Employers invest substantially in employee benefits to attract, retain and motivate a top-quality workforce. But the presence of even one bully in the workplace can undermine that investment - not to mention invite litigation and cause serious emotional harm to victimized employees.
As employers begin to understand the nature and prevalence of bullying, however, they can take practical steps to prevent it or mitigate its pernicious effects. But first they must learn the nature of bullying - and how it differs from more common, less toxic behavior.
"Most people don't even understand what bullying is," says Debra M. Messer, CEAP, a veteran employee assistance program professional and "workplace civility" consultant for LifeSolutions at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "They know they feel awful around certain people, but they don't know when it's bullying."
Bullying, according to workplace consultant Gary Namie, Ph.D., involves "repeated health-harming mistreatment." The line between mere rudeness and bullying is crossed "when a person's health is harmed," says the author (along with his wife, Ruth Namie, Ph.D.) of "The Bully-Free Workplace."
"Bullying has to be chronic, a pattern and practice, not a single explosion," he adds. Also, unlike rudeness, which he says, "is rarely personalized," bullying is targeted to specific individuals.
Polling data collected for the Workplace Bullying Institute suggests that 26% of American workers have been bullied at some point, and 9% are currently being bullied.
While precise data is elusive, bullying may be on the rise, suggests Messer. One reason, she suspects, is in the current strained
economic environment many organizations "are trying to do more with less." That leads to frustration, insecurity, the perceptions that "the company doesn't care about me" - and ultimately, in many cases, bad behavior, including bullying.
When bullying is rampant, employers can expect increased absenteeism, workers' compensation and disability claims, and turnover, Namie warns.
In addition, turnover - or thoughts of quitting - isn't limited to direct victims of bulling. A recent University of British Columbia study concluded that those who witness the behavior inflicted on others may also make plans to bail out.
Among the most common tactics of true bullying, according to survey data collected by Namie and detailed in "The Bully-Free Workplace":
* Falsely accusing someone of "errors" not actually made.
* Staring, glaring, nonverbal intimidation with signs of hostility.
* Discounting a person's thoughts or feelings.
* Using the "silent treatment" to ostracize others,
* Exhibiting "presumably" uncontrollable mood swings in front of a group.
* Supervisors creating arbitrary rules that apply only to the target of the bullying.
Although bullying can occur in any work environment, certain sectors experience more problems than others. Bullying is most common in the education and health care sectors, according to Namie, because workers in those fields often are more "pro-social in their orientation" and thus more "easily targeted because they are less apt to recognize it's happening to them, or less well able to respond to combat it in the beginning," he believes.
Common scenarios that cause some people to act as bullies involve the assumption of new supervisory responsibilities, according to Ken Zuckerberg, director of client training and consulting for ComPsych, the employee assistance program provider.
"Sometimes bullying behavior is there to cover up some weakness the bully has," he says. "It could be someone who was promoted to a management role because of good technical skills, but the person never learned management skills."
Another common bullying situation Zuckerberg has observed involves a new employee brought in as a supervisor, who lacks the technical skills of the people he or she has been hired to manage.
Getting to the root of a problem - and determining whether bullying is involved - typically requires detective work on the part of human resource insiders as well as outside consultants.
Often, Zuckerberg says, employers come to him with concerns about "morale issues" or "conflict in the workplace." Bullying, he says, may be below their radar screen because they have received no specific complaints about it.
Responding to such concerns, "we have to do some digging to find out what the issues are," Zuckerberg says. And yet sometimes when probing by an outside expert determines, for example, not only that bullying is endemic but a natural byproduct of organizational culture, senior management may look for a "quick fix," according to Messer.
"When you come in and say, 'let's talk about you'" to an employer's senior leadership, "it is not always well-received," says Messer.
Whether widespread bullying within an organization can be addressed systemically may ultimately depend on whether senior management is willing to look at itself objectively, explore the costs of the problem and put its weight behind a campaign to improve the corporate culture.
Some HR and benefits leaders may be better positioned than others to be a catalyst to make that happen. But in looking at external resources like employee assistance vendors, HR and benefits executives may want to determine the vendor's track record in bringing the C-suite on board with any such strategic initiatives, Messer suggests.
In cases where bullying is confined to a few isolated cases, the solutions are easier to bring about. Messer stresses that the focus needs to be on the bullying behavior, not the individual.
"You have to have zero tolerance" for bullying - without writing off the bully, she says. "Sometimes they don't even know they are doing it."
Namie outlines a comprehensive approach to addressing workplace bullies. One of the crucial steps is for supervisors is to "intervene wherever possible. ... Bullies are shocked that someone dares confront them, and really admire and respect those aggressive enough to do so," he writes.
An intervention should only occur, however, when sufficient investigation has occurred to provide reassurance that bullying charges are justified. Among other bits of advice, Namie urges supervisors not to view this as an opportunity for mediation because, in bullying situations, it's futile to seek common ground.
When confronting bullying behavior, supervisors, depending on the severity of the case, should:
* State their expectations of how co-workers should interact.
* Seek a clarification from the bully about his or her intentions, and an apology.
* Place the bully on unpaid leave.
* Secure counseling help for the bully's target.
Employees who've been bullied don't want to feel like helpless victims, says Zuckerberg. They must recognize they "have choices, including the choice to seek counseling," as through an EAP.
Richard Stolz, a former EBN editor and publisher, is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Md.
Forms of bullying
Workplace bullying comes in these basic forms:
* Verbal abuse.
* Conduct which is threatening, humiliating or intimidating.
* Work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done.
* Exploitation of a known psychological or physical vulnerability.
Bullying and the law
"Aside from some highly regulated workplaces like schools, where attempts have been made to define bullying but the boundaries remain untested, employers are still in the 'I know it when I see it' phase of anti-bullying," according to John L. Thurman, an employment attorney with Farrell & Thurman in Princeton, N.J.
Some employers have amended their harassment policies to encourage employees who feel they have been bullied to "come forward," Thurman says, but it is not always clear what steps an employer should take when an employee responds to that invitation.
But when an employee does claim to be the victim of bullying, employers should take it seriously, warns David Gabor, Counsel to The Wagner Law Group in Boston. "Although there is no federal law that directly covers bullying in the workplace, there are other ways for an employee to assert a claim," he says. "An employee can assert that the bullying was motivated by an employee's membership in a protected class" and subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.
"Harassment and bullying are often interrelated," Gabor states. His advice to employers includes the following:
* Approach a complaint about bullying by focusing on what happened and not why it happened.
* Train executives, managers, supervisors and employees on what bullying is, and that it is not tolerated.
* Make managers aware of and sensitive to the signs of bullying.
* Put mechanisms in place, such as an employee hotline, to field complaints of bullying.
* Include civility as a component of annual performance reviews.
* Address bullying in the employee manual, stating that the employer has a "zero tolerance" policy on bullying in the workplace.
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