Intimidation at Work: How to Deal with Workplace Bullying

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Oct 28, 2020
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Intimidation at Work: How to Deal with Workplace Bullying

Bullying may conjure images of punches on the grade school playground or school books being knocked out of the nerdy kid's arms. But for many people, workplace bullying is an everyday reality. The bully isn't the big kid in class. It's a nasty co-worker or insecure supervisor who targets someone at work on a regular basis.

Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D. quotes The Workplace Bullying Institute's definition of bullying as including “repeated, health-harming … abusive conduct … or work interference, i.e., sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.” According to Robinson, workplace bullying has increased 19% in the last 11 years. He cites a Gallup poll that shows almost 50% of U.S. workers have experienced harassment recently.

Effects of Workplace Bullying on Employees

Daniel Bramley of the Nulab research team reports that more than 50% of employees experiencing workplace bullying say it affects their stress levels, concentration, and productivity. More than 75% say conflicts at work have gotten hostile and one-fifth say it’s a major factor in leaving jobs. When bullying happens, it may feel shocking or embarrassing, but Robinson recommends not staying silent about it and taking action.

Those experiencing bullying can call it out directly in a calm and professional manner, document ongoing bullying in writing if calling it out with the perpetrator doesn’t stop it, check if the company has an anti-harassment policy, and talk to a direct supervisor and human resources. Support systems available include the Workplace Bullying Institute, Cybersmile Foundation, and Stop Bullying Now Hotline 800-273-8255.

workplace bullying and harassment

Effects of Workplace Bullying on Business Success

In his book “The Workplace Bullying Handbook,” Paul Pelletier discusses the toxic, stressful work environment bullying creates. It affects productivity, performance, and morale, and prevents work from getting done. It harms teams and teamwork, causing high rates of absenteeism, loss of team effectiveness, and loss of high-performing employees.

He explains that bullying has a direct impact on sick leave and disability claims, affects profits because of the lost time of top talent, and requires the time and attention of HR personnel to manage. An increase in turnover because of the negative effect on the work environment costs employers a lot in terms of not only money for replacement recruiting but also in business continuity, project work, and service to clients.

Pelletier describes workplace bullying as the “single most preventable and needless expense” on a company’s bottom line, and says it’s good for business to end bullying. When workplace bullying results in legal action, the costs soar exponentially. Legal costs can run to thousands or millions of dollars. Damage to reputation is equally exorbitant. Pelletier emphasizes that the damage done by a bully executive, bullying investigation, or legal action against a company supporting or not doing anything about a bully can quickly ruin a company’s image in the world’s eyes. Leaders who fail to address bullying also risk their reputations, with direct impacts to the businesses they run.

When Employees Harass Co Workers on Social Media

What Employers Can and Should Do About Workplace Bullying

Public relations and communications consultant David Sparkman says employers should have a program to eliminate bullying. He says the consequences of not being prepared and not taking action to combat workplace bullying include government penalties, employee lawsuits, and expensive legal costs. Bullying is a related behavior to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination that are prohibited by federal law. Additionally, as workplace bullying can endanger employees, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to have anti-bullying policies to comply with the general duty to maintain a safe workplace.

Legal professionals like attorney Marie Burke Kenny advise employers to never ignore bullying, always encourage reporting abuse, and work to resolve all bullying issues and incidents. Kenny says effective anti-bullying policies clearly identify bullying behavior, state that the company does not tolerate bullying, encourage reporting, and require written acknowledgment of and agreement with the policy. She also advises employers to train management and employees to understand bullying and acceptable behavior and how to recognize bullying, as well as set up an investigative process for all reported incidents and always take corrective action appropriate to the severity of the incident.

Workplace bullying isn’t just a federal legal issue anymore. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reminds employers that workplace anti-bullying bills like Massachusetts S.B. 1013 prohibiting abusive conduct against employees are being introduced more and more. The Healthy Workplace Campaign reports that 29 state legislatures have introduced such legislation recently. Whether your company has an anti-harassment policy and reporting process in place or not, it is well worth the time to review your organization’s culture and workplace environment and take active steps to address workplace bullying.

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