4 Ways CEOs And Founders Can Tackle Bullying In The Workplace

It can be difficult to understand the true impact of how destructive bullying is to someone who has never been bullied before. As an HR professional who was bullied as both an intern and again more severely by my boss, a member of the tight-knit leadership team, I can admit firsthand, how debilitating it is to be bullied in the workplace. The effects of corporate bullying are long-lasting. 30% of victims suffer from PTSD as a result of how intolerable their working lives have become.

Each situation is unique. While my situation might pale in comparison to others it doesn’t mean I wasn’t negatively impacted. Too often, I see people, especially in the online space, try to downplay what “bullying” is and question someone’s experience. These are the people who have been fortunate enough to never been bullied but lack the empathy to understand what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes.

Bullying is an imbalance of power to harm or control others. It’s a pattern of mistreatment that makes you feel humiliated, belittled, insulted and not good enough, to name a few. I’ve written more in-depth about it here.

I remember seeing the red flags during my interview process but disregarding them because I was excited about the opportunity. Immediately after starting, I felt like I was constantly living on eggshells. To the rest of the leadership team, my boss was great. She was turning the department around and implementing much-needed policies her predecessors failed to do. The CEO and executive team were so focused on growing the company and managing the day-to-day that they took her status updates as gospel.

However, on the inside, it was a different story. She was our dictator and she made it clear we were to fear her or we wouldn’t last. She was constantly looking for validation by promoting all the things she was putting into action and all the wrongs she was right-ing.

I learned after I left that I was the fifth person in my position in less than two years. One wrong hire, okay. Two bad hires, meh. Three or more, I can’t understand why nobody looked into it. Especially if an HR executive is overseeing the recruiting yet can’t even keep her own turnover down.

The first week, the digs started. It then grew into something bigger. She gossiped to and about me, made fun of me and others, intimidated me, stalked my social media and would throw in my face or make comments about trips I would take, intentionally gave me inaccurate information, isolated me from the team, made me report everything back to her before I was able to take action or answer a question myself, picked apart my accomplishments, brought me to tears and I could go on.

I felt alone because the team wouldn’t dare talk negatively about her for fear that someone would go back to her and say something. They’d make comments about the fear tactics she’d use but very subtly. The rest of the team succumbed to her ways and started turning into mini versions of her. I didn’t know who to turn to because my department was the department that was supposed to be the “safe zone.” However, it was the most toxic.

She was strategic though. She never bullied in writing. It was always over a video call or in person. She never left a paper trail.

I’ll never forget the moment that broke the camel’s back for me. It was a phone call I’ll never forget. She talked down to me as if I were her pet dog that had just gnawed away at her brand new couch. It was at that moment that I finally gained the courage to stand up to her that she presented me with two options: either I quit or I get fired and I had less than 24 hours to decide.

I focused so much on getting through the day to day that I had nothing else lined up. I felt stuck. All I could think was how it would look on my resume and what future employers would think. My team at that point had abandoned me completely. I knew whatever decision I chose wasn’t going to be in my favor.



The Impact Of Bullying

Companies turn a blind eye to bullying but don’t realize the impact it has on a company. For example, a study shows workplace bullying could be a “more crippling and devastating problem than all work-related stress put together.” This stress causes employers to lose an estimated $300 billion annually. To give you an idea, here are some things I experienced due to being bullied:

  • I stopped sleeping
  • Started emotional binge eating
  • Was filled with anxiety all the time that I was grinding my teeth so badly I had to go to the dentist on more than one occasion
  • My anxiety was heightened
  • My confidence was deteriorating
  • My relationships with my friends suffered
  • I started distancing myself from my colleagues

… this isn’t even everything.

When employees are stressed out, their productivity and performance suffer. No matter how much they’re pushing to give it their all, they’re unable to give 100% because their mental health is impacted. Absenteeism increases due to trying to avoid the bully, deal with their crippling mental health and/or attend doctors’ appointments for help.


I’m sharing my story because I want to bring awareness to the reality of workplace bullying and what it might look like. I want those who have never experienced it to get a peek into what it looks and feels like. More importantly, I want to share how you, as a leader, can stand up against bullying and dismantle the toxic culture it creates.



Get To Know Your Surroundings

Take the time to observe what’s going on in the surroundings around you. As a business owner myself, I understand the role of a CEO or Founder is demanding. However, there’s no excuse to close the door on your people and not knowing what’s going on. The role of the CEO and Founder is evolving as the workplace goes through major transformations with technology and the new generation of workers.

I recently wrote an article on the winners of the Best Places to Work. One of the things they all shared in common is a culture-first driven workplace. This means, their CEO is invested and immersed in the culture.

Start by observing the interactions between employees and their managers. Gauge their body language and how they communicate.

Does the employee seem anxious? Nervous? On edge? Worried? Stressed? Scared to speak up? Are they disengaged from the team and/or the company?

Do you sense favoritism or cliques? Does the manager treat their team and members below them the same as their equals and those above them?

Start small by taking the time to visit the departments and interact with the people at the bottom. Get to know them as humans. Have your EA block off time in your calendar to stroll through the departments. Be present and make a commitment to yourself that you’re going to immerse yourself into the culture and be more hands-on. See with your own eyes what’s going on and observe if anything seems out of place or if an employee or team seems disconnected or off. Don’t make assumptions or gloss over anything that strikes you as odd.



Check-in With Employees

A bullied target most likely isn’t going to open up about what’s going on right away. It takes time. They need to genuinely feel comfortable opening up and trust that there won’t be repercussions.

Unfortunately, telling them there won’t be repercussions isn’t enough to convince them.

If you notice a team member is disengaged or off, reach out and check-in with them. Ask how they’re doing. Make it a habit. One, two, five or ten times isn’t enough. Remember, targeted victims are intimidated and feel powerless. Oftentimes, they have nothing else lined up and can’t afford to lose this job. As a CEO or Founder, they know you’re in control of their position and paycheck and you have a stronger relationship with their boss than you do with them.

To risk opening up to someone who is equal to their bully is frightening. 64% of targeted victims lose their jobs for trying to end workplace harassment against them. Make it a point to show that you value each individual, regardless of title, and have a zero-tolerance policy against mistreatment. If and when an employee confides in you, truly understand what it took for them to open up.

Similar to domestic violence victims, bullied victims turn inward and believe they’re the problem. If they tell someone and that person confronts their bully, the situation can go one of three ways, it gets worse, the victim loses their job or less commonly, the bully loses their job. To the victim, the immediate thought is, “it’s the toxic leader’s word against mine. Why would they ever believe me?”

Be persistent in checking in with them and observe their body language. If they seem tense or quick to give a generic answer, make it a note to follow up more. You can’t check-in once or twice and assume everything is okay because they would’ve told you otherwise. They have to genuinely trust you.



Check-In With The Leader

Toxic leaders have mastered the Jekyll and Hyde. The show their best face to their equals and those above them while they wear the evil ones to those they bully. Too often, CEOs and Founders take only one side of the story as the truth instead of getting to the root of it.

Get a better understanding of the leader’s role with their team. Start by asking them questions about their team and digging into it deeper. Bring up a specific person you noticed an interaction with and see how they respond.

Do they instantly place blame? Talk negatively? Poke fun? Make a targeted joke about them? What does their body language show?

Get a sense if they trust their team or if they’re always checking in and micromanaging. When they’re supposed to take time off such as maternity leave, vacation or a leave of absence are they still present as if they never left? You might contribute that to being dedicated, but I challenge you by asking why they don’t trust their team enough to let them handle it while they’re off? What training gaps are there? What needs to be done for them to relinquish control over their employees and let them do the job they were hired to do?

Is it truly the employee or is it the manager who wants control over everything?

Dig into the metrics. Did their department experience higher than average turnover? Ask them about it. Is there a pattern? Why hasn’t the pattern been corrected?

Do they refuse to attend development training because they believe they’re exempt and don’t need them? Are they quick to hire and fire? Ask them how they deliver feedback to their team? How often? How do they develop their team? What separates their top performers from their bottom? What would they change about their team? There is so much to be uncovered here.



Do Your Due Diligence

This is an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to put it out there – If you hear rumors about mistreatment swirling around. Address them. Get to the core of them and figure out the root of them. Rumors always have a bit of truth to them. Sure, they typically end up distorted as they travel from ear to ear, but there is always a bit of truth.

Turning a blind eye to rumors enables bullies to continue. 61% of bosses are bullies and 22% of coworkers turn a blind eye to it. As a CEO, founder or member of the executive team, it’s up to you to stand up for what’s right and turn it around. Take a peek at Glassdoor and online reviews and genuinely take a pulse of what the culture is like in your company.

Are you living up to the values you promote? If something doesn’t feel right or you’re only taking the word of the leaders around you, you’re going to be fed some misinformation–especially by toxic leaders themselves. Toxic leaders thrive because executive leaders are too intimidated to stand up to them or too hands-off to understand the reality of the situation.

When an employee gets pushed out of the company by their bully, executives take the toxic leaders word instead of getting both sides to the story. With that being said, you can’t rely on exit interviews to provide that second half. Victims are scared to speak up for fear it’ll hurt their future chances of getting a job as well as retaliation.

Your company requires you to be more hands-on and immersed in the culture. As an executive leader, I understand your day is packed with endless meetings. Your people are your greatest assets. Don’t tarnish your reputation by clinging onto a toxic leader because you’re scared to lose the knowledge and experience they bring. It only takes one toxic person to destroy a culture and when word leaks, similar to the Away scandal, it puts a black mark on the company preventing top talent from wanting to give you a chance.

If your workplace or event would benefit from my training or speaking, I encourage you to reach out. My mission is to dismantle toxic workplaces and re-engage employees with cultures that thrive. I’m here to support you in making your company a Best Place to Work where everyone feels welcome and included.

This post was originally published on Heidi Lynne Consulting