Ethical dilemma: What to do when a close colleague is a workplace bully?


What do you do when you discover that a colleague you have known for a long time is a workplace bully? What if that person is a friend?

The two colleagues in question were middle managers in the same company and for the past 10 months had been leaders of teams in the same division. They had entered the company in the same intake of the graduate program and, although they had not worked together since their graduate days, they had remained friends.

Tony, who raised this dilemma in class, had witnessed his colleague shouting at a subordinate and telling him he “was stupid” in a joint meeting of their teams. Following the meeting, Tony told his colleague “his comments had been over the top”.

The colleague agreed, but justified his actions on the grounds that the team member was a poor performer who constantly let him and the team down. In later conversations Tony discovered that his colleague had a reputation for “being aggressive with poor performers”.

A few other colleagues and team members believed his colleague was a bully, while many others applauded his willingness to deal with poor performance.

Why is this an ethical dilemma?

  • From a Kantian perspective, bullying is unethical because it violates the principle of not treating others as a means through which we exercise our own power.
  • A utilitarian might argue that if bullying was done in the interest of the greater good then the ends justify the means.
  • However, bullying is not acceptable under any moral code. In the situation described, Tony’s colleague or his supporters might claim that the colleague’s behaviour produced a greater good because he set an example for dealing with poor performers and that this had benefits for the performance and culture of the company.
  • However, such arguments are more likely to be offered as rationalisations for bullying and not as valid reasons for the behaviour.

The social context

  • While the ethics of bullying might be clear-cut, the social dynamics and associated emotions make for a complex landscape.
  • Establishing the meaning of events, respecting people’s rights and managing stress can be difficult.
  • There is rarely a single interpretation of the behaviour or the people involved. The process of responding is social and dynamic.
  • The relationships among all those involved, which include Tony, his colleague (the bully), other staff and the victim, are ongoing and need to be taken into account.

What should be done?

  • Procedural justice – or justice achieved through mutually agreed, fair and transparent processes – is just as important as the response.
  • It emphasises the importance of how the conclusion
is reached – it’s not just about coming up with the ‘right’ punishment behind closed doors.
  • Processes should be transparent and fair, and this helps negate perceptions of bias when middle manages are also friends. Reacting to incidents like the one described without an established procedure carries a high risk of poor outcomes for everyone.
  • The situations may be used as an opportunity for education and behaviour change. This in turn may provide some psychological safety and self-completion for the victim of the current incident and other victims whose experiences have gone unreported.

At the end of the day, the judgement and response to the incident must
be based on the evidence regarding the incidence of bullying behaviours and not on people’s interpretations.

In Tony’s case, he gathered evidence that over several years and several times since commencing his latest role, his colleague shouted at, verbally abused and, in one instance, shoved poor-performing staff.

He presented his evidence to his boss who, after interviewing his colleague and the staff member who had been bullied, started a process that eventually led to a range of sanctions against the colleague.

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Ethical dilemma: What to do when a close colleague is a workplace bully?


What do you do when you discover that a colleague you have known for a long time is a workplace bully? What if that person is a friend?

The two colleagues in question were middle managers in the same company and for the past 10 months had been leaders of teams in the same division. They had entered the company in the same intake of the graduate program and, although they had not worked together since their graduate days, they had remained friends.

Tony, who raised this dilemma in class, had witnessed his colleague shouting at a subordinate and telling him he “was stupid” in a joint meeting of their teams. Following the meeting, Tony told his colleague “his comments had been over the top”.

The colleague agreed, but justified his actions on the grounds that the team member was a poor performer who constantly let him and the team down. In later conversations Tony discovered that his colleague had a reputation for “being aggressive with poor performers”.

A few other colleagues and team members believed his colleague was a bully, while many others applauded his willingness to deal with poor performance.

Why is this an ethical dilemma?

  • From a Kantian perspective, bullying is unethical because it violates the principle of not treating others as a means through which we exercise our own power.
  • A utilitarian might argue that if bullying was done in the interest of the greater good then the ends justify the means.
  • However, bullying is not acceptable under any moral code. In the situation described, Tony’s colleague or his supporters might claim that the colleague’s behaviour produced a greater good because he set an example for dealing with poor performers and that this had benefits for the performance and culture of the company.
  • However, such arguments are more likely to be offered as rationalisations for bullying and not as valid reasons for the behaviour.

The social context

  • While the ethics of bullying might be clear-cut, the social dynamics and associated emotions make for a complex landscape.
  • Establishing the meaning of events, respecting people’s rights and managing stress can be difficult.
  • There is rarely a single interpretation of the behaviour or the people involved. The process of responding is social and dynamic.
  • The relationships among all those involved, which include Tony, his colleague (the bully), other staff and the victim, are ongoing and need to be taken into account.

What should be done?

  • Procedural justice – or justice achieved through mutually agreed, fair and transparent processes – is just as important as the response.
  • It emphasises the importance of how the conclusion
is reached – it’s not just about coming up with the ‘right’ punishment behind closed doors.
  • Processes should be transparent and fair, and this helps negate perceptions of bias when middle manages are also friends. Reacting to incidents like the one described without an established procedure carries a high risk of poor outcomes for everyone.
  • The situations may be used as an opportunity for education and behaviour change. This in turn may provide some psychological safety and self-completion for the victim of the current incident and other victims whose experiences have gone unreported.

At the end of the day, the judgement and response to the incident must
be based on the evidence regarding the incidence of bullying behaviours and not on people’s interpretations.

In Tony’s case, he gathered evidence that over several years and several times since commencing his latest role, his colleague shouted at, verbally abused and, in one instance, shoved poor-performing staff.

He presented his evidence to his boss who, after interviewing his colleague and the staff member who had been bullied, started a process that eventually led to a range of sanctions against the colleague.

Leave a reply

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More on HRM