Addressing Workplace Bullying

Bullying in the dental office can take an emotional and financial toll on the practice.

By Kristine Berry, RDH, MSEC, Executive Coach

Kristine Berry has worked as a clinician, dental board examiner, dental operations consultant, executive coach, educational manager for a global Fortune 500 company and an operational manager overseeing $23 million of revenue for dental service organizations in New Hampshire and North Carolina. She specializes in coaching and speaking on abrasive styles in the workplace and creating profitable and positive practices. To inquire about her availability, she invites you to contact her via www.kristineberry.com or kristine@kristineberry.com.

Workplace bullying is destructive not only to targets but also to the organizations within which it occurs. Leaders in the organization should address and prevent it promptly. Researchers and practitioners encourage many strategies, including:

  • The development of zero tolerance policies on workplace bullying.
  • Leadership development workshops and positive culture programs.
  • Systems designed to effectively manage and intervene workplace conduct and civility.
  • Specialized executive coaching designed to reduce abrasive work styles of both leaders and team members.
  • Conflict resolution training for all workers.

Defining bullying
What exactly is workplace bullying? The academic literature on workplace mistreatment is fragmented and ranges from low-level workplace incivilities to more aggressive behaviors where intent to harm is clear. Examples of abrasive behavior include, but are not limited to:

  • Rudeness
  • Downgrading or demeaning another’s capabilities.
  • Public ridicule and disrespect.
  • Swearing and shouting or other verbal abuse.
  • Failing to control bodily functions.
  • Chronic complaining.
  • Excessive reassurance-seeking.
  • Singling out.
  • Ignoring.
  • Constant targeted criticism or gossip.
  • Violating confidentiality.
  • Work interference that sabotages outcome.

There is no U.S. business standard for workplace bullying; different organizational cultures embrace differing standards of acceptable behavior. For the purposes of this article, the definition of bullying is “Actions and practices that a ‘reasonable person’ would find abusive, occur repeatedly or persistently, and result in adverse economic, psychological, or physical outcomes to the target and/or a hostile work environment. 1 This definition distinguishes bullying from an erratic rude remark made by a manager or owner having a stressful day or an employee that may, from time to time, be a little tough on his/her colleagues. Although such incivilities are inappropriate and are not to be condoned, they are not bullying. Bullying is repeated and persistent abuse that results in harm.

The cost of bullying
Abrasive behavior has the potential to destroy individual wellbeing and organizational effectiveness. The costs can first be calculated in terms of work disruption. Abrasive behavior can impact productivity to the point of paralysis. Employees who face bullying in the workplace may experience several issues, including stress, depression, illness, insomnia and even suicidal behavior. Costs of organizational disruption include:

  • Attrition of valued employees.
  • Decreased morale and motivation, resulting in lower productivity.
  • Higher incidence of stress-related illness and substance abuse.
  • Higher turnover rates.
  • Maximum use of well/sick days and mental health leave.
  • Increased legal actions based on hostile environments.
  • Retaliatory responses, such as sabotage (word of mouth and social media platforms).

Intervention
Specialized coaching for abrasive leaders and/or valued team members is an efficient strategy because it tackles the underlying causes of workplace abrasiveness. Intervention starts when the abrasive leader’s supervisor and/or owner of the organization sits down with the abrasive personality to address his/her conduct. They should first voice the value of that person to the organization/practice (Don’t bother intervening if the abrasive personality offers no value!).

Explain that you believe you owe it to him or her to make them aware of the growing problem. Emphasize that he/she is not the problem; rather, negative perceptions about his/her interactions with others are. “I had a choice whether or not to talk to you about this, and I feel a responsibility to let you know about these negative perceptions.” Then, set limits and explain consequences. Steps on managing conduct and civility are as follows:

  • Determine conduct expectations.
  • Evaluate conduct and civility.
  • If conduct is acceptable, recognize and reward it.
  • If conduct is not acceptable,
  • Present negative perceptions of conduct.
  • Set limits and consequences for continued unacceptable conduct.
  • Offer help, such as training, specialized coaching or additional
  • Monitor for improvement.

Outcomes
Keep in mind that the specific goals of coaching for abrasive leaders or team members or aggressors of bullying may vary depending on the coachee in question. Although the elimination of bullying behavior may be a common goal, results include factors related to the coachee, team and/or organization, namely:

  • Co-workers’ suffering ends and employees are heartened that the formerly abrasive cared enough to change.
  • Co-workers regard the HR, manager and/or owner positively for intervening and requiring respectful conduct.
  • The former abrasive is grateful for the company’s willingness to invest in him/her and offer a second chance through coaching.
  • The organization reduces the potential for litigation, attrition and anti-management/owner sentiment or community backlash, while retaining the abrasive’s technical expertise.

It may also be that the coaching is ineffective in reducing coachee’s bullying. In these cases, the abrasive leader or abrasive may be terminated; then, coaching can still be beneficial because the bullying behavior will be stopped and the organization is hailed for walking its talk and creating a work climate and culture that truly does not tolerate mistreatment.

Leaders and colleagues who resort to bullying exact a toll on the health and profitability functioning of an organization. If the problem of abrasive leadership, clinical providers and/or management goes unaddressed, the toll will be heavier. Early intervention through policies, systems and/or a confidential process that respects the concerns of both the abrasive and the co-workers can solve this problem before it escalates into disruptive investigations, antagonistic relationships and loss of production.

  1. Crawshaw, L. (2007). Taming the abrasive manager: How to end necessary roughness in the workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.