VIEWPOINT Workplace Bullying: A Silent Epidemic

With no anti-bullying workplace laws in the U.S., HR shouldn’t ignore the issue.

By Kasi McLaughlin, PHR Sep 24, 2014

1014-Cover.jpgBullying is the last form of workplace abuse that is not considered taboo in the United States. Although it is four times as prevalent as some forms of illegal harassment, there is no anti-bullying workplace legislation in the U.S.—unlike in England, Sweden and Australia.

You may wonder whether a concept as nebulous as workplace bullying could possibly be legislated. Won’t employees start filing frivolous complaints against people they don’t like or bosses with lousy management skills? No. In fact, most of the bills that have been proposed to date precisely define an abusive environment and require proof of harm by a mental health professional. They also allow the bully to be sued as an individual while enabling the company to preserve its right to provide at-will employment.

What Is Bullying?

Gary Namie, president of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), and Ruth Namie, CEO of the campaign, define workplace bullying as the malicious verbal mistreatment of a target that is driven by the bully’s desire to control him or her. Tim Field, author of Bully In Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace Bullying(Success Unlimited, 1996), defines it as a continual and relentless attack on other people’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

However it is defined, workplace bullying does not always include yelling, screaming or fits of rage. In fact, it usually takes place on a much quieter scale—in the form of exhibiting unwarranted criticism or intimidation, blaming someone without factual justification, unfairly singling someone out, or spreading rumors.

No matter what form it takes, bullying leaves people feeling powerless and confused. Some may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder years after the bullying occurred. According to the WBI’s 2012 Impact of Workplace Bullying on Individuals’ Health survey report, bullying drove 71 percent of targets to seek treatment from a physician; an alarming 29 percent contemplated suicide.

Who Are the Bullies?

It may not come as a surprise that women are often the victims of workplace bullying—but some people may not realize that the majority of bullies are also female. In fact, according to the results of the 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 68 percent of reported cases involve women-on-women bullying.

Like bullies at children’s schools, workplace bullies are not all evil sociopaths. Normal, well-adjusted members of society can fall prey to destructive bullying tactics when their authority is questioned. They often bully because they are afraid of seeing their own shortcomings exposed. Often, they feel threatened by the abilities or career ambitions of the people they bully and opt to use them as scapegoats.

Why Is Bullying Prevalent?

The authors of Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace(Civil Society Publishing, 1999) suggest that workplace bullying occurs as often as it does because such behaviors are ignored, tolerated, misunderstood or instigated by the company.

People don’t identify this behavior as workplace harassment, and thus many victims don’t realize that something unethical is happening to them. Since 2003, more than half of the states have introduced legislation that would allow workers to sue for harassment without requiring discrimination based on a protected class status—and yet no such proposals have made it into law.

Finally, victims of bullying often become so worn down that they no longer feel capable of defending themselves. In fact, according to 2007 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey data, only 3 percent of bullied targets file lawsuits and 50 percent never even complain. This explains why more than three-fourths of targets choose to leave the battlefield of abuse and start fresh somewhere else.

How Can HR Help?

There are several things HR can do to help reduce workplace bullying:

Make the business case. Top management will be more likely to listen to you if you present a business case for the bottom-line costs of bullying. These costs generally fall into three categories: the cost of replacing staff; the cost of lost productivity as staff copes with the bullying; and the costs associated with investigations, potential legal action and loss of the company’s reputation.

Create an anti-bullying policy or update your harassment policy. This could be as simple as adding verbiage to your current harassment policy that states that harassment of any individual—not just those in a protected class—will not be tolerated. According to a 2011 survey on workplace bullying by the Society for Human Resource Management, 56 percent of companies have an anti-bullying policy.

Hold awareness training. It is not enough to create a policy. HR professionals must make sure that employees understand the issue and its consequences.

Establish a contact for reporting claims. Employees will feel comfortable reporting incidents only to independent employee advocates. If an employee feels that the person in whom they are confiding may have a relationship with the bully, you will never get the full story.

Promptly address complaints. It is not easy for people to report bullying incidents; it would likely be devastating if nothing is done after they’ve come forward. Employees may leave or, worse, advise other co-workers that their reports were not taken seriously.

Hopefully the law will catch up with the brutal reality of bullying. Until then, HR can help give voice to this silent epidemic by displaying compassion, developing fair policies and showing prompt follow-up.

Kasi McLaughlin, PHR, is a former banking officer and human resources manager with First Fidelity Bank.

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