One in four US employees are victims of workplace bullying, but their employers often struggle with how to address an issue where, in contrast to most other areas of harassment, legal guidance is thin.
Define It, So You Can Prevent It
Too often the definition of bullying is dismissed as “I’ll know it when I see it”, however, it’s essential that employers think more concretely than that.
Bullying is repeated, unreasonable actions directed toward an individual or group. Perpetrators of this behavior – bullies – cause emotional and/or physical harm due to their desire to control people and situations.
Bullying can be:
- Verbal and/or nonverbal
- Psychological and/or physical
Bullies can use threats, aggression or actual violence against their victims. More subtle forms of bullying include:
- Malicious gossip
In the workplace, bullying behaviors can appear as taking credit for someone else’s work, sabotaging their work efforts, isolating them from opportunities and information, or purposefully creating needless pressure and stress.
60.3 million US workers are affected by workplace bullying. As a workplace issue, that makes it more common than sexual harassment. But…workplace bullying is technically not illegal.
Why It Matters
Workplace bullying is obviously problematic, but it’s not patently illegal under state and federal discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA, the ADEA, GINA, and USERRA.
It’s been proven, however, that protected groups are bullied more often than non-protected groups, creating an area of vulnerability for employers with possible constructive discharge claims or claims of disparate treatment from bullied employees who are legally protected from discrimination.
With the control and power dynamics that drive a bully’s actions, it’s not surprising that 72%of workplace bullying behavior is exhibited by management level employees. For employers, this creates additional legal liability issues – since managers are held to a higher standard by the courts – and cultural issues – since managers either enforce or ignore policies and efforts conducive to a productive and respectful workplace.
Bullying creates other significant and costly issues for employers, such as,
- High absenteeism rates
- High turnover rates
- Substance abuse and other health issues
- Low morale and productivity
Remember that more than 70% of workplace bullies are in management. What kind of behavior does your company reward? When legal claims, high turnover, low morale and productivity are taken into consideration, a ‘Results at all costs’ management attitude – one that ignores how employees treat each other – can be extremely costly.
Not All Difficult Co-Workers are Bullies
Of course, not every challenging boss or coworker is a bully. Some are just people with poor social skills and regrettable habits. For example,
- A coworker who routinely excludes colleagues from projects
- A manager who shouts indiscriminately at employees
While no one would be lining up to work with these people, their behaviors don’t single out an individual and therefore don’t fit the technical description of a bully. Their defense – as sad as it is – is that they behave equally horribly in a wide variety of settings and with a wide variety of individuals, which is why it’s helpful for companies who value camaraderie and productivity to have and enforce a broad respectful treatment policy, of which an anti-bullying policy is an important part.
Protect Your Workplace from Bullies and Bullying Behaviors
To create an anti-bully work culture, companies should:
- Include ‘the ability to work well with others’ on job descriptions and performance evaluations
- Reward and value teamwork
- Encourage a culture of civility
- Create an anti-bullying policy (as part of a broader respectful treatment policy) that includes an incident reporting process
- Train supervisors and employees in the policy and reporting process
- Conduct periodic surveys of the workplace environment
When a situation of workplace bullying has been identified,
- Empower employees to address this behavior on their own, while providing an understood level of support
- Follow the anti-bullying policy to the letter
- Document each occurrence and require the bully’s supervisor to take appropriate action
- If you have access to an EAP or provide mental health insurance, encourage the victim and the accused to utilize these services
- If the accused is a member of senior management, consider hiring a third-party mediator to work out a way forward for all involved
Every company should provide its employees with a safe space to do their best work, and in many instances doing so is their legal obligation. Workplace bullying has a profoundly negative impact on any work environment. If left unaddressed, bullies have the power to undo the most carefully crafted organizational culture. Luckily, businesses have the power to take their company culture back from those who aspire to control it.
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