Don't Let Bullies Ruin Your Business

Workplace strife can lead to poor agent retention and lost business. It’s up to broker-owners and managers to mitigate workplace conflicts and instill a no-bullying culture.

October 31, 2014

Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not.

A June poll by VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah-based corporate training firm, found that 96 percent of the 2,283 respondents it surveyed had experienced some form of workplace bullying. And if left unchecked, bullying can destroy the culture of a business, says Gary Namie, Ph.D., director and cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

Real estate is not immune.

“People always ask, ‘When do you distinguish bullying from tough management?’ And the answer is when it crosses the line into that unconscionable invasion of a person’s health,” says Namie, who coauthored The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization(Wiley, 2011).

Not unlike bad chemistry, WBI defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” of the target or targets by one or more perpetrators. It can take the form of verbal abuse, offensive or threatening conduct and behaviors (including nonverbal), humiliation or intimidation, and work interference, such as sabotage that prevents business from getting done.

Beth Incorvati, who currently works as director of business development for Gloria Nilson & Co. Real Estate in Middletown, N.J., says she experienced “ruthless, relentless, and horrible” bullying toward the beginning of her sales career. She says it’s hard to know the true impact of workplace aggression.

“What we stand to lose by keeping productive agents or top producers who are bullies and what we lose when we fail to retain good, solid middle-of-the-road people because of a poor environment, that is what’s hard to measure,” she says.

Incorvati, who moved to New Jersey in April, is a former Maryland practitioner who was licensed in 2004. She says her experience with workplace incivility early in her career guides her interactions with the 21 offices and 700 agents she works with today.

“I look at that lesson, as bad as it was, as really powerful. It showed me what bullying looks like, and it helped me to define the kind of impact that I want to have on our industry and our agents,” she says. “The experience encouraged me to be a change agent. I have zero tolerance for bullying.”

While school bullying regularly makes headlines, experts say private businesses often fail to recognize the impact of blustering bullies in the workplace.

Namie says he’s found that bullies often target the best and the brightest, “like the newest salesperson, working toward his or her broker’s license, who’s really a go-getter and technically skilled.” And while many bullies are in positions of power, 35 percent of managers get bullied too, WBI reports.

David Maxfield, vice president of research for VitalSmarts and coauthor of the June study, says bullies are often low performers who are not perfectionists but have high standards. Because they’re nervous about their own performance, they’re trying to pass the blame.

Nervous or not, business owners end up paying for bad behavior of their salespeople and staff.

Weber Shandwick’s 2011 study of civility in America found that 69 percent of consumers stopped giving their business to a company because of a rude representative, and six in 10 consumers tuned out specific advertisements for the same reason.

The American Psychological Association also reports that workplace stress — which can result in missed work, low morale, loss of productivity and customers, medical expenses and health problems, retaliatory acts, and high turnover — costs U.S. businesses approximately $300 billion annually.

Unfortunately, victims rarely push back. Seventy-five percent of the VitalSmarts poll subjects offered no response to a bully. To make matters worse, the bullies appear to be keeping jobs and moving up the corporate ladder. Eighty-six percent had been bullying for more than a year, and VitalSmarts found that 54 percent had been going strong for five years or longer.

When it comes to halting workplace incivility, action is everything. “People often don’t report it because of fear of retaliation. But it is the responsibility of the company leaders when they hear that bullying has been reported to do something,” Namie says.

Here are four ways broker-owners and managers can identify and mitigate situations of tension and bullying in their offices.

Act accordingly and set the office tone. Make good hiring and recruitment decisions and thoroughly check employee and sales agent references. Raise awareness about the impact and potential costs of workplace incivility. Have managers develop and update anti-bullying standards. Offer training to your agents. Provide clear examples of appropriate and inappropriate actions and consequences. Take disciplinary action with chronic bullies—even powerful offenders and top producers.

Look for patterns and signs of trouble. High turnover under a specific manager or transfer requests are a telltale sign that there’s an office issue. Gather information through discussions and post-hire interviews. New hires and recruits might be more open to speaking up about concerns within the first month on the job. Always perform exit interviews.

Document incidents. Have a way for your salespeople to file complaints. Thoroughly investigate all reports. Studies suggest that only 9 percent of targets report workplace bullying, so when an issue crops up, treat it seriously.

“When you start to defend the system and deny people’s experiences, you’re veering off. Keep the focus on the target. If people are getting hurt, that is what’s unconscionable. But if your view is, ‘No, we have to protect the managing perpetrator from being misperceived,’ well, then you have an entirely different view of a solution,” Namie says.

When discussing bullying, listen fully. Respond to the person who filed the report. Be kind and understanding. “Leadership needs to respond very quickly to anything that challenges the productivity of the office. And that’s what bullying does,” Incorvati says.



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