Meanie. Jerk. Snake. Weasel. Mean Girl.
All of these terms can be synonymous with the word “bully.”
October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Therefore, we want to raise awareness of this issue.
While we often associate bullying with children and teens, a form of bullying can continue into adulthood. We call this workplace bullying.
In this article, we define workplace bullying, discuss the prevalence of it, and offer suggestions to employers on actions to take in order to help prevent or mitigate it.
What is Workplace Bullying?
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as, “…repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”
It’s important to note that this definition captures the “more serious” instances of bad employee behavior in the workplace. It is behavior that is repeated and is unwanted by the targeted employee. It is not the one-off good natured “teasing” that can occur. However, it’s important to monitor that teasing doesn’t cross the line into bullying.
According to the book, The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie, the top 10 tactics used by workplace bullies include:
- Making false accusations
- ex: falsely accusing someone of errors they didn’t make
- Using non-verbal intimidation
- ex: staring or glaring
- Dismissing an individual’s thoughts or feelings
- ex: saying something like, “Oh, that’s silly!” when an employee makes a suggestion in a meeting
- Using the silent treatment
- Exhibiting uncontrollable mood swings, especially in a group setting
- Making up random rules
- Disregarding satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work
- Holding the target to a different standard
- Spreading or failing to stop destructive rumors
- Encouraging people to turn against their target
Prevalence of Bullying in the Workplace
According to the 2021 WBI U.S Workplace Bullying Survey, 30% of adults have reported that they are currently experiencing or have previously experienced bullying directly. Although not victims themselves, another 19% of adults have witnessed bullying in the workplace. Therefore, workplace bullying affects a total of 49% of American workers, or 79.3 million people.
The survey also revealed that employees working from home because of the COVID pandemic felt that worker mistreatment increased by as much as 25% during this time. Virtual meetings represented the largest contributor. From the survey: “Half of the respondents reported experiencing or witnessing mistreatment during online meetings. The majority, 70%, of the online mistreatment happened publicly in front of others. This is equivalent to being berated at group meetings in which perpetrators magnify humiliation by performing with an audience of the target’s coworkers. Instead of sitting around a conference table, it happens on computer (or phone or tablet) screens in real time with facial expressions made prominent by the technology.”
Not surprisingly, women bullies were twice as likely to target other women vs. men. And “top down” bullying from managers/supervisors to subordinates occurs 65% of the time.
I am thankful that I have not been a direct victim of workplace bullying. Nevertheless, I fall into the class of workers that have witnessed it. I was once in a workplace where members of senior management targeted a specific member of middle management. The tactics that I directly observed included the following: commenting negatively on undesirable physical characteristics, making false accusations, holding the target to a different standard, making unreasonable demands, and publicly humiliating the target.
Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and ability to be an “upstander” – someone who takes action when they witness bullying. Like many others that are victims or witnesses and feel like they don’t have other options, I ended up seeking alternative employment and leaving that toxic workplace.
How to Deal with Bullying
Currently, there are no federal OR state laws which make general bullying in the workplace illegal. However, some states have at least proposed legislation.
Puerto Rico passed an anti-workplace bullying law on August 7, 2020. This law provides that employers will be held liable for the actions of their supervisors or other employees for conduct that is considered workplace harassment, if they knew of the harassment taking place and did nothing about it. With the passage of this law by a US territory, it will be interesting to see if other states pass similar laws in the coming years.
While general workplace bullying may not be illegal, an employee can bring a claim against an employer for a hostile work environment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and related anti-employment discrimination laws. In order to be successful in a Title VII and anti-discrimination claim, the employee must be able to prove that the abusive conduct is related to one of the protected classes, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and physical or mental disability.
The bullying must be targeted at a specific individual or a certain protected class of people. A generally toxic work environment may not be enough to bring a claim, as noted in this Forbes article: “…if a manager has everyone walking on eggshells because they yell constantly and set unattainable goals/deadlines—but this abuse is directed to all employees—then this is not illegal under Title VII. If, however, the supervisor treated only female employees this way, then these women could pursue a hostile work environment claim if the inequity is based on their sex.”
Advice for Employers
The first step is to review your Employee Handbook and ensure that it contains an anti-bullying policy. Even though it is not against the law, employers need to make clear that such behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in the workplace. Implement clear and straightforward procedures so that employees know how and where to report incidents. These procedures should include multiple confidential reporting channels, including Human Resources.
Take all reports of bullying seriously and follow up on them promptly. Whenever possible, conduct a thorough, timely, and unbiased investigation. Do not discount the target’s feelings. Remember that based on what we said above, an employer can be held liable if they knew of an issue and did nothing about it. As we say in all HR related situations, remember to document, document, document!
What you should not do is to attempt to sit the bully and the target down together to “work it out”. This is often counterproductive and may make the situation worse.
Strive to create an organizational culture that prioritizes inclusion and does not tolerate bullying. Increase knowledge and provide anti-bullying training regularly.
If you need help, contact us for HR assistance. We can review your handbook to ensure appropriate anti-bullying policies are included. We can also provide an impartial third-party investigation on complaints, conduct anti-bullying training seminars, or address any other concerns you may have.
And don’t forget what Theodore Roosevelt once said:
“Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.”