Typically, when people hear the term “bullying,” they correlate the word with middle school and high school students. However, bullying often occurs in the workplace and can have a serious impact on employees’ daily lives. In addition, workplace bullying can affect an employer’s workplace culture and expose the employer to potential liability. Therefore, it is important for employers to familiarize themselves with workplace bullying and consider implementing policies and procedures that address this issue.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as “the deliberate, hurtful and repeated mistreatment of a [t]arget … by a bully … that is driven by the bully’s desire to control [another person].” The phrase “bullying” comprises all forms of mistreatment at work. A more precise definition is the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. Moreover, it is abusive conduct that is: (1) “[t]hreatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or (2) [w]ork interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done, or [v]erbal abuse.”

In 2016, Forbes Magazine discussed workplace bullying and cited research from Dr. Judy Blando at the University of Phoenix that 75% of employee surveyed had been affected, whether as a target or witness, by workplace bullying. While workplace bullying is less physically harmful than school bullying, it is more psychological and verbal, often leading to workplace stress. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is four times more common than racial discrimination or sexual harassment at work.

The Warning Signs of Workplace Bullying

Some of the signs of workplace bullying include, but are not limited to: (1) verbal abuse and insults on the basis of one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.; (2) embarrassment in front of others; (3) threats or physical abuse; (4) workspace damage; (5) cyber bullying including threats coming from text messages, e-mails, social media, or faxes; (6) sharing inappropriate photographs of an individual; (7) impersonation by sending false communication in an individual’s name; and (8) lewd behavior, including sexting and sexual harassment.

Typically, the bully in a workplace bullying situation is an individual in a position of power, such as a manager or supervisor who feels threatened by the victim. However, the bully can be a co-worker who is typically the least skilled employee, attacking the best and brightest worker due to a perceived threat. Further, the research found that the “bullies” were typically of a higher status within the employer than the target.

The Effects of Bullying

Not only does bullying affect the employee targeted, but the employer is also affected by this behavior. Any employer may suffer indirect costs, opportunity costs, and direct costs resulting from abusive work environments. For example, according to Forbes Magazine, in 2014 20% of employees, who were subjected to bullying at their jobs, left those work settings to end the bullying. The employer has now lost a good employee and faces costs of hiring a new employee. If this workplace culture continues, the employer will face a high turnover rate, far less revenue per employee and increased absences.

This means that the targeted victim of bullying will become stressed, which often shows up through health problems. The employee’s performance will decline and they may need more time off to recover. For the employer, this means at least one person’s performance is lower, which will affect the employer down the line. Further, by allowing bullying, the employer is accepting a toxic culture and reduced morale. Witnesses will have to decide whether to side with the bully, leave their employment, risk retaliation by speaking out, or remain passive to avoid becoming a target him/herself.

If an employer fails to address workplace bullying, it can subject itself to potential litigation. While the bullying is not technically illegal, it may be connected to a form of discrimination or harassment, which can be subject to litigation. Further, employees may claim unfair constructive dismissal, whistleblowing (if they reported bullying and were retaliated against by the employer), and personal injury claims/claims of negligence (only in extreme cases).

How Employers Can Prevent Bullying

Employers can consider implementing policies and procedures to prevent the harmful effects of workplace bullying. First, implementing anti-bullying policies and communicating them throughout the workplace is an important prevention tactic. Employees must understand the procedures in place, what is expected of them while at work and the consequences of failing to observe the employer’s standards of behavior.

Second, employers can train managers on how to identify harassment or bullying and what their responsibilities are to combat it. We often include bullying in our anti-harassment training. Once managers are trained, the employer can encourage managers to put an end to questionable behavior before it escalates into something more serious and harmful.

Third, an employer can implement fair procedures for prompt investigation into complaints of bullying from employees. The employer is encouraged to reassure employees that they should report bullying and that they will not be retaliated against for reporting such behavior. Encouraging employees that such complaints are acceptable and providing a fair procedure to do so is very important. If an employee fears retaliation and does not feel comfortable reporting bullying, it may escalate and cause harm to the employer.

A Possible Solution to End Workplace Bullying

In 2001, David C. Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University drafted the “Healthy Workplace Bill” in response to the lack of protections for employees who experience severe workplace bullying. In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate discussed a federal law that would encompass the Healthy Workplace Bill, however, the bill was not passed.

To date, 31 legislatures (29 states and two territories) have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill. This bill’s objective is to provide legal redress for bullying at work and allows employees to sue the bully in his or her individual capacity, but also holds the employer liable. To date, the Healthy Workplace Bill has not been passed in any state. However, if this bill is passed in the future, many employers will be required to address workplace bullying, in order to shield their organizations from litigation.

Implications for Employers

It is important for employers to familiarize themselves with workplace bullying, the effect it has on employees and avoiding liability in connection with bullies in the workplace. Employers are encouraged consider implementing preventive tactics and always ensure that complaints are promptly addressed.

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