Mediation with Workplace Bullies?

For me, the most interesting part of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about the use of mediation in combating Workplace Bullying were the comments and there were LOTS of them.  Most argued, I think  correctly, that malicious bullies can’t be reckoned with.  And, while victims should not be further traumatized in order for an employer to try to make the Bully a better person…is every ‘abrasive‘ boss a bully?  I’ve had to deal with both. 

Here’s an interesting analysis of mediation and workplace bullying I found on the Internet which is thankfully free of divisive rhetoric.  Read it and let us know what you think:

Mediation with Workplace Bullies?

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2010 High Conflict Institute, LLC

There is increasing discussion these days of whether or not mediation can be useful in cases of workplace bullying. On the one hand, it seems like a very bad idea. Why expose the target of a bully to further bullying in the context of “getting along?” We know that family courts often don’t require victims of domestic violence to meet with their batterers to negotiate parenting plans as “equals” in parenting mediation. On the other hand, if someone is going to continue to be in the same workplace with another employee, wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to improve communication and daily life procedures as much as possible?

Perhaps this isn’t a clear-cut Yes or No answer. As with many issues, there are several factors to consider in answering these questions. I believe that there are two types of bullying situations to consider – in one type there wouldn’t be mediation and in the other there could be.

Many Bullies Can’t Change
First of all, I struggle with referring to people as “bullies” versus calling them “people who engage in bullying behavior.” Let’s agree, for the sake of this discussion, that I mean people who engage in bullying behavior, even if I slip up and say bullies occasionally.  I really do believe that this does not define a whole person and that we need to avoid turning anyone into a hateful object.

One of the characteristics of bullying behavior is that it is a pattern of hurtful behavior or blatant cruelty that creates fear in the target, including physical symptoms, lost work, and lost productivity. It’s not just one incident or a misunderstanding or innocent behavior. People with such patterns of behavior often have personality disorders. This means that they are stuck in limited patterns of behavior that have existed since childhood or adolescence, lack self-awareness of the affects of their behavior on others, and are unlikely to change with ordinary negative feedback. They have heard it for years and it hasn’t caused their behavior to improve.

Understanding that bullying is a pattern of behavior, can this pattern of behavior change with enough pressure? For some bullies, the answer is “No,” because they lack the ability to change. This is a characteristic of many people with personality disorders. Their brain wiring was never developed for the necessary self-control that it would take to totally stop bullying behavior just because it is a “good idea.” They need to develop a pattern of self-restraint that usually is learned in childhood – but wasn’t. This is often because of being abused or entitled as a child. Bullies tend to have a sense of entitlement as adults, some justifying their entitlement because of a history of being abused and others who simply learned to feel entitled from early childhood on into adulthood.

While self-restraint can be learned for some in adulthood, it takes more than a reprimand – just like learning sobriety for a life-long addict takes a program of change usually taking many years to establish and stabilize. Someday there will be many programs of change for those with personality disorders, but at this time there are very few – but there are some, with encouraging results. The problem is that denial-of-having-a-problem is a core characteristic of people with personality disorders. They resist any treatment that would actually help them, and instead continue to sabotage themselves. Those without such self-restraint may develop into bullies.

The question in a workplace is: Is this person capable of change soon enough to make a difference in their behavior in the workplace? If not, would it be better to move this person out of this particular division, or even out of the organization all together? To answer these questions, lets look at the other type of bully.

The Environment Matters
Some people who engage in bullying behavior may have traits of a self-sabotaging personality, but they wouldn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of personality disorder. They may be more able to vary their behavior, and they may be highly influenced by their environment. In other words, high-conflict environments may bring out their negative, bullying behavior, while low-conflict environments bring out their more positive behavior.

Some examples of high-conflict environments are those divisions or organizations with leadership who have high-conflict personalities themselves and encourage inappropriate joking, blaming, personal insults, sudden changes in work assignments and other impulsive behavior with no logical basis – just that they can get away with it because they are in leadership positions. Some organizations reward such behavior, which makes it unsafe for anyone to just relax and focus on their work – because they have to focus on protecting themselves. In such high-conflict environments, bullies thrive and get away with (or are rewarded for) highly aggressive and intimidating behavior.

Other workplaces have a high-conflict environment because they have leadership that takes a very passive or avoidant approach. The manager or managers are really nice people, but they hesitate to intervene and take action against bullying behavior. They minimize the effect of such behavior and encourage targets to simply deal with it themselves. They may be in denial or have their own personality issues. They don’t recognize the seriousness of the situation or don’t really know how to handle it. This allows bullying behavior to grow instead of being restrained.

Examining and changing the organizational culture and getting more training may help leaders and managers create a more low-conflict environment.  Sometimes a key person or two may need to leave. I am aware of many instances of this happening, then the environment got much better. In school bullying, the lesson learned over the past decade is that the whole community needs to support and promote an anti-bullying culture for it to really be effective. I believe that one person can’t stop bullying – especially not the target. It takes a village to stop bullying behavior.

Some Bullies Can Change
In a low-conflict environment, those bullies who can change will change – they will have to, because their bullying behavior will not be tolerated – and because they have some ability to change. A clear policy of consequences and procedures for bullying behavior will make it matter-of-fact, and not simply a new game of get-the-bully instead of get-the-target.

A series of progress discipline steps appears to be the most appropriate. At the lowest level, the bully receives a talk by a supervisory person who can combine carrot and stick motivation for dealing with the bullying behavior. This could include taking an anger management class, conflict resolution class, counseling sessions, coaching session or some other low-level, beneficial skills-building approach. The supervisory person can focus on future behavior and the desire to have the employee succeed to the best of his or her ability. Many people with traits of personality disorders seem to do well if they feel a genuine connection with the person disciplining them. The focus can be on the positive, while emphasizing the consequences of not changing the bullying behavior.

Mediation as Separate from Consequences
After or concurrent with the consequences for bullying behavior, mediation may be appropriate – if it seems that the bully is making efforts to change behavior. Just as in Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs, a direct mediation dialog that is well-structured may bring new awareness to those who are capable of awareness. This may provide an opportunity for the bully to practice more reasonable behavior and also provide the target with an opportunity to feel empowered to set some limits and discuss modifications of their working relationship that would make it feel more productive. The key element of such mediation is that:

1) It is separate from the issue of a consequence. In other words, there would not be any negotiation of punishment for the bullying behavior. That would be dealt with first by the appropriate supervisory person. Then, if there was evidence of an effort to change, then mediation could be appropriate – so long as the target felt it would be beneficial. The target could also have some coaching about how to deal with the bully, if desired.

2) The mediation would be well-structured and pre-choreographed, so that positive behaviors would be the focus and bullying behavior would be prevented. The focus would be on the future working relationship and how to make it most comfortable and productive. In general, this could be brief, structured and not open-ended. By making consequences for bullying a separate, prior condition for mediation, I believe that some cases of bullying can benefit from mediation. Such an approach can shift the focus from shame and blame of the person to specific behavior, and to more positive future behavior. By having a supervisor give encouragement to the bully, while also initiating clearly-defined progressive discipline steps, it may be possible to bring out the best in him or her. People with personality disorders and traits seem to need a lot of encouragement to make even small efforts to change. Shame and blame tend to lock in the person’s negative, defensive behavior.

If specific consequences do not have any impact, then mediation would not be appropriate and management may have the information necessary to realize that this person cannot change. It may be necessary to move such a person out of the organization in order to protect the organization, as well as the target.

An organization that gives bullies opportunities to learn and change, and then follows through with removing those who do not change, will give employees a sense of safety and the ability to focus on their work. An organization that will also provide an opportunity for those who are willing to make changes to discuss improvements with coworkers in mediation may give employees a sense of hope – that problems can be recognized, addressed, and resolved for the future. With this type of approach, I believe mediation can be a useful tool in some cases of workplace bullying. We welcome your feedback on this difficult subject.

[reprinted with permission]

8 thoughts on “Mediation with Workplace Bullies?

  1. Because of some very unfortunate circumstances I’ve been forced to encounter and deal with in my life, I have become an avid student of both workplace bullying and personality disorders (narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc), as well as psychopathy. The similarities are incredible and worthy of further exploration. They are all life-destroying for all affected by them. And I’ve never met a bullying boss that was not a narcissist or wasn’t suffering from a personality disorder. In other words, I am doubtful of change in behavior because personality disordered humans are incredibly hard to change.


    • Remember I started this site because a boss was allowed to run roughshod through my life and career. It is highly doubtful that mediation would have helped in that case and I for one would not have entered into it without a lawyer present. I was a wreck just hearing her name or voice and I really had no interest in her rehabilitation. I only would have agreed in the hopes that upper Management may have felt compelled to follow through on their “zero tolerance” statements. But, there are also lousy managers who “bully” staff who are capable of change. For about 16 years I was one of the owners of a chain of restaurants that had over 400 employees. It’s a high pressure business and it’s not unusual for people to be suddenly moved up from within. I often saw the effect that can happen when a bartender or other staff member suddenly earns the title of “manager.” Many of those who abused their ‘power’ were able to change when we spoke to them — others had to leave. I thought that was what the article I reprinted points out so well — employers need to take control of their workplace culture. There are some excellent articles about Narcissism & Workplace Bullying.


  2. You bring up something in your example that has been increasingly on my mind. In my experience, it seems that those who work their way up through the ranks to management or end up in management by default appear to be perhaps the rehabilitatable. On the other hand, those who are hired in from the outside into power positions seem to be the pathological ones.

    And I have witnessed just what you are talking about regarding what sometimes happens when an inside person who is used to a lower rank gets handed the title of “manager.” I have seen it happen a few times with close colleagues that I was used to working with on a daily basis and it ends up shocking me at first, but it is not that sickening, menacing, threatening feeling that I have gotten from a pathological boss. Excellent topic! This merits further exploration for sure. It makes me wonder what the heck is being taught in management, HR, and MBA programs!


    • I agree that it needs further research! ALOT! There are some interesting people out there that are working on this. Check out Laura Crawshaw’s book “Taming the abrasive manager” While the monster boss I had fell outside of the group she describes in her book there are many “abrasive” bosses she’s been able to rehabiliate. I actually liked reading that because even though it wouldn’t have helped my own situation it gave me hope that it was an abnormal employment situation and my next situation could be better. Thanks so much for posting your comments!!


  3. I had a co-worker and boss who are both sick and twisted. They bolstered each other!… Cheated on their wife’s with impunity, used racial and sexual remarks about others on a regular basis, and cheated on time and attendance sheets, creating an inner circle of have’s and have nots, within the office. And it still goes on???….and I’m out the door for trying to change it with questions about it all.


  4. I think by the sounds of some of the comments left that there are lots of issues with where people rank in the organisation, and their position, It really should be no excuse for acting as the ‘bully’ though, I think that more companies should bring in mediators to help provide non-biased support, to help establish and importantly bring to the surface ongoing bullying situations.


  5. I am currently suffering at the hands of supervisor who engages in bullying behavior toward me and 5 other women co-workers. I work in a school system and serve the role of counselor, social worker and crisis responder. I am a caretaker and provider of resources. I have always loved my job and have been a healthy, happy, dedicated employee for 28 years until now…
    It’s tragic how the actions of one power hungry narcissist can destroy the morale and motivation to continue to do the work that I love.
    He uses intimidation, degrading comments, ageist and sexist statements and threats of bad evaluations.
    I finally could take no more and took the steps to formally report his actions. 5 more women came forward after they knew there may be hope. We supported each other and stood our ground
    It took months for a response but when one finally came it was vague and offered no relief.
    The letter to me actually stated that their investigation did find him in violation of the intimidation, bullying and harassment policy. Yet, sadly nothing has changed. They have offered me nothing other than a suggestion to go to counseling. I am going for my own sake but the mere suggestion of it by them infers that it is somehow my fault.
    Just today they called and are offering a “voluntary” mediation with him! One where we can both “meet in the middle to compromise”.
    That is is worst thing that can happen to me at this point. That suggests there is a dispute to mediate and inferring that I did something wrong! I am the victim – according to their own findings in their own process! How do they expect me to not be further victimized by being forced to sit and listen to his lies and come up with a compromise…I cannot compromise when I did not do anything to deserve the bullying in the first place. Not to mention the not so subtle retaliation that I am experiencing. I am documenting it all but not sure if it will make a difference.
    I am so exhausted both emotionally and the stress is taking it’s toll on my health. I have been sick three times this year and it’s only December 1st.
    I am buying your book for insight and assistance.
    Any additional ideas on what I might do to get through this with my sanity intact is most welcome!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s