Bullying, Violence Continue in the Workplace, Survey Finds

By Beth Mirza Mar 5, 2012
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One-half of the companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported incidents of bullying in the workplace, leading to decreased morale, increased stress and depression, and decreased trust among co-workers.

The findings of the survey Workplace Bullying, conducted online in May 2011 with 401 SHRM members, show that the respondents’ companies are receiving reports of bullying at the same frequency (48 percent) or less (34 percent) than they were two years earlier.

The survey found that 27 percent of HR professionals themselves have been victims of workplace bullying.

"Bullying in the workplace can have a wide range of impact on employees," said Evren Esen, manager of the Survey Research Center at SHRM. "According to HR professionals’ perceptions, decreased employee morale and increased employee stress were among the top observed outcomes. However, increased employee turnover, decreased trust in management and increased employee absenteeism were also reported."

In a separately published subset of the survey, Workplace Violence, just over one-third of respondents said their companies had experienced incidents of workplace violence. Respondents said workplace violence incidents were happening at about the same frequency (45 percent) or less often (40 percent) than they were two years ago. Only 15 percent reported an increase in frequency. The survey found that effects of violence include decreased morale, sense of safety, productivity and trust among co-workers for just over one-quarter of respondents.

Anti-Bullying Policies, Training, Investigations

Nearly one-half of the respondents (44 percent) said their companies did not have a workplace bullying policy and they had no plans to institute one. Forty percent said their bullying policy was part of another workplace policy. Thirteen percent planned to put a policy in place within a year, and 3 percent had a stand-alone bullying policy.

Of companies that had a bullying policy, 28 percent said it was communicated to employees via a handbook, 25 percent discussed it during employee orientation, and 18 percent put the policy in the employee code of conduct.

HR professionals (35 percent) and management-level employees (34 percent) were the workers most likely to receive bullying prevention and/or awareness training. Twenty-eight percent of companies reported that their nonmanagement level employees were so trained, while executives at another 28 percent of companies were trained.

Three-quarters of the companies said their response to allegations of bullying would depend on the circumstances of the event. Other responses include:

  • Investigate internally—65 percent.
  • Written warning—40 percent.
  • Performance improvement plan—27 percent.
  • Referral to an EAP or counseling—24 percent.
  • Suspension—17 percent.
  • Termination (zero-tolerance policy)—13 percent.
  • Mandatory counseling—11 percent.
  • Probation—10 percent.
  • Reassignment to another department or area—7 percent.
  • Mandatory anger management training—5 percent.
  • Paid administrative leave—3 percent.
  • Demotion—3 percent.
  • Outsource the investigation to a third party—2 percent.
  • Other—5 percent.

HR professionals are most likely to be responsible for handling the organization’s response to bullying, with 87 percent of respondents naming them as the primary responders to an allegation. Management-level staffers are responsible for responding at 46 percent of companies, while 28 percent of the respondents named executives and 20 percent named the bully’s immediate supervisor. Sixteen percent named the bullying target’s immediate supervisor as responsible for responding.

Two-thirds of organizations said they had, to some or a large degree, a grievance process for investigating and addressing bullying allegations. However, 74 percent said they did not, or only to a slight degree, conduct regular bullying prevention/awareness training and orientation programs.

The majority—77 percent—of HR professionals said it was their responsibility to investigate, document and discipline when bullying is reported or suspected. Most companies (89 percent) indicated that their employees typically report bullying to the HR department/function head. In addition, one-half reported that employees report incidents to the target’s direct supervisor, while 40 percent of organizations’ said bullying incidents were usually reported to the bully’s supervisor.

Respondents whose organizations had experienced workplace bullying reported the following behaviors occurring at work:

  • Verbal abuse, including shouting, swearing, name calling and malicious sarcasm—73 percent.
  • Malicious gossip, rumors and lies—62 percent.
  • Threats and intimidation—50 percent.
  • Cruel comments and teasing—47 percent.
  • Ignoring and excluding—43 percent.
  • Unduly harsh or constant criticism—41 percent.
  • Aggression—38 percent.
  • Abuse of authority—36 percent.
  • Unjustified interference with work performance—25 percent.
  • Use of technology for bullying—19 percent.
  • Physical assaults—16 percent.

Most bullying incidents are peer to peer (82 percent), followed by supervisor directed at employee (56 percent) and employee directed at supervisor (37 percent).

HR Professionals as Bullying Victims

Of the respondents who said they’d been bullied on the job as an HR professional, 32 percent said they’d been bullied by an executive. Twenty-nine percent were bullied by someone outside the HR department, and 24 percent were bullied by a manager. Seventeen percent said the bully was their manager.

More than one-half (57 percent) of the bullied HR professionals reported the incident to someone in their organization, most often their supervisor (38 percent), an executive (28 percent) or a manager (22 percent).

HR professionals and business leaders can help decrease bullying at work, Esen said.

"Ensure that the organization is ready to respond to allegations of bullying by having a protocol in place that is tied to an informal or formal policy," Esen encouraged. "Organizations also need to communicate this policy to all employees. Training is a useful way to make sure that employees are aware of the organization’s stance towards bullying."

Violence at Work

Employees most often report threats of violence to the HR department/function head, according to 83 percent of respondents. The threatened employee’s direct supervisor is notified at 68 percent of respondents’ companies, while the aggressor employee’s direct supervisor is notified at 42 percent of companies. Thirty percent of respondents have a hotline or other reporting system.

For 61 percent of respondents, the organization’s reaction to threats of violence from an employee depends on the circumstances. At 47 percent of the companies, the employee is fired immediately, in accordance with zero-tolerance policies. Thirty-one percent of companies give the employee a written warning, while 29 percent of companies suspend the person threatening violence. One-quarter of respondents refer the employee to an employee assistance program. Other responses, at lesser rates, include probation, counseling, anger management training, paid leave, reassignment and demotion.

Most—90 percent—of the HR departments responding to the survey are responsible for handling the organization’s response to threats of violence. Forty-five percent also give responsibility to managers, while 37 percent make executives responsible as well.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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