October marks National Bullying Prevention Month, so it is a good time for employers to take notice of how serious an issue workplace bullying can be.
According to a 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, almost a third of all workers have suffered serious bullying and abusive conduct at work and 72 percent are aware that workplace bullying occurs. Employers need to understand that everyone is a potential target and no one is immune as bullying affects individuals of all races, ages, and sexes and occurs in all industries.
What’s more, bullying carries severe risks for employers and can have a negative effect not only on the workplace, but also on an employer’s business and professional reputation. It can lead to decreased productivity and workplace morale, increased absenteeism, increased healthcare and workers’ compensation costs and potential lawsuits for negligent hiring, internal infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery. Here are five key tips to prevent and address workplace bullying:
1. Understand that Bullying Takes Many Forms
It is critical for an employer to understand that bullying is hard to define and can take many forms. It covers a wide range of threatening and/or offensive physical, verbal and written behavior. Simply put, bullying is any activity intended to diminish or disempower another individual and any use of aggressive, hostile, abusive or unreasonable conduct against a co-worker or subordinate that is intended to interfere with their work.
Bullying may include:
• Creating unrealistic demands;
• Taking credit for another’s work;
• Excluding an individuals from meetings or lunch; or
• Spreading rumors about another, or blatantly ignoring or putting down a co-worker.
Bullying differs from ordinary workplace incivility and rudeness because it is intentional, frequent, repetitive and severe, often resulting in a pattern of abusive and offensive behavior.
2. Implement and Enforce an Antibullying Policy
An antibullying policy is essential to preventing workplace bullying by putting employees on notice that abusive and offensive behavior will not be tolerated. The policy should clearly define acceptable and unacceptable behavior and provide clear examples.
It should also provide for a multichannel complaint procedure and allow employees to report incidents without fearing retaliation. Employees should feel confident that all complaints with be addressed and investigated by the employer. This policy should be firmly communicated to employees in the employee handbook and on the employer’s intranet.
3. Provide Antibullying Training
An employer must provide comprehensive training to all employees and supervisors on the employer’s antibullying policy and educate employees on the dangers of bullying and how it is detrimental to the workplace.
The training should review the policy and coach employees on sensitivity, tolerance and a mutual respect for others. Training should be interactive and present hypotheticals to encourage employees to think about their interactions with co-workers.
Supervisors and employees alike should be trained to identify bullying conduct and bring it to the employer’s attention since victims may fear bringing a complaint. Employees should be warned that joking, teasing, horseplay and usual workplace banter can quickly escalate and lead to workplace bullying.
Management should lead by example and foster an atmosphere of diversity, inclusion and respect. The employer also should promote a safe and healthy workplace with a focus on building trust, camaraderie and positive relationships.
4. Take Complaints Seriously and Thoroughly Investigate
An employer should be vigilant about responding to bullying allegations and promptly address and investigate complaints. This includes gathering any relevant documents, including emails, and interviewing all possible witnesses including the complainant, the alleged bully and any third parties who may have witnessed the behavior.
A thorough investigation process and detailed records may protect the employer’s interests in the event of a later lawsuit by the victim and show that the employer made every effort to respond to the allegations and remedy any abuse.
5. Enforce the Policy
The employer should not hesitate to enforce its antibullying policy to the fullest extent and demonstrate to all employees and supervisors that bullies will be disciplined and terminated if necessary. The employer should convey that all employees will be treated equally under the policy and high-level managers and supervisors will not receive special treatment.
An employer also should make any necessary changes to the work environment to decrease instances of bullying such as separating the bully from his or her victim and changing the reporting structure. By taking these steps, an employer will make clear that abusive workplace conduct will not be tolerated.