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What Is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying is any repeated behavior or actions that are health harming of one or more individuals by one or more individuals. These behaviors are described as verbal abuse, sabotaging work and humiliating behavior.
Types of Workplace Bullying
Bullying in the workplace can take different and new forms than it would outside of the workplace.
Verbal abuse is categorized as comments, slander or name calling that is hurtful and humiliating or insulting remarks. Examples include unwarranted criticism, blame without justification and shouting.
Physical bullying could look like defacing an employee’s workspace or belongings. Other examples include pushing, shoving, tripping or threat of physical acts of violence.
Gesture bullying is nonverbal cues that portray threatening messages or acts. Examples include hand gestures that are offensive or portray acts of violence.
Exclusion is disregarding or physically separating an employee in the office or from other work related activities.
This type of bullying occurs when bullying is deeply rooted in an organization and becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture. This often starts with the CEO/President of the company and the executive team. Institutional bullying can begin with something as simple as a snide comment about someone they think is funny. Even these simple comments matter because the leaders determine what behavior is tolerated and repeated in an organization. These standards are set formally through policy but informally through their example, which has an even more powerful impact. Whether it is what the executives talk about, how they resolve conflict or how they walk into the office, the leaders’ example will determine the culture in the workplace.
How Does Bullying Affect the Workplace?
The impact and cost of workplace bullying is tangible and can have serious consequences for your organization. Employees are a critical part of the workplace, so we will discuss the impacts on the bullied employee and the organization as a whole.
Physical Health of the Employee
A study has revealed that workplace bullying can negatively impact the physical health of the bullied employee. The most common health effect is trouble sleeping, with the brain sorting out multiple thoughts at once and unable to rest. Other physical symptoms include:
- Digestive problems
- High blood pressure
Imagine an employee experiencing one, two or several of these symptoms. This employee will be less productive at work and may be absent from work with increasing frequency. One employee may have a small impact on productivity and business success but for larger companies, workplace bullying becomes a virus hiding in plain sight, making its way from one team to another. Other costs include increased medical premiums for the company.
Mental Health of the Employee
The bullied employee will experience the following behaviors, depending on the severity and length of time being bullied.
- Withdrawal at work. When the employee becomes quiet and no longer shares ideas, this may be a sign or workplace bullying.
- Reduced self-esteem. When the employee speaks and they stutter or appear to have little to no confidence, this may be a sign of workplace bullying.
- Self blame or guilt. The employee will blame themselves for being bullied, if they were “better” in some way then this wouldn’t be happening.
- Tense when talking with other employees. The employee will stiffen and keep their answers short as a defense mechanism because they may be fearful other employees may bully them as well.
- Panic attacks. These are often caused when the employee sees the bully and recalls a past experience being bullied. The employee will not only experience fear but physical symptoms including hyperventilating.
Imagine an employee experiencing one or more of these symptoms.
An employee may quit their job or need to take time away from work to recover from being bullied. Therefore, the team will be operating at a reduced capacity covering the duties of the bullied employee as well as their own. This can result in higher operating costs for the organization.
Recruiting costs increase when an employee leaves an organization to escape from the bully and bullying behavior. The bully has increased the recruiting costs incurred by the organization. Throughout the recruiting process, the operating costs are still increasing for the team operating at a reduced capacity.
Training costs increase when a new employee is hired to replace the employee. The bully has increased the training costs incurred by the organization. Throughout the training process, the operating costs are still increasing for the team operating at a reduced capacity.
Costs in Extreme Bullying Cases
In extreme cases that require a formal investigation and legal cases, the company will incur financial costs and the cost of a negative impact on the company reputation.
Remember, this all started when an employee decided to bully another employee.
How To Combat Workplace Bullying
The impact of workplace bullying is real and has tangible costs that the company incurs, both financial costs and costs to the reputation of the company. Now the question becomes how to combat workplace bullying? Thankfully, it is easier than you may think.
It starts with you! If you feel like you are being mistreated or disrespected, then it is up to you to take that first step and approach the bully and ask them to stop the behavior. If it doesn’t stop, then start documenting the behavior without alerting the bully.
If you see an employee being bullied in the workplace, then say something. Whether it is asking the bully to stop it or whether you document the bullying behavior and then report it to the team’s manager or HR, take action.
To Managers and HR
The easiest way to combat bullying is leading by example. Treat everyone with respect and empathy. Your actions create a point of reference for employees to learn what behavior is accepted in the workplace and what behavior is not accepted.
Second, keep your ear to the ground. Always be listening to your team, other employees around you and how they interact with each other. This way you will be ready to address bullying behavior and advocate for a safe and respectful work environment.
Finally, process every complaint fairly that is reported to you. It is up to the leaders of the organization to ensure everyone feels safe at work.
Company Wide Practices
Review your company policies and procedures regarding workplace bullying and ensure they are up to date and comprehensive. If your employer does not have anything in place, the Society of Human Resource Management has a great policy and complaint procedure (provided below) that you can tailor to your organization.
First, the company executives or senior leadership should announce this policy and procedure to all employees. Open communication channels, whether anonymous or not, should be created and used for violations of workplace bullying policy. When a senior leader announces this to employees, it provides zero room for an employee to believe they can get away with bullying behavior.
[Company Name] has established the following procedure for lodging a complaint of harassment, discrimination or retaliation. The company will treat all aspects of the procedure confidentially to the extent reasonably possible.
- Complaints should be submitted as soon as possible after an incident has occurred, preferably in writing. The HR director may assist the complainant in completing a written statement or, in the event an employee refuses to provide information in writing, the HR director will dictate the verbal complaint.
- Upon receiving a complaint or being advised by a supervisor or manager that violation of this policy may be occurring, the HR director will notify senior management and review the complaint with the company’s legal counsel.
- The HR director will initiate an investigation to determine whether there is a reasonable basis for believing that the alleged violation of this policy occurred.
- If necessary, the complainant and the respondent will be separated during the course of the investigation, either through internal transfer or administrative leave.
- During the investigation, the HR director, together with legal counsel or other management employees, will interview the complainant, the respondent and any witnesses to determine whether the alleged conduct occurred.
- Upon conclusion of an investigation, the HR director or other person conducting the investigation will submit a written report of his or her findings to the company. If it is determined that a violation of this policy has occurred, the HR director will recommend appropriate disciplinary action. The appropriate action will depend on the following factors:
- the severity, frequency, and pervasiveness of the conduct;
- prior complaints made by the complainant;
- prior complaints made against the respondent; and
- the quality of the evidence (e.g., firsthand knowledge, credible corroboration).
If the investigation is inconclusive or if it is determined that there has been no violation of policy but potentially problematic conduct may have occurred, the HR director may recommend appropriate preventive action.
- Senior management will review the investigative report and any statements submitted by the complainant or respondent, discuss results of the investigation with the HR director and other management staff as appropriate, and decide what action, if any, will be taken.
- Once a final decision is made by senior management, the HR director will meet with the complainant and the respondent separately and notify them of the findings of the investigation. If disciplinary action is to be taken, the respondent will be informed of the nature of the discipline and how it will be executed.
Alternative legal remedies
Nothing in this policy may prevent the complainant or the respondent from pursuing formal legal remedies or resolution through local, state or federal agencies or the courts.
This policy also acts as a guide to all employees to learn what behavior counts as bullying.
The purpose of this policy is to communicate to all employees, including supervisors, managers and executives, that [Company Name] will not in any instance tolerate bullying behavior. Employees found in violation of this policy will be disciplined, up to and including termination.
[Company Name] defines bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more people by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that includes:
- Threatening, humiliating or intimidating behaviors.
- Work interference/sabotage that prevents work from getting done.
- Verbal abuse.
Such behavior violates [Company Name]’s Code of Ethics, which clearly states that all employees will be treated with dignity and respect.
[Company Name] considers the following types of behavior examples of bullying:
- Verbal bullying. Slandering, ridiculing or maligning a person or his or her family; persistent name-calling that is hurtful, insulting or humiliating; using a person as the butt of jokes; abusive and offensive remarks.
- Physical bullying. Pushing, shoving, kicking, poking, tripping, assault or threat of physical assault, damage to a person’s work area or property.
- Gesture bullying. Nonverbal gestures that can convey threatening messages.
- Exclusion. Socially or physically excluding or disregarding a person in work-related activities.
In addition, the following examples may constitute or contribute to evidence of bullying in the workplace:
- Persistent singling out of one person.
- Shouting or raising one’s voice at an individual in public or in private.
- Using obscene or intimidating gestures.
- Not allowing the person to speak or express himself of herself (i.e., ignoring or interrupting).
- Personal insults and use of offensive nicknames.
- Public humiliation in any form.
- Constant criticism on matters unrelated or minimally related to the person’s job performance or description.
- Public reprimands.
- Repeatedly accusing someone of errors that cannot be documented.
- Deliberately interfering with mail and other communications.
- Spreading rumors and gossip regarding individuals.
- Encouraging others to disregard a supervisor’s instructions.
- Manipulating the ability of someone to do his or her work (e.g., overloading, underloading, withholding information, setting deadlines that cannot be met, giving deliberately ambiguous instructions).
- Assigning menial tasks not in keeping with the normal responsibilities of the job.
- Taking credit for another person’s ideas.
- Refusing reasonable requests for leave in the absence of work-related reasons not to grant leave.
- Deliberately excluding an individual or isolating him or her from work-related activities, such as meetings.
- Unwanted physical contact, physical abuse or threats of abuse to an individual or an individual’s property (defacing or marking up property).
Individuals who feel they have experienced bullying should report this to their supervisor or to Human Resources before the conduct becomes severe or pervasive. All employees are strongly encouraged to report any bullying conduct they experience or witness as soon as possible to allow [Company Name] to take appropriate action.
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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Workplace Bullying
Ryan is an HR Director with four years of experience and three masters degrees. One accomplishment he is proud of is the design and launch of a learning and development program for 800+ employees.
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