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“Bullies are bad.” “Bullies should be found and punished.” “We have zero-tolerance for bullying at work”.

If you have ‘zero-tolerance’ for bullying and harassment, while your intention may be laudable, it mightn’t be the right thing to do.  Zero-tolerance is a worthy ideal. No one should have to suffer bullying in the workplace. And paradoxically, it may actually be tolerance – insofar as we recognise and acknowledge in ourselves the desire to bully – that offers us the best chance of helping people to do otherwise.

Bullying, as a form of behaviour, is wrong – this is not in question. What is less clear is where to draw the line.

In a context where people are under enormous pressure to perform, with fewer resources and tighter deadlines, many of us might well feel like dispensing with the niceties of workplace interaction, and just tell people what to do. This might, inadvertently, mean we turn to bullying behaviours to get the work done. This is not a situation best remedied by vindictiveness, or blame or a witch-hunt, which is the risk of a zero tolerance approach.

If you have a workplace where someone can admit that “I’m under such extreme stress that I feel like bullying my staff every single day”, you will have an organisation which is less likely to have bullies in it, than a workplace where people know they’d be fired on the spot for admitting such a thing.  Because in the face of increasing demands, wanting to kick someone to get stuff done is neither incomprehensible nor evil. It is simply normal.

By demonising bullying behaviour, there is every chance it gets driven underground.

Zero tolerance approaches might simply mean that people get better at disguising it and bullying evolves into more subtle forms of coercion and manipulation.  With every new variation, the possibility of their changing their behaviour grows more remote. Instead, get across in your policies that while the urge towards compelling others may be understandable, it is not a necessity.

There are ways other than bullying that can get things done

Ways which don’t destroy trust, respect and relationships in the process.  Some people will undoubtedly need help in learning alternative management techniques – and in this case what they need is not to be punished, but mentored, coached and educated, and they’ll be more likely to be open to changing if they are treated as people who have made a mistake under pressure, rather than as evil incarnate.

Ultimately, if someone is courageous enough to stand up and own up to bullying behaviours, then organisationally punishing them can be cruel and wasteful.

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