The Bully and the Bottom Line

How your workers treat each other may adversely impact your company’s reputation and finances

By Aliah D. Wright Mar 24, 2015
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Bu​llies cost companies money, according to attorney Allison West, speaking March 24 at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

West, the founder of Employment Practices Specialists, a California-based consultancy, began the session by asking attendees how many of them had worked with a bully. About a third raised their hands.

“One of the reasons I talk about this program is I really want you, as the HR folks and business owners, to pay attention to the symptoms of bullying,” she said. “Bullying is subtle, insidious and wreaks havoc on your workplace. You play an active role in eradicating bullying.”

Throughout her presentation, West revealed some startling statistics—including one from the American Psychological Association, which in 2008 found that bullying was more harmful to employees than sexual harassment.

She said 25 percent of workers targeted by workplace bullies and 20 percent of employees who witness workplace bullying leave their jobs.

“What if they are your good performers?” she asked. “When you have people that are willing to leave your company because [bullying] is so bad, that says something about your culture.”

In 2008, she said, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a verdict of $325,000 against a heart surgeon who bullied a colleague.

In that case, Raess v. Doescher, heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Raess “aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff [Joseph Doescher, a hospital operating room perfusionist] with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him,” according to the complaint. A perfusionist operates the heart/lung machine during open heart surgeries. “The plaintiff backed up against a wall and put his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him, ‘[t]hat he was going to smack the [expletive] out of me or do something.’ ”

In rendering its judgment, the Indiana Supreme Court wrote, “The phrase ‘workplace bullying,’ like other general terms used to characterize a person’s behavior, is an entirely appropriate consideration in determining the issues before the jury. ... Workplace bullying could be considered ‘a form of intentional infliction of emotional distress.’ ”

“Workplace bullying is not unlawful in the United States,” West said. But some jurisdictions and companies are beginning to recognize that it is problematic.

What Is Bullying?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse.
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating.
  • Work interference or a form of sabotage that prevents work from getting done.

Bullying can include chronic teasing, threats and intimidation; aggressive voicemails and/or phone calls; ignoring/interrupting; abusive and offensive remarks; yelling, screaming and/or cursing; persistent name-calling, pushing, shoving, and throwing things; or socially or physically excluding or disregarding a person in work-related activities.

West encouraged HR professionals in attendance not to look at bullying in isolation, but to determine if there is a pattern. “If the boss is sabotaging a person and … they’re only doing it to African American or Latino employees, that’s a different story. Pay attention to a bigger issue.”

Distinguish what bullying is from what it is not, West added. “Bullying is not political correctness,” she said. “It is not setting reasonable goals.”

HR should be direct when confronting a bully: Do so one-on-one and let bullies know their behavior will not be tolerated, West said.

When the Bully Is the Boss

“What do you do when the bully is your senior executive? It’s phenomenally difficult,” she said. And: “If it’s a family-owned company, really what you can do is go look for a new job.”

Having a code of conduct, she said, is important. So is putting bullying’s impact in a business perspective that executives can understand.

Bullying, after all, can impact the bottom line in myriad ways and can lead to:

  • Absenteeism.
  • Decline in morale.
  • Decline in performance.
  • Decline in productivity.
  • Investigations that cost time and can be expensive.

“It hits the PR [public relations] of your company, too,” she said. “People don’t want to work for you” if they know you’re also employing a bully.

And in the age of such social media sites as Glassdoor and Twitter, it’s easy for prospective employees to find out that your company culture may include having bullies on staff.

Bullying can adversely impact the health of employees, as well:

  • 41 percent of bullied individuals were diagnosed with depression.
  • More than 80 percent reported health effects such as severe anxiety, loss of concentration and sleeplessness.
  • 31 percent of female and 21 percent of male targets suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What’s worse, she said, is that in 51 percent of bullying cases studied, HR did nothing; additionally, in 32 percent of cases, HR supported the bully by reacting negatively to the target.

Legal Liability

West walked attendees through an example of bullying that could lead to lawsuits, listing the possible legal outcomes seen in parenthesis below.

If Brenda Boss, the bully :

  • Pushes and shoves Emma Employee (this could lead to an assault and battery charge, and a potential Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation).
  • Locks her in a conference room (a false imprisonment charge).
  • Spreads rumors about her performance (a defamation charge).
  • Deliberately leaves Emma’s written performance warning on the common area copier (an invasion of privacy charge).
  • Continuously yells at Emma in department-wide meetings, in the hallway and on the phone (an intentional infliction of emotional stress charge).

Next, imagine that Emma goes to see Henry HR, and claims she is suffering from a psychiatric injury from her bullying boss (leading to workers’ compensation and leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act), and also wants an accommodation (under the Americans with Disabilities Act). She shows him evidence that Brenda changed her time sheets and says she is owed overtime for the past 18 months (for Fair Labor Standards Act/state wage and hour violations).

And then Emma says:

  • She informed Brenda she was pregnant and was told she would not get a promotion because she is “a breeder” (gender and pregnancy discrimination).
  • After Emma complained in the company newsletter about her denial of a promotion, Brenda changed her work hours, denied her overtime, excluded her from training and gave a bonus to everyone in the department except Emma (retaliation).
  • She feels she has no other recourse but to resign (constructive discharge).

Tips to Stop Bullying

Be proactive. “Make sure respect is a core value,” West said. Employers should limit hierarchy among colleagues, encourage transparency, teach and reward deliberate acts of kindness and decency, and make sure the workplace is one where bullies are not allowed to thrive. Above all, be sure not to reward bullies.

Have a zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullying. “Having a zero-tolerance-for-bullying environment must start at the top levels of management,” she said. Employers can invoke a“no jerks at work” rule. It’s also not a bad idea to have a policy that identifies inappropriate behavior. She offered a word of caution, however, telling HR professionals not to have a policy “if you don’t plan on following it.”

Lastly, tie in accountability. Link all aspects of conduct to financial rewards, evaluations and career advancement.”

She added, “You have to ding them. Money is a way to get a bully’s attention. Don’t promote them. They can’t be a people manager [just] because they have the right skill set.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Reach her @1SHRMScribe.

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