If your company doesn’t have a program to eliminate employee bullying, you need to start one right away. Developments over the last several years guarantee that if you don’t do it, you face the possibility of paying a steep price in government penalties and employee lawsuits, and the stiff legal costs associated with them.
Bullying is often a prime component of civil rights violations involving racial, ethnic and religious discrimination. Most forms of sexual harassment include bullying. Legal arguments for extending federal job protection to LGBTQ employees note that employers already can be cited for allowing bullying based on gender stereotyping—male employees bullied for being perceived as too effeminate and females seen as being too masculine.
Workplace bullying can endanger employee safety, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to maintain an anti-bullying policy. This comes from OSHA’s authority under the OSH Act’s “General Duties” clause, which requires employers to maintain a safe workplace for their workers. California law even specifies the duration and content of anti-bullying training mandated for employers.
Bullying is defined as the repeated, malicious, health-endangering verbal and non-verbal mistreatment of one employee by one or more other employees. About 51% of employees have suffered from bullying in the workplace, a Society of Human Resources Management survey finds. Most bullies—62%—are men, while 58% of the victims are women. Female bullies were found to target other women 80% of the time.
Of great concern to company management should be the fact that 83% of bullies turn out to be supervisors.
Attorney Marie Burke Kenny of the law firm of Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch has practical advice for employers on how to protect themselves. “No matter the circumstances, bullying should never be tolerated,” she states. “In today’s workplace, it is critical that employers create a work culture that rejects bullying, promotes reporting and promptly resolves any incidents of bullying.”
Protecting Your Employees
The first step is to adopt a robust anti-bullying policy that clearly identifies unacceptable behavior and that communicates to employees that management will not tolerate bullying. The policy should encourage employees to report incidents of bullying, even if only anonymously, Kenny says. Employees also should be required to agree in writing that they will adhere to the anti-bullying policy as a condition of employment.
Creating and communicating the policy in an employment manual or posted statement is not enough, argues Kenny. She says supervisors and employees should be trained to fully understand what constitutes acceptable workplace conduct and exactly what kind of behavior will not be tolerated.
Even then you need to learn how to recognize the first signs of bullying. Kenny points to obvious behaviors such as aggressively berating an employee in a staff meeting or insulting someone in a group e-mail that can be viewed as red flags. Victim behavior, such as despondency, reduced productivity and frequent absences, also can be seen as a sign that something isn’t right.
Take allegations seriously and make sure to investigate all of them. Encouraging employees to report incidents of bullying—regardless of whether they are the victims or witnesses—is vital. “The best way to create a culture of reporting is to demonstrate that the allegations are treated seriously and resolved promptly,” Kenny recommends.
If the investigation corroborates the allegation of bullying, employers should take immediate corrective action, Kenny says. That could involve a range of disciplinary steps based on the severity, duration and scope of the bullying.
Kenny emphasizes the expanding responsibility of employers to provide workers with a healthy and safe working environment. “Doing so is required by law, but it is also the right thing to do. Taking effective and aggressive steps to eradicate bullying in the workplace also improves employee morale, enhances employee retention, prevents lawsuits and ultimately benefits the bottom line.”
David Sparkman is founding editor of ACWI Advance, the newsletter of the American Chain of Warehouses Inc., as well as a member of the MH&L Editorial Advisory Board.