Back when we were kids, bullying was something that happened in school or on the playground. But it doesn’t end there. Bullying can, and does, continue into adulthood. The setting simply changes from the schoolyard to the office.
For many companies, workplace bullying is a dirty little secret to be shoved under the rug. In reality, up to one-third of workers may be the victim of workplace bullying, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. And about 20% of workplace bullying crosses the line into harassment. (Click here to tweet this stat.)
Workplace bullying, and what can be done about it, has become the subject of numerous psychological studies. It’s captured the attention of bloggers, and it’s the subject of legislative efforts in many parts of the country. A cottage industry of victim advocate groups has popped up, including the Workplace Bullying Institute, Bullies2Buddies, the Healthy Workplace Campaign and others.
What Is Workplace Bullying?
While it’s true that employees can sue companies for creating a “hostile work environment,” the harassment usually must be tied to a protected category, such as race, sex, religion or national origin. Workplace bullying, on the other hand, is generally defined as deliberate and repeated physical or emotional mistreatment of a person, which can take the form of verbal abuse, sabotage of work product or aggressive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, demeaning or intimidating.
Bullying includes overt aggression (screaming, belittling in front of coworkers, physical contact, use of profanity, etc.). It also includes classic passive-aggressive conduct (assigning demeaning or unimportant tasks or undesirable work schedules, taking credit for the victim’s work, etc.).
Studies have shown that workplace bullying is most prevalent in high-stress occupations such as commissioned sales, healthcare and (yes) the legal profession. Who hasn’t gone postal when they ran out of Post-It notes?
Studies have also shown that those most likely to be bullied at work are: 1) women, 2) very competent subordinates who pose a threat to their superiors, and 3) the very weak or timid.
Those who fall victim to workplace bullying may suffer from anxiety, depression, physical ailments (high blood pressure, migraines, ulcers, heart disease, etc.) and a feeling of helplessness.
However, the effects of workplace bullying are not limited to the victim. Even emotionally sturdy coworkers can be distracted by this conduct and become less productive. Those who are less resistant to bullying may seek health care or mental health care benefits (driving up premiums), take more sick leave, file worker’s compensation claims or simply quit. In fact, an estimated 64% of workplace bullying victims quit or are fired for poor performance.
Some estimate that it costs an employer 200% of the victim’s salary to recruit, on-board and train a replacement and deal with lost productivity –- assuming the cycle doesn’t repeat, with the same bully victimizing the previous victim’s replacement. All of this decreases the employer’s razor-thin competitive edge. With smaller employers, the visibility, disruption and costs of bullying are magnified.
In extreme cases, workplace bullying can spawn discrimination and retaliation complaints (if the victim is a member of a protected class) and lawsuits for negligent retention of the bully, assault, battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress. In 2008, a $325,000 jury verdict against an Indiana cardiovascular surgeon for assault was upheld on appeal. The surgeon allegedly charged at a heart/lung machine operator “with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.”
How to Enact Anti-Bullying Policies at Your Company
The U.S. is the last of the western democracies to not have a law against such conduct in the workplace. Following model legislation drafted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and the Healthy Workplace Campaign, 25 states have attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass anti-workplace bullying legislation. Most states appear hesitant to enact such a general civility code. There’s also a concern that such “be nice” legislation will, because of its subjective definitions, be impossible to enforce (at best) or unconstitutional (at worst).
Regardless, employers should implement anti-bullying policies, modeled after existing sexual harassment policies, and include workplace bullying in any periodic HR training for employees. Employers should treat bullying complaints as they do sexual harassment complaints, and take the following actions:
- Document the victim’s complaint, interview witnesses, review relevant emails and performance evaluations, etc.
- Verify the facts to the best of your ability, recognizing that it may be difficult to distinguish bullying from an aggressive management style.
- Determine if the conduct is an isolated incident or part of a pattern.
- Focus on whether the conduct involves references to the victim’s family, physical or emotional characteristics or personality traits, or if it’s simply a reference to performance.
- Draw a well-thought-out conclusion about what happened, and document your conclusion and your reasons behind it. Based on your conclusion, decide what action to take, if any, which may include a documented counseling, probation, suspension (with or without pay), reassignment of the bully, anger management counseling or termination.
Until lawmakers impose legislation to prevent workplace bullying from happening, employers must step up to the plate, recognize the magnitude of the problem and take action to create a bully-free environment.
Have you ever witnessed workplace bullying? What are your feelings on anti-bullying policies?
Kelly H. Kolb is a shareholder with the law firm Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He has defended employment claims for more than 20 years before state and federal courts, administrative bodies and arbitration panels.