Give bullies the boot – Don’t let a workplace antagonist poison your team.

Give bullies the boot – Don’t let a workplace antagonist poison your team.

By Heather Donahoe, managing editor

Intimidation, antagonizing language, threats, belittling— most of your employees probably assume they left that nonsense behind in middle school. Unfortunately for them, and your business, workplace bullying can seep into any operation’s culture if deliberate policies aren’t established to foil the antics of disruptive employees. The fallout from a bully can render heightened turnover, lowered morale and a compromised guest experience.

That’s why it’s so important for operators to keep a close eye on the social dynamics of their staffs. In the fast-paced atmosphere of a restaurant, a bully’s agenda can quickly take root with a snide comment or a backhanded gesture here and there. According to Dr. Gary Namie, a social psychologist and founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, restaurants can become a common breeding ground for bullies, on account of the competitive environment.

“The worst aspects of human nature will come out when people are hurried and stressed, and that’s the restaurant business,” Dr. Namie said. “That’s why it’s so important for [restaurant operators] to make a deliberate effort to establish a zero tolerance policy for bullying.”

So, what does workplace bullying look like? The word “bully” may mean something different to each of us, so it’s necessary to establish a definition of that word in the context of a workplace.

Here are a few examples:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Gossiping
  • Humiliation in front of colleagues and customers
  • Intimidation
  • Aggressive language
  • Exclusion or social isolation

Any situation that leaves an employee feeling threatened can amount to bullying. This type of environment in your restaurant can undermine your purpose—to create a welcoming ambiance for guests. Customers can sense tensions, alliances and conflicts among your staff, and let’s be honest—nobody likes feel caught in the middle of a clash. Would you return to a business where the hostility was palpable? Few people would.

Alan Carson, a veteran server at a popular Olympia restaurant, has spent years observing the formation of social hierarchies within restaurants and believes that bullies typically target co-workers they perceive as a threat.

“If someone comes in showing lots of competence and promise in what they’re doing, that really awakens [a bully’s] insecurities, and they set out to make that person’s life miserable,” Carson said. “Or, in other cases, you’ll see the best server on the floor unite servers against each other, in order to hold on to some sort of perceived power.”

Namie agrees that high-performing employees often find themselves on the receiving end of a bully’s games.

“The good employee is technically superior—they’re better liked, they’re secure and they’re confident in their skills,” Namie said. “Typically, the bully has none of those things going for himself, and he acts out of fear, envy and jealousy.”

Your staff should know that all interpersonal differences MUST be checked at the door, and likewise, employees must understand the consequences of failing to comply with your rules. Fortunately, there are some concrete steps you can take to make clear your stance on bullying. Here are a few steps for establishing guidelines.

1.) Make a deliberate statement that bullying will not be tolerated “Don’t go on autopilot and assume your staff knows better,” Dr. Namie said. “You have to establish a code of what is absolutely intolerable, and then you have to stick to it.”

2.) Make the consequences clear When someone is hired, make sure they understand that they will be held accountable for their adherence to your bullying policy, but don’t just do it verbally. Have them sign an agreement, stating that they understand the company’s anti-bullying rules and the corresponding disciplinary action if those rules are ignored.

3.) You as a manager must model cooperative, collaborative and altruistic behavior. If you don’t want bullies in your restaurant, it’s important to ask yourself whether you’re modeling that preference. Are you a bully yourself? Do you play favorites with your employees? No matter how fair you believe yourself to be, a periodic gut check is a good idea. “Never intentionally or inadvertently do anything that pits worker against worker,” Namie said. “That doesn’t mean that there can’t be friendly competition among employees, but not to the extent that it creates a cutthroat, zero-sum game situation. Don’t play favorites or establish quotas that create enemies of co-workers and undermine collegiality.”

Sample Bullying Policy

Our company is committed to enforcing the requirements of law with respect to sexual harassment and bullying.

Sexual harassment consists of any verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted or unwelcome. Bullying is being cruel or mean to others. Examples of conduct that may be considered inappropriate are:

Any type of insult
Sexual innuendo
Suggestive comments
Jokes of a sexual nature
Direct threats
Aggressive language
Questions about a person’s sexuality
Lewd comments
Any type of insult

Non Verbal
Sexually suggestive objects, images or pictures
Graphic commentaries or literature
Leering or eying suggestively
Obscene or threatening gestures

Unwanted physical contact
Touching, pinching, or any type of fondling
‘Cornering’ another person
Assault, battery

Any employee who believes the actions or words of a fellow employee constitute sexual harassment or bullyism should report the incident to their immediate supervisor. If the harassment was committed by the supervisor it should be reported to the next level of management.

Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken against any employee that violates this policy or commits any acts of harassment of any form, whether sexual in nature or not. Based on the seriousness of the offense disciplinary measures may include verbal and written reprimand, suspension and termination.

Types of Bullies

The Passive Aggressor
This bully can be a clever one. Whether he’s stealing tables on the sly or passing out underhanded compliments, the Passive Aggressor can chip away at the collective confidence of your team.

The Aggressor
There’s no guessing with this bully; he makes no bones about who he likes and who he doesn’t. He goes out of his way to make things uncomfortable for his target. Don’t let the Aggressor run off your best employees.

The Gossip
Not always recognized for what he is, this bully never misses an opportunity to spread (and embellish) the latest chatter from the host stand to the dish sink. Keep an eye on this one. Gossip can wreak havoc on any organization.

The Alliance Builder
This bully does the most damage by pitting groups of employees against each other. Watch out for cliques among servers and hosts, and try scheduling offenders on opposite shifts.

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, July 2013)

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