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Workplace Bullying: Some Progress But Still a Ways to Go
 

By Tracie Johnson Maurer and John Snyder  5/27/2014

Twenty-seven percent of American workers reported they currently were being bullied or had experienced bullying at some point in their careers, according to a recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). This is a little progress from four years earlier, in which 35 percent of American workers reported they were being bullied or had been bullied.

The reasons researchers give for the lower incidents of workplace bullying are mixed. Researchers suggest that the statistics do not necessarily indicate that employers are doing something right. Bullying stopped in 15 percent of cases because the perpetrator was terminated or quit. However, research indicates that 61 percent of interviewees reported bullying stopped because the target resigned or was involuntarily terminated. This article looks at workplace bullying and why employers need to pay attention to reports of bullying in their workplaces.

What Constitutes Bullying?

The conversation around workplace bullying is evolving. Historically, the conversation has focused on the individual manager or co-worker who made the workplace difficult. Bullying is more than mere incivility or rudeness. Rather, it has been defined as mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. Bullying has nothing to do with the work itself. Instead, it typically is driven by a personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done.

As more than 68 percent of bullies hold managerial or supervisory positions, their behaviors are especially important.

For these bullies, bullying can be expressed in both verbal and nonverbal behaviors. For instance, bullies in positions of authority typically flaunt their status; “shout” at others orally or in writing; swear or use foul language; spread gossip; blame others/their subordinates for their own shortcomings; constantly threaten job loss; spew unwarranted criticism, especially in front of others; and take actions that “chill” others’ opinions. Common nonverbal bullying behaviors include ignoring contributions, consistently failing to follow up, excluding employees from meetings and social gatherings, giving the silent treatment, playing mean pranks, treating employees rudely, and making unreasonable work demands.

Audit Workplace Culture

It is easy to focus on one or two bad apples. Some people simply are mean or abusive, and their aggressive conduct demands intervention. The 2014 WBI survey, however, suggests that the conversation also needs to consider the organizational factors that support—if not encourage—bullying conduct. How should employers go about this?

Conduct an honest assessment of your company’s work environment and culture. Ask if your culture:

  • Encourages, supports and rewards teamwork. Or does it create an environment that feeds on internal competition?
  • Measures performance or success only by the “end game.” Or does it provide opportunities to show appreciation along the way?
  • Welcomes the opinions of nonmanagement employees. Or does it make them feel marginalized and shunned for speaking up and offering different viewpoints?
  • Seeks out employee concerns via an anonymous hotline system and promptly investigates internal complaints?
  • Considers feedback from all sources, such as through 360-degree evaluations?
  • Leads by example from the top down and consistently demonstrates an expectation that all employees are to be treated with dignity?
  • Teaches supervisors motivational/coaching techniques, proper use of performance appraisal systems, effective incident reporting and good employee counseling?

Review of Management

Conduct an honest assessment of your managers and supervisors.

  • Have the right people been chosen for management positions? Being a driven producer does not necessarily translate to being an effective manager. Instead, consider whether top producers should be a part of the training team rather than managers responsible for the supervision of others’ work.
  • Have your managers and supervisors been properly trained on their people responsibilities, and have they been given opportunities to act as apprentices and receive feedback on their people skills?
  • Question whether there are certain work teams, groups or departments that show higher turnover, excessive absenteeism, requests for transfers or requests to change schedules/shifts than others. If the answer is “yes,” consider interviewing team members and investigate whether such changes are a reflection of the nature of the work (i.e., high volume and low headcount or technically difficult work), or a reflection of the persons assigned to manage the work of the department.
  • Question whether deadlines are legitimate and reasonable or imposed for control or power plays.
  • Consider how managers communicate with their direct reports. For instance, are the volume and tone of their voices normal or are they yelling at e-mail recipients with the excessive use of all capital letters, highlighting or underscoring? Periodically review e-mail communications and determine if they are consistent with verbal communications about duties and responsibilities or whether they constantly shift objectives with little notice.
  • Ensure legitimate reasons exist for performance appraisals and disciplinary actions, particularly when such action is being taken or recommended by a driven supervisor. Be sure the actions are based on valid, documented factors and are not simply the result of a hypercritical actor.
  • Ensure managers are not minimalizing employee complaints. Ensure they understand their role in the grievance process, recognize issues as they arise and know when an HR professional is needed.

Training

Enhance existing policies, train employees and stick to policies that prohibit bullying in your workplace.

Since 2003, 21 states and municipalities have introduced “healthy workplace” bills. The proposed legislation would establish a general "civility code" in the workplace that federal law has long sought to avoid. Still, there are currently no state or federal laws that outlaw bullying.

Nevertheless, bullying should be specifically prohibited in an employer’s policies on harassment, discipline, ethics, workplace violence, social media and electronic communications. Employees must know abusive conduct—even if does not amount to unlawful harassment or discrimination—will not be tolerated by your company. Your company should expect all employees to treat others civilly and with dignity, and employees should know that engaging in bullying will subject them to the same consequences as violating any other policy governing appropriate and acceptable workplace conduct. The company needs to stand by its policies and ensure  consequences when employees exhibit poor behavior.

Why Spend Time on Something No Law Requires?

The reasons are numerous for addressing workplace bullying. Here are a few:

  • It costs your business money, time and resources to deal with the effects of workplace bullying. The direct costs include medical and workers' compensation claims. Other negative effects and indirect costs include decreases in productivity and efficiency, high turnover, excessive absenteeism, financial problems caused by absences, poor customer/client relations, low morale, increases in resignations/transfer requests, increases in hotline calls and complaints, more requests for work schedule changes, reduced self-esteem, and increases in family tension. When abusive conduct goes unabated, employers pay the price no matter how mature they believe their workforce should be. Claims that have no legal basis still require the same time, effort and resources needed to resolve meritorious claims. Savvy plaintiff’s counsel will not allege “bullying” as the cause of action; rather, they will bring what amount to claims of bullying within the context of valid state law theories such as negligent hiring, retention and supervision, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Furthermore, administrative charges may subject the employer to broader investigations into its workplace practices by local, state or federal agencies.
  • If you don’t talk to your employees and address abusive or aggressive conduct in the workplace, your employees will find someone else to talk to. If your employees do not feel they are heard within the company about the issues they believe are interfering with their ability to work, they will choose other mechanisms to get your attention, including, for instance, filing administrative charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; contacting their lawyers; or criticizing the company and its practices on social media.
  • The correlation between workplace bullying and workplace violence cannot be ignored. Twenty percent of all violent crime in the U.S. occurs in the workplace. An estimated 1.7 million employees are injured each year because of workplace assaults. Workplace bullying typically does not involve the “bully” engaging in physically violent conduct, but researchers are starting to draw correlations between targets of bullying and incidents of workplace violence. Researchers recognize various factors to which anxiety and subsequent violence may be attributed: A significant change in the way work is done can create not only anxiety but dissatisfaction and anger. The notion of “I’m fed up and I’m just not going to take it anymore” manifests in its worst form when employees take out workplace frustrations—real or imagined—with violent outbursts toward managers or co-workers.

Ensure a Safe Workplace

Unfortunately, violent incidents in the workplace are no longer shocking to our sensibilities. There is no dependable predictor and, understandably, workers have legitimate safety concerns. Employers should share these concerns. Employers cannot ignore the potential role workplaces play in exacerbating the circumstances that result in workplace violence. As discussed above, addressing abusive and aggressive conduct is important. Employers also must take proactive steps to prevent violence-prone employees from entering their workforces in the first place. Though nothing is entirely foolproof, the following steps are essential to showing your company took reasonable efforts to prevent violent individuals from being hired:

  • Systematically and comprehensively screen all applicants, including having all applicants thoroughly complete an application. The employer should then conduct a background and reference check confirming the information provided.
  • Always conduct an interview, which will allow the employer to carefully observe an applicant under stressful situations. Researchers have found that violent persons will have three key personality traits that employers can look for in an interview:

            --Violent persons tend to have a generally negative attitude, which can be assessed by asking an applicant to tell you about something that excites him or makes him feel good.

            --Violent people tend to feel they are not in control of their lives and blame others for their difficulties. Often, asking applicants about an assignment or project that went badly will elicit information on this personality dimension.

            --Violent people tend to have little interpersonal sensitivity and do not view social interactions positively. Employers can ask whether an applicant enjoys working with others to assess this dimension. Employers also should ask whether an applicant has been disciplined or discharged for any of the following: theft, fighting or assaults; violating workplace violence/safety rules, or anti-harassment/discrimination policies, or insubordination.

In addition, training provides an essential component to preventing workplace violence. Supervisors must be trained to effectively communicate with their employees, consider new applicants for hire, resolve conflicts, de-escalate conflicts and recognize violent propensities. A careful supervisor properly trained can play a large role in keeping employee morale high and inoculating an organization against violence in the workplace. Although supervisors are usually the first line of defense, employers should consider extending such training to all employees. Because harassment in the workplace can precipitate incidents of workplace violence, employers should consider combining anti-harassment and workplace violence training.

Research shows that reports of workplace bullying have decreased in recent years. Employers who read the literature and have taken the advice of their HR professional and legal counsel should feel good about this trend. But employers must not be complacent.Employees expect their employers to maintain a safe, productive and professional environment and will hold them accountable for failing to do so.

Tracie Johnson Maurer and John Snyder are shareholders with the labor and employment law firm of Jackson Lewis P.C. Maurer is in the Atlanta office, and Snyder works out of the firm’s New York City office.

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