Who’s getting bullied … the managers or the employees?

On eggshellsA manager’s responsibilities frequently include keeping people on track, delivering feedback and doing what he feels is in the best interest of the company.

How a leader goes about performing these tasks differs by individual temperament and style, from calm and supportive to cranky and frank—and everything in between.

Similarly, team members vary in receptiveness. What one worker views as valid criticism, another may interpret as being picked on. Thin-skinned employees can make bosses feel that anything they say can and will be held against them.

So when a manager gets wind that someone views her as a bully, evaluating the charge oftentimes isn’t cut and dry.

Warning signs that you may have ventured into dangerous territory include:

Unacceptable language

Physical threats are an obvious no-no, but watch that you aren’t throwing “mental” punches. Workers are bound to be rattled by a boss who tosses around expletives; calls them “stupid” or other demeaning names; or makes negative references to their gender, race, religion, or disability.

Public humiliation

Nobody wants to be embarrassed in front of peers, so deal with mistakes or problems behind closed doors. Also, be aware of sarcasm and mean-spirited humor. Besides hurting feelings, these remarks may be interpreted as an attempt to cajole others into joining the put-down.


Inconsistently enforcing rules, showing obvious favoritism and failing to give proper credit can lead employees on the short end of the stick to cry foul. Hold all team members to the same standards or risk individuals feeling singled out as victims to your whims.

Refraining from these actions, however, may not be enough. Many modern workplaces are rife with workers quick to cast behaviors in a negative light.

“Managers need to be more careful than in the past about their language and demeanor,” says Vicky Oliver, author of Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots. “Employees are more likely to complain today about bad treatment.”

But walking around on eggshells because of overly sensitive individuals gets old quickly and isn’t conducive to establishing solid relationships. Instead, work on opening the lines of communication and understanding one another.

Kathi Elster, co-author of Mean Girls at Work and co-host of the podcast “My Crazy Office,” suggests meeting with individuals privately and reiterating that feedback is meant to be helpful, not hurtful. Including positive comments can encourage workers to view you as a thoughtful manager doing his job rather than as a harasser.

“Thin-skinned people need a lot of reinforcement, so start every conversation with an acknowledgement letting them know what they did right,” Elster suggests. “Pepper all conversations with credit by saying things like, ‘I like the way you defused that client’s anger’ or ‘Thank you for always being on time.’ You may not think it’s important to give positive feedback like this, but thin- skinned people need as much positive feedback as possible.”

Calm, regular communication also provides the opportunity to deal with performance issues before they drive you into behavior you’ll later regret.

“If you are a manager who is not pleased with one of your employees, there are smarter ways than screaming at her to let her know,” Oliver says. “Make an appointment to sit down together. Write down in advance what has disappointed you about her performance. At the meeting, write down a goals list with her and work out an action plan for improvement. Have quarterly check-ins about how she is progressing on those goals. And if she isn’t meeting them, do the brave thing and put her on probation.”

From time to time, though, even the most well-intentioned manager might slip up. While your staff hopefully will judge you on your overall behavior rather than focus on isolated incidents, work on damage control. Start with a timely, sincere apology. Then, make an extra effort to acknowledge the hard work and contributions of those you offended.

A stellar manager knows that kind behavior yields better long-term results than bullying.