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Make Your Workplace Bullyproof

By Susan R. Hartung  10/31/2011
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The most common image of bullying brings to mind a big kid picking on a smaller kid on a playground. In reality, however, the act of bullying isn’t limited to interactions between children. Bullying can occur between people of any age and in any environment, including the workplace.

At times, it can be difficult to differentiate between workplace bullying and an isolated incident that might otherwise be categorized as an office disagreement between employees. Human resource professionals must listen carefully to the details of a complaint and identify legitimate claims. Consider this example of a complaint in a traditional office setting:

Bill, an account executive employed by your company, comes to you in confidence to report that he has been having continuing problems with an account executive named Frank, who works in the same department. Bill explains how Frank interrupts him constantly in departmental meetings and that he disagrees with every idea Bill presents to the group. In fact, Bill tells you, Frank rolls his eyes when Bill speaks.

According to Bill, this behavior isn’t limited to internal interaction. He reports that Frank hassles him during meetings at client sites and in front of business prospects. Frank dominates the conversations in such meetings and blocks any opportunity Bill might have to offer input. Worse, Bill notes, Frank frequently addresses him publicly as “Little Billy” or “Billy Bob,” and now other members of the staff are following his lead.

As a result, Bill says he has a hard time sleeping at night because not only does he feel frustrated and degraded, he can’t help but replay the events of each day and all of Frank’s hassling over and over in his head. He says he constantly worries about what he should have said to Frank in response to his behavior toward him.

Bill notes that he recently tried to address these issues with Frank. It didn’t go well. He says Frank yelled at him and told him to stop being so emotional. Since then, Bill has tried to ignore Frank’s comments, but he admits he has had enough. He says he is sick and tired of being picked on every day.

Is Frank bullying Bill? And, if so, what do you need to do?

Defining Workplace Bullying

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines “workplace bullying” as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that take one or more of the following forms”:

  • Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct or behaviors, including nonverbal, that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating.
  • Work interference—sabotage—that prevents work from getting done.

Among other things, this definition could encompass such actions as having work product criticized constantly, yelling, being reminded constantly of past mistakes, spreading rumors or lies and being avoided or excluded intentionally.

When evaluating complaints like the one made by Bill, it’s important to look at the big picture, or in legal terms, the totality of the circumstances. Repeated mistreatment is a key element of the WBI definition of workplace bullying. Bullying isn’t a one-time altercation. Rather, it is persistent harassment or abuse. Another key element of the definition is that the mistreatment must cause harm to the target’s health. Based on the scenario detailed by Bill, you might have an office bully on your hands.

Bullying Is Not Illegal

The first question you might have in respect to a potential bullying issue in your office is if it is against the law. In short, no. While workplace bullying might implicate anti-discrimination or other employment laws, in many cases it does not. Since 2003, 21 states have introduced legislation addressing workplace bullying, but no state has passed a law regarding it.

Most states have drawn upon the Healthy Workplace Bill, authored by Suffolk University Law School professor David C. Yamada. This bill would forbid an abusive work environment that harms a person’s physical or emotional health. It is designed to impose individual liability for such behavior.

The model legislation would expose a company to potential liability for the actions of its employees if it fails to exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct bullying behavior promptly. For an employee to prevail under the bill, he or she would need to provide medical documentation of the harm to his or her health.

Additionally, the bill would give courts the authority to award a target of workplace bullying monetary compensation as well as the authority to grant injunctive relief. This would require the company and/or the bully to do something or refrain from doing something. For example, the court could require the bully to complete a course that addresses the harmful effects of bullying or order the removal of the bully from the workplace. The measure features an anti-retaliation component to ensure protection of potential targets and witnesses.

Protect Against Claims

No one wants to end up in court. And, regardless of merit, defending an allegation of workplace bullying can be costly. It’s better to be proactive by insulating a workplace from a bullying complaint by putting a few safeguards into place.

First, develop a policy against workplace bullying if one is not already in place. The policy should include the following components:

  • Definition of bullying, including a nonexhaustive list of bullying behaviors.
  • Identification of the person to whom bullying complaints should be made.
  • Detailed complaint investigation procedures that must be followed once an allegation of workplace bullying has been made.
  • Consequences for violation of the policy.

Next, educate employees. Ensure that the anti-bullying policy is distributed to everyone. Also, consider posting it in conspicuous places throughout the workplace and on the company website. Don’t forget to conduct workplace training on the policy to ensure that all employees understand it.

The policy must be enforced, and all employees should be treated equally under it. Complaints should be taken seriously and be investigated thoroughly, using the procedure outlined in the policy. Bullying behavior should not be ignored simply because the target does not come to you and complain.

By following the steps above, HR should be equipped to address the issues that arise with the “Bills” and “Franks” in the workplace. This includes a volatile relationship between employees, as well as threats of litigation. Understanding what workplace bullying is, being aware of its implications and having a clear-cut policy that is known and enforced consistently is a company’s first line of defense.

Susan R. Hartung is a labor and employment attorney at Walter & Haverfield LLP in Cleveland.





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