Bullying in the Workplace

Lisa Riccio

Many of us can remember the schoolyard bully who knocked books out of our hands and stole our lunch money. Thanks to RSA 193-F, Pupil Safety and Violence Protection, schools today have more tools to eliminate bullying. But what about bullies at work? What does their behavior look like? What are the implications for the employer? What triggers bullying behavior in the workplace? This article will examine bullying in the workplace, look at recent proposed legislation, and provide some guidance for employers wrestling with this issue.

Bullying is unwanted, repeated abusive action aimed at an individual or group of individuals. Bullying behavior can take on many forms, including hyper critical feedback, the silent treatment, withholding of necessary information, delegating unreasonable tasks with unrealistic timelines, undermining confidence through discouraging any initiative, or targeting individuals as the butt of jokes. These behaviors are quite damaging, but they are not illegal. Bullying under Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers only harassment that occurs on the basis of race, color, gender, national origin, pregnancy, disability, or sexual stereotyping.

The New Hampshire legislature is considering an amendment to the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (RSA 275-E) to help address workplace bullying and abusive work environments. HB 591, as amended by the House in March 2013, applies broadly to state government only, and requires state agencies and departments to develop and communicate a written policy prohibiting abusive conduct and an abusive work environment. Employers would be required to provide training on the policy for new hires, supervisors, employees recently promoted, and every employee annually.

While municipal employers are not included in this proposed legislation, it is important to have a workplace conduct policy and to understand the impact of bullying on an employee's morale, productivity, and retention.

Every employee is entitled to dignity at work. Bullying humiliates and denigrates the employee, leaving an overwhelming sense of fear, injustice, and loss of confidence. The victim may develop significant mental and physical problems as a result. Some indicators which may point to bullying are increased absenteeism, higher turnover, delays and failures in meeting deliverables, an increase in disciplinary action, and an increase in grievances filed. Certain organizational decisions, like downsizing or restructuring, as well as poor communication streams, may lead to a spike in bullying.

Some effective strategies to prevent bullying are:

 

  • Develop a policy which ensures all employees a work environment free from bullying, where managers and supervisors are responsible for making sure their employees are not bullied. Develop disciplinary actions for those who have bullied co-workers.
  • Conduct training for management and employees which teaches how to recognize bullying behavior and incorporate other skill-building opportunities like conflict resolution, negotiation, valuing differences, and stress management.
  • Establish a complaint intake and investigation system. Educate every employee on the process to file a complaint, how the complaint will be investigated, and how the issue will be remedied. Stop the bullying behavior immediately by (a) putting the offending employee on notice that he/she is subject to an investigation, and (b) explaining what retaliation (subtle and overt) means and its consequences. Reassure employees--and warn offenders--that retaliating against someone who files a complaint about being bullied will not be tolerated and may result in disciplinary action up to and including discharge.
  • Conduct a climate survey of your employees to gauge how pervasive bullying is in your organization.

 

According to the Bureau of National Affairs, American businesses spend $5 to $6 million on issues around workplace bullying. I think we all would agree that employers should have a zero tolerance for bullying. Raising awareness through training and education, providing employees an avenue to file a complaint, and providing a robust investigation process and expedient corrective action will help to ensure your workplace is free from the damage caused by bullies.

Lisa Riccio is Human Resources Director for the New Hampshire Local Government Center. She may be contacted at 800.852.3358, ext. 3344 or by email.