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Workplace Bullying: Is it That Serious?

Some employers may consider workplace bullying to be less serious than illegal harassment or other issues that involve discrimination or retaliation in the workplace. These employers should think again. Workplace bullying can have the same detrimental effects on a company, its people, the work culture, and even customers and partners as incidents of illegal harassment, discrimination and retaliatory treatment. Productivity – among individuals and work teams – typically suffers the greatest negative impact. That’s why it’s important for all companies to maintain strong policies to respond to and prevent any form of bullying in the workplace and incorporate them into their employee handbooks and training programs.

Illegal Harassment Vs. Workplace Bullying

Illegal harassment is considered any form of treatment, communications, or misconduct in the workplace that targets an employee based on a “protected” characteristic, such as gender, race, national origin, religion, age, or disability.  Workplace bullying may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but like illegal harassment, bullying can happen verbally, through physical contact or by intimidation.  Unlike illegal harassment, however, workplace bullying does not always target a member of a protected group.  For example, any individual’s hair style, voice or laugh can be mocked by another co-worker. Again, these types of comments, though not illegal, are inappropriate and employers should clearly communicate that there is zero tolerance for behavior that makes employees feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work.  

Workplace Bullying Can Lead to EEO Issues  

Best practice is for companies to have written policies and practices in the employee handbook regarding its stance against misconduct, including bullying. The handbook’s Code of Ethics is a good place to start.  This is a significant policy because it will encompass: (1) the company’s expectation for employees to refrain from any inappropriate behavior; and (2) the company’s policy that will be implemented to correct such behavior, which typically includes anything up to and including termination of employment.  If an employer does not prevent or properly address workplace bullying, these incidents can lead to comments or treatment targeting a protected class and thereby very quickly develop into EEO issues.  A company’s reputation has never been more accessible to the public; employees are talking about their work environment on social media platforms and customers are sometimes invited to comment as well.  Ensuring the company’s brand and reputation is in good standing is another reason for an employer to respond properly to any ill-treatment experienced by its employees. An employer, through its policies and practices should also shield its employees from experiencing any form of workplace bullying and harassment from outside relationships, such as clients or vendors.  

Impact of Unchecked Workplace Bullying

Importantly, unchecked behavior in the workplace can lead to diminishment in the quality of productivity and a negative impact of the employee being bullied.  A 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey found that more than 60 million workers were impacted by workplace bullying.  Other studies have revealed that some employers respond to workplace bullying in a manner that harms the target.  The mental and physical effects of workplace bullying can directly impact a worker’s ability to perform on a daily basis, which can lead to higher rates of turnover and personal leave requests. Bullying can also take a toll on employees who were not the direct target of the treatment.

There are definite steps that an employer can take to prevent workplace bullying and its impact.  These include setting clear expectations of conduct through workplace policies, and required training that equips managers and supervisors with practical tools and methods to identify and address inappropriate behavior.

Whether it’s bullying in the schoolyard or the office, research proves that a quick and consistent response to bullying behavior sends a clear message that it is not acceptable, and over time, can be an effective preventative measure.