Workplace Culture

What to Do When the CEO Is a Bully

By Colin D Ellis

Dec. 13, 2019

One of the biggest challenges a person will face in their working lives is dealing with a bully, and unfortunately it happens to pretty much everyone. In the past, our parents told us that this was “character building” and something that “everyone has to go through,” but that’s rubbish.

The culture of the organization should never make excuses for the behavior of its managers

Denigrating the thoughts and actions of another human being has never been acceptable. However, some organizations have been great at finding excuses for it and in some instances even encouraging it.

According to research from the Trades Union Congress, 29 percent of people in the United Kingdom are bullied in work. Another survey from SME Loans found that the number is 1 in 4.

Having to deal with poorly behaving employees is something that every culture — even those ranked as best places to work — will deal with at some stage. Often the problem with poorly behaving staff is a result of two things: the emotional intelligence of the individual and the culture that lets the person get away with behaving that way.

Managers Aren’t Necessarily Leaders

There’s an assumption that once a person achieves a particular role within a company’s hierarchy, they are automatically a leader.

Managers are good at their jobs, but leaders do that as well as motivating people by role modeling the behaviors they expect of others. This is what the great CEOs around the world do. They run the business efficiently, make good decisions, deal with issues quickly and ensure that a safe space exists for staff to be able to do their best work.

These are the kinds of people we want running our businesses. Not only are these organizations great places to work, but they’re profitable as well.

Researchers Burton and O’Reilly found this in 2000, writing, “Behavioral theories concentrate on what a leader does rather than who a person is. However, studies show that followers tend to look first at who a leader is.”

Direct Style or Bullying?

It’s important to recognize the difference between personality and behavior. Sometimes people confuse a direct management style for bullying. But other times, the CEO sets the wrong tone and is the person bullying others.

A CEO with a direct style of management doesn’t say please or thank you, will often use language that others don’t appreciate, can be blunt in the way that they provide feedback and can often makes decisions that go against the prevailing mindset. These leaders can become more emotionally intelligent, recognize how off-putting their management style can be, and adjust their style accordingly.

Bullies, however, place unreasonable demands on staff, use threatening verbal and physical language, don’t listen, are unapproachable, actively create divisions and treat people differently based on their gender, sexuality, race or skills.

People who behave in this way have no place in business, and it’s up to the people within the culture to reject this. Steve Jobs is one such example of a bully whose staff challenged him when his behaviors got the better of him.

If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of behavior from the CEO or any member of the senior management team, then it’s important to make notes about the interaction and speak with the HR manager. Their position doesn’t mean that they get to behave differently. On the contrary, they need to set the example.

It is the job of the HR manager to ensure that every member of staff upholds the behaviors and values expected. If you’re the HR manager, then you may seek to discuss your approach with your peers and jointly speak to the CEO.

Once the conversation has taken place, then you need to confirm in writing the nature of the discussion and what needs to change. This is often outlined in a process which must be followed in case follow-up action is necessary. A second conversation on behaviors must be followed by a disciplinary hearing in order to send the message that poor behavior won’t be tolerated.

The culture of the organization should never make excuses for the behavior of its managers and should deal with issues in the same way as they would for all. If the CEO doesn’t set the behavioral tone, they should be told to do so. Otherwise, the staff will suffer and so will the bottom line.



Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with