive officer of Leading in Context, a consulting firm based in Richmond, Virginia, in the US.

Leaders must show the way by modeling respectful conduct. Why does this matter? Because, aside from a leader’s duty not to harm those in their charge, bullying is toxic for the corporate culture, Fisher Thornton said.

“When people fear being attacked, they understandably tend to ‘pull in’ to protect themselves, much like a turtle pulling its head into its shell,” she said. Employees begin to spend their time thinking about what’s going on in the office and how to avoid being the next victim — instead of focusing on their work. All this wasted energy, Fisher Thornton said, is diverted away from the company’s real business.  

As for what you should do as a colleague when faced with this dilemma, it’s important not to escalate the situation. Yelling back at your manager when she attacks your colleague is not likely to work – and might even put you in the crosshairs. But you can try to do the right thing by your officemate in other ways.

Start by reaching out to see if your harassed colleague could benefit from some quiet support, Fisher Thornton said. Next, decide how you will report the problem. If your company has a policy preventing such behaviour — and a strong record of enforcing it – then your way is clear, especially if you feel comfortable going to your manager’s boss about the situation. Make sure you’ve documented the problem with notes, copies of emails and any other evidence before you alert a senior manager or the human resources department.

Be careful, Fisher Thornton warned, if your firm doesn’t have a history of holding strong against bullying. (This could also be a problem if this is the first workplace bullying problem your company has had to confront.)

“If the manager finds out that you reported her, and if she is fairly confident that nothing will be done to stop her, her behaviour could worsen,” she said.

In the event that you decide not to confront your manager or to report her, make sure that her behaviour doesn’t force you into violating your personal ethical standards as you go about doing your job.

Whatever happens, don’t agree to do anything that you feel compromises you  or damages your credibility, Fisher Thornton said: “You can look for a new job if you ever decide to leave, but your reputation can never be traded in for a new one.”

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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