Bullying: What can I do as a supervisor?

According to Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, the term bullying describes the repeated hostile actions of one or more persons against another person over a longer period. 

Conflicts of this kind often take place in secret. Employees will not approach their superiors for fear of being viewed as "not able to handle conflict" or "not able to handle stress." That's why it's all the more important for managers to develop their own early warning system and raise their voices when


  • the same employees are repeatedly "going at each other." It could be a fundamental problem;
  • individual employees become isolated and no longer receive support from colleagues;
  • employees who have changed their previous behaviour and now go out of their way to avoid their colleagues or work tasks;
  • absenteeism and sick days are on the rise;
  • the performance of a team or department is dropping for no apparent reason;
  • jokes about one particular colleague are on the rise;
  • an employee is repeatedly lacking information, for example because he or she has been "accidentally" dropped from an email distribution list;
  • the same blocks form against a person in meetings, for example, nobody wants to sit next to this employee, etc.. 

You need to take action, preferably proactively, but definitely when an employee complains to you about attacks on their person or their work. If workflows are at risk of being disrupted or already are, you need to intervene and cannot steer clear of the conflict. The sooner you act, the more likely there will be a real chance to settle the conflict. Sitting and waiting will only deteriorate the situation and casts a bad light on you as their boss!

First, you should work to get a more accurate picture of the situation. Conversations with those involved will help with conflict analysis. Initially, one-on-one, and then, if it appears helpful, together. The key is to remain objective and neutral in these discussions and listen carefully to identify the key issues of the conflict. You can use the following checklist as a guide:

  • What is this conflict about?
  • What emotions are shown by those involved?
  • Who's involved? Directly and indirectly?
  • What are the relationships among those involved? In what way do they or their work rely on each other? 
  • What's the history of the conflict?
  • What kinds of bullying have occurred?
  • What is the basic attitude of those involved about the conflict?
  • Is the confrontation solvable? What could be a possible solution?
  • What's been done so far?
  • Is the conflict threatening to expand or can it be limited?

Use this information to make an attempt at conciliation, however, they don't offer any cure-alls. The solution needs to be worked out jointly by those involved. It is important that they come to a common understanding of the conflict. This includes understanding the views of the other parties from their perspective. 

If you're confronting this kind of situation for the first time or otherwise feel uncertain, you can get internal support from HR or externally from a coach or mediator trained for such situations.

If this attempt at conciliation fails or if evidence of bullying is obvious, then it is necessary to take a position immediately and report the destructive and harmful behavior. However, before you do this, it is helpful to discuss the process with a neutral third party. This will allow you to reflect on your own behavior and ownership of it before acting. Your contact in HR will once again be an appropriate person for this role. At the same time, you can also discuss with HR the next steps. HR will often offer support in their implementation. If this is not guaranteed, I suggest you consult a coach or mediator who will assist you with advice and practical help. 

If you come to the conclusion that it will not suffice to report the bullying and demand changes in behavior and you will need to threaten or impose sanctions, it is best to address this with your superior and a lawyer or legal department. This will ensure you get more accurate answers about the formal steps that will need to be taken.

In short, the following measures are available to you:

  • Take a stand: clearly state what you expect from those involved, put it down in writing, and have the parties sign the agreement;
  • be present, such as work-related meetings in the affected department being held only in the presence of a supervisor for a period;
  • organize communication flows so that those involved cant exclude others;
  • physically separate those involved, for example, by moving them to different offices;
  • reallocate work tasks to avoid overlaps or the parties involved having to rely on each other to do their work;
  • place some or all of those involved on probation
  • place some or all of those involved on warning (if the legal grounds have been established);
  • transfer one or more of those involved, if possible;
  • terminate the aggressor (if the legal grounds have been established).

Inform the team about the procedure you have chosen. This will help prevent rumors and determine the content of the "grapevine." Address bullying. Point out that employees are expected to work as team members and partners at your company. If employees see that intrigues are not swept under the run, but are instead addressed and declared undesirable, bullying will become more difficult. 

If you've managed to calm the turmoil by early intervention, you can be proud of yourself: it's a big challenge! 

But stay vigilant. The team or the department where bullying was taking place should continue to be monitored closely. Speak regularly with the victim and ask directly about the evolution of the situation. Other team members can also help you get an idea of what's going on if you're too far away from day-to-day life in the office. In any case, it is advisable to agree on a follow-up meeting with those involved within three months. This tells them that solving the problem is one of your priorities and that you're going to stick to it.