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Bullying In The Workplace: A Prevention Guide

Bullying In The Workplace: A Prevention Guide

by Tami Tanoue, CIRSA General Cousel/Claims Manger

Most of us recall the schoolyard bully as a bad but distant memory. However, in some workplaces, a grownup bully continues to cause the same fear, stress, and disruption that we remember from childhood.  This article introduces you to the problem, explores some of its consequences, and provides some suggestions for dealing with it.

What is Workplace Bullying?

  • Susan heads up a department where the deadline pressures are intense. Whenever something goes wrong, she lets loose with shouting and name-calling. Bob is a frequent target of Susan’s ire. “I find it humiliating,” says Bob. “But Human Resources told me that unless she threatens violence, the City’s hands are tied.”
  • There’s something about Rick that bothers Mary. “Rick’s in the cubicle next to mine. Several times a week, he comes into my cubicle, grabs my chair while I’m sitting in it, and rolls me from one end of the office to the other. He knows it freaks me out, but he won’t stop. Other times, he rolls up in his chair behind me, and just bumps my chair repeatedly with his. I guess he thinks he’s being funny, but I cringe every time I hear someone pass near my cubicle.
  • City Council meetings in Elmville are pretty contentious; the Council is united only in its distrust of and disdain for the City’s department heads. At every council meeting, at least one department head is singled out for public berating. This Tuesday, it was Marvin, the public works director. At the next day’s staff meeting, Marvin lashes out at his department heads. “I hate myself for taking it out on them,” says Marvin, “but you-know-what rolls downhill.

Workplace bullying is the repeated, health-endangering mistreatment of a person at work by a co-worker, supervisor/manager, or customer. The mistreatment may involve repeated acts of:

  • Shouting, yelling, screaming, or swearing,
  • Insults, put-downs, name-calling, or belittling,
  • Public humiliation, criticism, or “dressing down,”
  • Cruel or offensive pranks, jokes; or
  • Physical behavior, such as pushing, blocking, tripping.

More subtle but sustained behaviors or acts of omission may also constitute bullying if sufficiently serious:

  • “Bad mouthing” behind someone’s back,
  • “Undermining” or “sabotaging” behaviors,
  • Spreading malicious and unfounded rumors,
  • “Silent treatment,” “freezing out” or excluding, or withholding of information, or
  • Arbitrary, inconsistent, or constantly changing treatment, discipline, or directives.

Bullies and bullying may be difficult to identify and pin down, even for a person who’s the target of the bullying. Sometimes, the behavior is subtle, but its cumulative effect is to wear down, undermine, and stress out the target.

Bullying behavior may not be aimed at gender, race, age, or other traditional protected categories. It may also not constitute or escalate into violence or threatened violence. A bully is often skilled at skirting around the edges of established policies. For these reasons, your current personnel policies, such as those prohibiting harassment or workplace violence, may not address bullying problems effectively.

What’s the Scope of the Problem?

A July 2004 survey by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicated that:

  • Bullying was a problem in 24.5 percent of companies surveyed.
  • In the most recent reported incidents, 39.2 percent involved an employee as the aggressor, 24.5 percent involved a customer, and 14.7 percent involved a supervisor.
  • In the most recent reported incidents, 55.2 percent involved an employee as the bullying target, 10.5 percent the customer, and 7.7 percent the supervisor.

Bullying can infect the workplace with fear, anger, stress, loss of confidence, and depression. The result is poor morale and lowered productivity. Certainly no one who’s been targeted for bullying can experience job satisfaction or high motivation. The stress of being a bullying target can lead to illness and absenteeism. High rates of staff turnover can occur. At the extreme, constant bullying could lead to a tragic incident of violence.

Who is the Bully?

A workplace bully may be male or female. Like the school-yard counterpart, a bully is often an insecure person at heart. That insecurity is turned outwards, in the form of attacking, belittling, or intimidating, or abusive behavior.

The bully may be someone who’s charming, obsequious, or subservient in one relationship, but domineering, intimidating, or cruel in another. Depending on how the bully interacts with you, it may be difficult for you to take someone’s complaint of bullying seriously. But don’t dismiss a complaint out of hand just because your own experience is that the accused person is always charming. Look more deeply into the matter before drawing conclusions.

Who is the Target?

The target can be anyone singled out by the bully. Contrary to stereotypes, the target is not necessarily someone who’s vulnerable, a poor performer, or disliked by others. The target may well be capable, respected, and liked. Someone with a cooperative, conciliatory, and non-confrontational personality may be a likely choice to be a bully’s target.

How do you Stop Workplace Bullying?

If you’re a target of bullying:

  • If you’re comfortable doing so, inform the bully that the behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop. If the behavior doesn’t stop, or if you’re uncomfortable confronting the bully, go to a supervisor or to your human resources department.
  • If you know that others are being bullied by the same person, let the supervisor know who they are. That way, the supervisor can have a more complete perspective on the behavior, particularly if it’s subtle. If the supervisor knows that several people are having the same problem, the supervisor will be less likely to dismiss your problem as an interpersonal conflict.

If you’re a supervisor or manager:

  • Maintain an open door policy, and engage regularly in “management by walking around” – keep your eyes and ears open.
  • If you receive a complaint, take it seriously. Investigate and follow up appropriately.
  • If you observe any instances of bullying or suspected bullying, follow up promptly. If the person is someone under your supervision, make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable, and impose appropriate consequences.

If you hear excuses or “explanations” like these, they may warrant further scrutiny of a situation:

  • “It’s just good-natured horseplay and roughhousing.”
  • “This is just my management style.”
  • “I’m just a person who needs to vent sometimes.”
  • “Someone can’t take a joke.”
  • Make sure an exit interview is done with departing employees, especially when someone quits unexpectedly and seemingly inexplicably. Follow up on any bullying concerns that may be raised at the interview.

Are Your Policies Adequate?

As discussed above, the bullying problem is somewhat related to, yet distinct from, the issues covered by a typical harassment policy or workplace violence policy. For this reason, you may find that your existing policies don’t really address bullying adequately. You may find it useful to discuss with your entity’s counsel the idea of augmenting your policies with anti-bullying provisions. As with other policies of this nature, an anti-bullying policy should contain a clear definition of the unacceptable behavior, describe the consequences of violating the policy, include a complaint/investigation/followup mechanism, and provide anti-retaliation protections. The policy should be disseminated to all employees, and regular training should be conducted on the policy.

CIRSA Property/Casualty members may obtain an updated sample workplace violence policy that addresses bullying by contacting CIRSA.

Most importantly, don’t forget the old saying, “you reap what you sow.” If the leaders of an organization use fear, ridicule, intimidation, insults, or screaming in dealing with those whom they manage or supervise, they shouldn’t be surprised if negativity, disrespect, and mistreatment are permeating the entire workplace. Set the right example by treating everyone, regardless of rank or place in the organization, with the same courtesy and respect with which you would like to be treated.

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