Someone in your office walks out every day with a laptop under his coat. He fences them down the street and keeps the money.
After he's discovered, how long should he keep his job? What if he's a really hard worker? Perhaps you give him a warning, but, when he's discovered stealing again a week from now, then what?
Bullying costs far more than laptop theft does.
The bully frightens away some of your best employees, because they can most easily find another place to work. He also silences the eager and the earnest, the people with great ideas who are now too intimidated to bother sharing them. His behavior has robbed your organization of the insight that could open so many doors in the future.
I define bullying as intentionally using power to cause physical or emotional distress with the purpose of dominating the other person. The bully works to marginalize people. In an organizational setting, the bully chooses not to engage in conversation or discussion, or to use legitimate authority or suasion, and depends instead on pressure in the moment to demean and disrespect someone else—by undermining not just their ideas, but their very presence and legitimacy.
The end to bullying starts with a question: does senior management see the cost? Do they understand that tolerating and excusing bullying behavior is precisely what permits it to flourish?
If so, the next steps are painful and difficult, but quite direct. Bullies can't work here.
If you don't have buy in on that, spend more time and passion and energy to get it. Not around a certain person or a certain action, but on the general irrevocable principle. An organization that is built on ideas and connection can't thrive when there's a bully in the room. If you're part of one that doesn't care about this, perhaps it's time to considering moving on.
Once you start to clean up the culture, will there be judgment calls and edge cases and a need for warnings and improvement plans? Of course. But just as laptop theft drops when our tolerance of it disappears, so does bullying. Most bullies aren't sociopaths, immune to correction. They are opportunists, using the tools that have often worked for them in the past.
It's a wrenching process for some organizations, but one that leads to few regrets. It's your chance to help a bully get his life straightened out too.