Workplace Conflict: Who Is The ‘real’ Bully?

By Darrin Tonsfeldt
The Village Business Institute

In the sporting world; hockey, football, soccer or any other sport, the player who gets the penalty is not always the one who started it. This is also true in arguments between couples, children, and co-workers. Management personnel need to know that taking a complaint of bullying at just face value can result in some faulty decision-making.

A few years back a service-based company hired us to investigate a complaint of a hostile work place. The individual making the complaint was adamant that co-workers, one in particular, were treating her with disrespect to the point of creating an environment in which she felt threatened. She filed a complaint of harassment with her employer’s human resource department and because several employees were accused in the complaint, they decided to use an external resource to investigate the complaint.

We completed the investigation and there was no finding of harassment on the part of any of the accused. Interestingly, if one of the accused would have filed a complaint of harassment against the original complainant, it was very likely that complaint would have resulted in a finding of violation of federal discrimination laws and the company’s anti-harassment policy.

The original complainant didn’t like the finding of the investigation and true to form, took it as meaning everyone was out to get her. She eventually left the company and burnt as many bridges with former co-workers as she possibly could. In the end the true bully in this case was the one who claimed to be the victim.

This company was fortunate in that they were well prepared and their preparation is a lesson to any company looking to prevent or deal with bullying or toxic behavior. Lesson one; they had a well-defined anti-harassment policy and complaint process. Two, they provided that policy to employees, and conducted mandatory anti-harassment training. Third, they had gone above and beyond just an anti-harassment policy and taken the time to engage employees in defining respectful courteous behavior in the work place—these standards of behavior were incorporated into job descriptions, performance evaluations, and disciplinary processes. Fourth, all employees, from top management on down, were held to those standards. Fifth, when they received a complaint they followed their policy, moved expediently to conduct an investigation and acted on the results.

Regardless of how well prepared you are as a company to insure you have a courteous and respectful workplace, bullies and toxic employees can occur and who they truly are may not be readily apparent. If you’re feeling you or your organization could be better prepared to prevent or deal with bullies, contact The Village Business Institute, 1-800-627-8220 or We can be of assistance in helping you prepare.

About the blogger
Darrin Tonsfeldt has a background of program administration, employee supervision, and clinical experience, as well as 20 years of experience in organization consulting and planning. He provides oversight of The Village Business Institute, Regional Counseling Services, and Financial Resource Center programs. He also provides consulting services that include strategic planning; career, leadership, management, and executive coaching; corporate training and group facilitation; crisis response in the workplace; and organizational consulting.

1 Response

  1. Unfortunately, what you describe is all too true… and too often, it takes more than one incident or complaint to identify the real issue, at the heart of the matter.

    I’ve had opportunity to participate in one situation in particular… the employee made several small-ish complaints that didn’t really lead anywhere serious – no one lost a job as a result of investigations conducted. However, several employees received warnings for their actions before it truly became clear that the individual doing the complaining was typically “in the thick of things” so to speak – instigating minor confrontations by manipulating people behind the scenes and causing drama that built until it eventually “blew up” into confrontations or situations that didn’t seem to be caused by the complainant… It was only once a pattern of complaints began to develop that it became clear who the real source of the trouble was.

    I learned valuable lessons from the experience that have served me well – I just wish that other employees hadn’t been caught in the cross fire as a result. And thankfully I’ve not had that type of thing happen again – to date, anyway… but of course, odds are, the longer I’m in the job I’m in, the more likely it is that a similar situation will occur again.

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