5 ways leaders can stand up to bullying in the workplace

As an Indian-American woman, I grew up and worked professionally in a time when minorities were less accepted and celebrated. I was bullied both verbally and physically by my peers, as a child.

The bullies thrived because no one stopped them; not the teachers, not the parents, and not law enforcement. They were born into an ecosystem that enabled their behavior. No one warned me that those same schoolyard bullies would be also waiting for me in Corporate America.

I was “renamed” Mohammed because a manager couldn’t pronounce Madhumita and refused to call me Mita. I was once told that people like me because I acted “white and assimilated well.” I was once told that I was incompetent and no one else would ever want me on their team. I was screamed at over and over again. I was once called a rat; I had my work questioned and undermined; I had my job threatened.

The bullying has been intermittent throughout my career. At times, it lasted longer than it should have. In a Monster.com survey, almost 94% of employees said they had been bullied at work.  Over 50% of these individuals had been bullied by their boss.

And bullying can still thrive in a virtual world. Individuals can feel shunned or left out of meetings. Bosses and coworkers can be peering past our cameras and listening to the soundtrack of our lives. Judgements are placed on how we look, where we are Zooming from, and how “professional” we appear.

We are living in the “Great Awakening.” Employees will no longer tolerate working in organizations where they are not respected. As leaders, it’s time to stop bullies from thriving in our organizations. Here are five ways to start:

1. Enact a zero-tolerance policy

Zero-tolerance policies are rising in popularity at companies. They can hold employees as well as partners and suppliers accountable. However, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) antiharassment task force, “zero tolerance” policies can be misleading and counterproductive if they are not properly defined.

If you have a zero-tolerance policy, share it broadly and consistently, and be specific on what it covers. This may include no weapons, drugs or alcohol at work, or using pornographic materials. When it comes to bullying, consider outlining the following: the use of sexist, racist and homophobic language, and threatening or intidimating others. Ensure you have a stance on behavior outside of work, including social media channels. In an always on world, we are all ambassadors of our company, as evidenced by the firing of Amy Cooper by her employer Franklin Templeton.

2. Dismantle your performance review process

It’s time to dismantle your performance review system. Make 360 feedback at the heart of how leaders are evaluated, tied to their compensation and impacting all career opportunities. Consider utilizing Korn Ferry’s Leadership Assessment or Culture Amp’s feedback tools to start. Each individual in the leader’s organization should give feedback. For bullies who are exceptional at managing up, this will provide a holistic view of their leadership. The anonymous feedback should be delivered by a third-party coach along with the manager.

Depending on the behavior, leaders should have the opportunity to change and not be immediately “cancelled.” However, the runway to change behavior needs to be well defined and within a specific time frame. You can consider hiring a coach for the leader who is accountable to their manager. Or ask the leader to take a leave of absence where they can seek anger management classes or therapy. If the behavior change doesn’t occur, and if it’s not sustained, they need to leave the organization.

3. Address conflicts of interest

What if the leader who is bullying their team is the CHRO? What if they are close friends with the organization’s general counsel? What if they sit on the business integrity team and review all complaints? The leader who is accused of bullying cannot be involved in their own investigation. Place them on a leave of absence so that they cannot influence or intimidate individuals as the investigation occurs.

Some forms of retaliation are clear during and after an investigation; facing job loss, being denied a pay increase or a promotion. Other types can be difficult to document, including being excluded from meetings, being denied access to leadership, or being removed from assignments. Ensuring the leader being accused of bullying is on a leave of absence ensures a fair process for all involved.

4. Reimagine your investigation process

It’s time to invest and hire third-party investigators to conduct investigations. Individuals need to have expertise on how to conduct interviews. They must follow the investigation protocol, should understand employment laws for your state and be able to work with legal counsel.

When you have leaders investigating other leaders, it’s difficult to have checks and balances. One time I reported a bullying incident, I was told “they are a major a-hole, you need to move past it.” Internal employees didn’t investigate in fear of this leader retaliating. So follow the example of companies like Uber, CBS, and Essence, who brought in law firms to help investigate claims of bullying, harassment, and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

If you have a Code or Business Integrity Committee, consider nominating employees from different functions and levels to serve. When I was an MBA student at Duke University, the institution’s Code Committee included both professors and students who were nominated by our community.  It created a shared responsibility by all to promote a climate of integrity. Ensure you share investigation themes with your leadership and your board to discuss appropriate interventions. Collaborate with your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team to provide training and support to help build a more inclusive culture.

5. Treat your exit interviews like customer reviews

Our employees are our forgotten consumers. If we receive a customer complaint, we look to fix the issue immediately. If we receive a complaint during an exit interview, let’s address it with the same sense of urgency.

Exit interviews are the most undervalued tool we have. Sometimes they are not done or are poorly documented. Employees may not be honest about their experiences. Start with ensuring standard questions for every exit interview. Ensure that the interviewer is not the manager and they have been trained. Follow up with a short questionnaire to capture anything that was missed. Consider offering exit interviews several weeks after the employee has left, to give them time to collect their thoughts.

Share exit interview themes frequently with your leadership team and board. Hold leaders accountable for their attrition. If a leader has had five women of color resign from their team within the last month, start asking the tough questions. Attrition should be tied into their performance reviews. If enough people leave their team, it’s time for that leader to leave as well.

It’s time to stop bullies from thriving in our organizations. In the Great Awakening, leaders must also wake up to the fact that talent will no longer tolerate behavior they once did.  And it’s time to start protecting our employees, because without them, let’s not forget that there would be no company.

Mita Mallick is a diversity and inclusion leader. Currently, she is the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta.