Most times when we think of the idea of bullying we associate it with the schoolyard. However, workplace bullying is a real issue facing benefit departments. Bullying can affect the mental health and productivity of employees, and the bottom line of companies that don’t deal with it.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham Washington, 27% of Americans have directly experienced “repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or work abuse.” Seventy-two percent are aware of workplace bullying and 93% want a law to protect them from abuse in addition to anti-discrimination laws.

“HR is very adept at saying ‘discrimination is addressed by policies and laws and that’s really all workers need.’ And they know there are many complaints that do not fit nicely into an anti-discrimination package,” says Gary Namie, director of the WBI. He adds that denial and minimizing of bullying or discounting it have been the two biggest HR-related issues when it comes to this problem.

Also see: Bullying can cripple a workplace, as witnessed in the NFL

According to Paul Rubenstein, leader, product strategy and innovation for talent with Aon Hewitt, the workplace has evolved significantly. Bullying must be considered in context, he stresses. “What was acceptable in the way people thought about the workplace and hierarchy in the past is not acceptable today because we have different expectations about what the workplace should look like.” Rubenstein explains that workplaces are more diverse than they used to be and are multigenerational. What some see as bullying others see as tough-love or a “right of passage.” So context is critical.

Also, the modern workplace is concerned not only with goals being met, but how those goals are met. “By driving your team through fear and intimidation to make their numbers, most managers are mature enough to realize that is not a lasting strategy, that is not the brand we want to convey,” Rubenstein says.

The litmus test for workplace bullying is relatively simple, Rubenstein believes. Companies need to ask themselves: “Is that the tone appropriate for talking with someone outside your company?”

Also see: Taking aim at workplace bullies

There are nuances, however. Whereas work-based harassment is based on protected status, bullying is not, notes Cathleen Snyder, director of client relations with Cincinnati-based Strategic HR – an outsourcing HR management firm.

“Workplace bullying is a similar behavior [to harassment] but it does not fall under those protected statuses,” she explains. And even though there are no legal grounds for complaint, Snyder says it is still a significant problem that can create a negative environment and a drop in productivity. “While you don’t have the legal grounds to stand on in pursuing it, it is absolutely a performance issue.” In fact, Snyder advises clients to recognize it as a performance issue when considering it in the first place.

Snyder also advises employers’ address it as if it were a harassment claim by seeking out witnesses and performing a proper investigation. Making HR’s presence known within the office is also important just by walking through the office and letting people know you are paying attention. And, she adds, making it clear to employees that they can come to HR for support.

Rubenstein agrees and says, “This is a subset of managing performance,” of which companies have gotten much better at.

Also see: Reports of workplace bullying up

The good news, according to Namie, is that the guidelines HR have created to react to illegal discrimination – crafting policies, incorporating complaint procedures etc. – can be used in cases of bullying. “The guidelines of how to respond are right there in their hands and they already follow them for discrimination,” he notes. Absent of a law, he adds, the motivation for employers to engage in these policies could help bring turnover costs down, improve the mental health of employees and potentially bring down legal costs in the long-term.

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