A recent worldwide study shows that workplace bullying can have a detrimental effect on not only the victim, but the entire workplace by creating a toxic work environment that negatively impacts the company’s bottom line.
What’s more, supervisors and managers who display psychopathic, narcissistic and aggressive traits can have an extremely damaging effect on the mental health of employees who then are more likely to experience lower job satisfaction, decreased productivity and higher rates of depression. In addition to harming morale, workplace bullying can also lead to increased absenteeism, increased healthcare and workers’ compensation costs and potential lawsuits.
Given the grave dangers at stake, what steps can an employer and HR take to address workplace bullying?
1. Understand the Difference Between Bullying and Being a Jerk
From the outset, HR needs to understand that bullying is any conduct intended to diminish or disempower another individual and any use of aggressive, hostile, abusive or unreasonable conduct against a co-worker or subordinate, or even a superior, that is intended to interfere with their work.
Bullying can take many forms and covers a wide variety of threatening and/or offensive physical, verbal, written or online behavior. It differs from a personality conflict or general workplace incivility as it involves a pattern of intentional, frequent, repetitive and severe conduct, often escalating over time. It includes:
• Creating unrealistic demands;
• Taking credit for another’s work;
• Excluding an individual from meetings or lunch;
• Blatantly putting someone down, embarrassing them or undermining their confidence; or
• Damaging an individual’s reputation and personal or professional relationships.
It is critical to be on notice for all of this behavior as it constitutes bullying, and may have a detrimental effect on employees and the workplace.
2. Focus on Training
In today’s workplace it is not enough to have an antibullying policy, you must provide training on the policy to supervisors as well as employees so they know how to identify bullying and notify management when it occurs. Individuals should be warned that joking, teasing and horseplay can quickly escalate and lead to workplace bullying.
It is essential to train supervisors to lead by example and foster an atmosphere of tolerance, mutual respect and sensitivity while also promoting camaraderie and positive relationships. Supervisors should be trained to identify warning signs of victims of workplace bullying such as unusual behavior (e.g., withdrawing from the team, sudden poor performance or increased absences).
Supervisors should also know there is a fine line between pushing an employee hard so the team can achieve its goals and bullying behavior. Supervisors should be warned about the following:
• Losing one’s temper or using profanity when frustrated with employees;
• Embarrassing employees in front of co-workers;
• Failing to include employees in important meetings;
• Denying an employee credit for an idea or otherwise preventing them from sharing ideas; and
• Failing to apply workplace policies uniformly.
It is important to train employees to be upstanders. According to the EEOC, an upstander is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and intervenes in a positive way to make it right. When an upstander witnesses bullying behavior, they speak up and act in a socially responsible manner to protect others. Further, employees should be warned against the pitfalls of gossip and cliques as well as negative stereotypes when it comes to the workplace interactions.
3. Act Upon Complaints
Upon learning of a bullying allegation, it is incumbent upon HR and employers to take action. Acting on complaints is crucial because it demonstrates that the employer has a zero tolerance policy towards abusive and threatening behavior.
In conducting an investigation, it is important to interview all relevant parties and gather all relevant documents. HR and the employer may also need to implement interim measures such as separating the victim and the alleged bully or make adjustments to scheduling or assignments.
Further, the employer and HR should not hesitate to enforce the antibullying policy and impose discipline if warranted. Finally, whatever the employer ultimately decides, it should apply the policy equally across the board even with regard to high-level managers and supervisors.