Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the Workplace

Workplace bullyingWhether or not you’re a football fan, you have probably heard about the alleged bullying of Miami Dolphins player, Jonathan Martin, by his teammate, Richie Incognito.  There are multiple entities investigating the charges, including determining how much the coaches and team management knew about the bullying and the team’s culture of harassment.

The reaction to this news story has varied widely.  Many of those involved in professional football have scoffed at the idea that a player could be bullied, believing that football is a tough macho sport.

Brett Favre said:

It’s the toughest sport, most violent, not to mention you’re men… my initial reaction was a grown man that’s 320 pounds is getting bullied?

And pro footballer Lawrence Taylor said:

If you are that sensitive and weak-minded, then find another profession.

Does bullying have a purpose in the workplace?

The question is this:  Is bullying acceptable in the workplace if it serves a business purpose?  Are there laws against it?

You may be able to mentally run through your own work history and think of a coworker or boss who may have been a bully.

Or was that coworker just not a team player?  That boss just tough and demanding?  Is there such a thing as a workplace bully, and if there is, what can, or should, be done about it?

Some facts about workplace bullying:

Here are some facts from the Workplace Bullying Institute.  Results of a survey they commissioned showed that:

  • 35% of workers have been bullied
  • Bullying is four times more common than illegal forms of harassment
  • 62% of the bullies are men
  • 58% of the targets are women

What is workplace bullying?

Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries defines it as:

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).

Examples they cite include:

  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism
  • Being sworn at
  • Being shouted at or being humiliated
  • Micro-managing
  • Being given unrealistic work deadlines, or blame without factual justification
  • Being treated differently than others in a work group
  • Being excluded

Is workplace bullying illegal?

Generally, it is not illegal.  It crosses the legal line when it is harassment based on a protected class, such as race, creed, national origin, sex, age, disability, etc.  But an equal opportunity bully doesn’t violate employment laws.

That may change in the near future, though!

Workplace anti-bullying legislation:

The Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham is working across the country to pass workplace anti-bullying legislation.  Although the Healthy Workplace Bill has not been passed in any state to date, eleven states are considering legislation.

In Washington, legislation has been introduced in the past, but has not been passed.  The legislation’s stated purpose is “to provide legal recourse for employees who have been harmed, psychologically, physically or economically, by being deliberately subjected to abusive work environments, and to provide legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to mistreatment of employees at work.”

If passed, workplace bullying would be on a par with other unfair employment practices, such as discrimination and sexual harassment.

The impact of bullying in the workplace:

Illegal or not, bullying is bad behavior that negatively impacts employees and thus harms our businesses.

Studies show that it results in increased stress for employees, reduced self-esteem, depression, family tension, and can even have physical affects on the victim.  Clearly, when an employee is working in such a negative situation, they will not be able to perform at their best.

Workplace bullying does not just affect the worker, however.  Its consequences go well beyond individuals, impacting the entire organization.

Employees lose the initiative to be creative and take risks, instead expending their efforts on protecting themselves.  Targeted employees will most likely jump ship at the first opportunity, resulting in expensive workforce turnover.  As the organization copes with the bullying behavior, productive time and effort is squandered upon managing the situation.

How to create a bully-free workplace:

Start by establishing expectations of behavior for the entire staff:

Many companies include a Workplace Bullying Policy as part of their company’s Workplace Violence Policy, but it can also stand on its own.

The policy should specifically define what actions constitute bullying and will not be allowed.  By including specific examples, it helps everyone understand the difference between bullying behavior and tough high performance expectations.

For example, a policy might not tolerate obscene gestures and language towards an individual, shouting at someone, personal insults, public humiliation, ignoring, sabotage and threats.  By spelling out acceptable workplace behavior, it sets the standard for what is not acceptable.

A boss has a right to hold employees accountable and to set high performance standards.  Bosses should not be afraid to give honest performance feedback, and to provide correction and discipline as warranted.

Make it clear that bosses must also adhere to your anti-bullying policy:

A bullying boss is more concerned with his own self-interest than the organization’s, does not treat all employees the same, misuses power and may verbally assault employees.

Make it clear that the policy extends to everyone in the company, including all members of management, and spell out the process an employee follows to make a complaint.  Just as you would conduct an investigation of harassment, perform the same thorough and fair investigation of bullying complaints.

How should we respond to workplace bullying?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has identified several corporate responses to the workplace bully.

Management may try to give the bully what she wants, hoping that will appease her and end the behavior.  Sometimes blame is misplaced, either on the targeted employee who is complaining, or spreading the blame amongst all parties.  Ignoring the bully in hopes that they’ll stop bullying, or asking everyone to try to work better as a team are also common responses.  How should we respond?

What did our parents tell us to do when we were bullied at school?  Stand up to the bully and let them know you won’t put up with it.  The same actions need to happen in our workplaces.

Management, especially senior management, needs to establish a zero-tolerance policy, stating that all employees have a right to work in a positive environment.

How should we handle  managers who bully?

Oftentimes the bully is a strong corporate contributor, or even a member of management.  Although that may be the case, action still needs to happen.

As soon as it happens, the bully should be confronted and told the behavior isn’t acceptable.  The confrontation must be done privately and respectfully.  The specific behavior should be addressed, as well as the consequences that the behavior had on you and others.    Deal with the facts of the situation, and don’t get drawn into analyzing behavior.  Lastly, don’t expect the person to change, but make it clear that the behavior itself must change.

The wrap-up:

Who knows whether or not Washington will pass workplace anti-bullying legislation in the future?  What does seem clear is that at some point it is likely to become law.  Many worry that it is difficult to clearly define bullying versus bad management or tough bosses, and that it will result in claims from employees who are simply unhappy with their supervisors.

It is also clear that creating a bully-free workplace is good management policy and will undoubtedly increase a company’s productivity and success.  That, in and of itself, should be incentive enough.