Discipline and Bullying (and how we should fire employees)

Discipline and Bullying (and how we should fire employees)

Bullying isn’t Discipline and Discipline isn’t Bullying but it’s very easy for the two to get confused. Those responsible for each need to think if they couldn’t be better. To allow discipline to slacken risks behavior unacceptable on both business and personal grounds. In my view discipline is doing the right thing, not just following rules.

When I was a boss my own rather relaxed view of business rules made it necessary for me to demonstrate strong action from time to time. About once every two or three years I would fire someone senior. Of course, I had to have good reasons for doing so. And I fired people nicely. Unless there was fraud or improper behaviour I always offered them another job at a lower level and gave them three months to accept or reject it. Nobody ever took the humbler job but they said it had been a considerable steadying help while seeking new work.

I gave them decent compensation if they were actually going and told them they and their spouse / partner would always be invited to – and expected to attend – the company’s purely social events of which I would have at least two a year. My words were ‘you are leaving the company but not the family’. They regarded this as being given ‘face’ and attended.

For all that, firing is firing.  A tough decision. 

So what is bullying and when does discipline become it?

Bullying has nothing whatever to do with sexual or other personal harassment which are crimes in whatever form they manifest. I imagine nobody doubts that sexual or personal harassment involving threats, real or implied, should lead to dismissal, possibly legal redress. Of course, vengeful people can always claim harassment and claims can be difficult to judge – one word against another. In most employment situations harassment is clearly spotted.

Common current (not legal) definitions of bullying are “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour” and “an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”. I think they are poor definitions because telling an employee that s/he has misbehaved, if they have, or failed to carry out a brief properly, if they have, or not been performing up to expectations, if they haven’t, can all be considered bullying by these descriptions. Employees need to be able to take feedback just like bosses.

My definition of bullying is “failing to positively help, encourage and develop someone who is working with or for you or for whom you are working”. I assume positive relationships to be the expected normal and assess all negative behaviour as immoral. It applies upwards as well as sideways and downwards. That in no way stops you pointing out what improvement is expected or where performance has fallen short of the standard but we know enough about the human psyche to understand that encouragement is what grows people. Negatives fail.

My preference is for the requirement to be one of morality rather than the somewhat playground concept of bullying. I want people to be strong enough to stand up for themselves rather than always have to be protected by process. You don’t have to kill a boss when you want to tell him he is behaving like a xxxx. You allow yourself a very rare expletive.

Certainly there are times when the law is needed to deal with very warped people.

Mostly, a strong rebuff puts a bully in his or her place.

And strengthens the person making the stand.

Good morning

John BIttleston


No, I mean it. The best protection we have is courage. Do you agree?

Please let us know at mentors@terrificmentors.com 

22 April 2023