Bullying is often associated with school children and adolescents, but it can occur in the workplace as well. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, at least 35% of adult Americans have experienced some form of workplace bullying. Victims of workplace bullying may experience significant physical and mental health problems, and the consequences can be costly for employers, too:
- Replacing staff members that leave as a result of being bullied leads to added expenses for recruiting and training new employees.
- Work efforts may be directed away from productivity as employees cope with incidents of bullying.
- Costs associated with investigations of ill treatment and potential legal action can be significant.
As an employer, it is important to assess whether your company has adequate policies in place to prevent and respond to workplace bullying.
Workplace Bullying Defined
Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of, the employee(s).
Bullying is different from aggression. Aggression may involve a single act, whereas bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior. Examples of workplace bullying may include:
- Unwarranted or invalid criticism;
- Blame without factual justification;
- Treating a certain employee or employees differently than the rest of the work group;
- Shouting or using profanity;
- Exclusion or social isolation;
- Excessive monitoring or micro-managing; or
- Imposing unrealistic work deadlines.
"Tough" or "demanding" bosses are not necessarily bullies as long as they are respectful and fair, and their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high, yet reasonable expectations for working safely.
Bullying and the Law
Under federal law, bullying is generally not illegal unless it involves harassment based on a protected class, such as race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age (40+), or disability. However, not all employers are covered by federal anti-discrimination laws, and not all employees are protected. State anti-discrimination laws may include additional protected categories, such as marital status or sexual orientation.
Strategies for Employers
Employer policy can play a critical role in preventing workplace bullying. Consider the following actions for preventing and addressing bullying in the workplace:
- Create a zero tolerance anti-bullying policy as part of a wider commitment to a safe and healthful working environment.
- Hold awareness campaigns for everyone on staff to educate them about workplace bullying, and encourage prompt reporting of incidents.
- When witnessed or reported, bullying behavior should be addressed immediately. All complaints should be taken seriously and investigated promptly and thoroughly.
- If workplace bullying occurs, take necessary corrective action in accordance with your company policy, including discipline or reassignment of the bully as appropriate. Keep thorough and accurate documentation of any incidents and investigations, as well as the results.
- Encourage open door policies. Ensure that managers have an active part in the employees they supervise.
- Provide training to help employees better manage anger, cope with stress, deal with conflict, enhance interpersonal communications, and improve negotiation and problem-solving skills.
- Work to improve the ability and sensitivity of managers towards dealing with and responding to conflicts in the workplace.
For More Information
Workplace bullying is an obstacle to both personal well-being and employer productivity. Remember that workplace bullying may sometimes overlap with illegal discrimination. For more information and resources, visit our Introduction to Discrimination section or visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's employer resources page.
And be sure to download our FREE Federal Labor Laws by Company Size Chart for an easy-to-understand summary of important workplace laws that may affect your company!
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