Bullying in the Workplace: What It Is and Why You Must Deal With It

Twenty years ago, the idea that managers would have to deal with bullies in their workplaces would have been unheard of.  Today, bullying has become so prevalent that we have to write policies in employee handbooks to forbid it, train managers and supervisors in how to recognize and deal with it, and take drastic measures- up to and including employment termination- to eradicate it.  There is even a Workplace Bullying Institute!

See: http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/

Bullying and Harassment are related, but are not the same thing. Harassment has been well defined by the Supreme Court and is an illegal practice. “Harassment” consists of unwelcome conduct, whether verbal, physical or visual, that is based on a person’s protected status, such as sex, color, race, ancestry, religion, national origin, age, physical handicap, disability, veteran status, citizenship status, gender, pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions, gender stereotyping, sexual orientation, or any other status protected by applicable law.

Bullying may be defined as any actual or threatened physical, verbal or nonverbal abuse occurring either inside or outside of the organization that can create an internal atmosphere where administration/management believes the reasonable person in the community would feel intimidated or threatened to the point they would not be able to function properly.

Harassment is therefore simply a subset of bullying.  As a result, all harassing offenses are also acts of bullying, although not all acts of bullying are incidents of harassment.

Bullying may include a range of explicit and even subtle behaviors.  Bullying may also occur in person or electronically or digitally, which is often referred to as “cyber-bullying.”  Examples of such unwanted behavior would include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Physical assault on another person
  • Provoking others to violence
  • Behavior that a reasonable person would perceive as being obsessive
  • Behavior that involves the carrying, concealing or displaying of weapons, destroying property, or throwing objects in a manner reasonably perceived to be threatening
  • Repeated and unwanted “kidding” or “teasing,” “practical jokes,” jokes directed at an individual that would result in an atmosphere of intimidation for the reasonable person in the community
  • The use of vulgar, threatening, intimidating, harassing, defamatory, unlawfully discriminatory or obscene communication or behavior, which includes language, actions, gestures, or printed or visual material.

Some specific day-to-day examples of bullying/harassment include:

  • Spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo that is not true
  • Ignoring, excluding or isolating someone socially
  • Intimidating another person
  • Physically abusing or threatening to abuse another person
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ to the reasonable person
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Unwanted tampering with someone’s personal belongings or equipment
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly without reasonable cause
  • Belittling a person’s opinions
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work

The business case for dealing with bulling in a prompt and effective manner has been presented in many articles. According to research conducted by SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management), “Employees who experienced bullying, incivility or interpersonal conflict were more likely to quit their jobs, have lower well-being, be less satisfied with their jobs and have less satisfying relationships with their bosses than employees who were sexually harassed.Furthermore, bullied employees reported more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anger and anxiety.”  See: http://www.shrm.org/templatestools/toolkits/pages/managingdifficultemployeesa.aspx

Translation: Bullies cost employers a ton of money in employee turnover, lost productivity, and associated lower profits.

The first step in dealing with bullying is to teach everyone how to recognize it. Every employee handbook should have a policy that forbids bullying. The policy should be in the same section as the non-harassment policy, and should include a definition, examples, a reporting system, and clearly stated consequences for violation of the policy.

Education is key to eliminating bullying. There should be training for all employees, especially managers and supervisors. This training should be part of the on-going harassment training that is recommended by the EEOC on a semi-annual basis.

Even the best policies and training won’t work, however, if there are no consequences for the bullying behavior. Management must establish clear rules for acceptable workplace behavior and follow through with appropriate disciplinary action when those rules are violated. To do otherwise invites incivility into the workplace.