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The Modern Workplace

Does Your Company Have a Workyard Bully?

We all knew schoolyard bullies, and, if we were lucky, they left us alone.  The less fortunate, however, sometimes suffered devastating and long-term effects from bullying.  Society has increased its focus on school bullying over the years.  New challenges have also arisen, however, as bullying has moved into cyberspace with widespread impact.  We continue to strive, however, to provide children with safe, healthy environments in which they can flourish and meet their full potential.

But what about our workplaces?  Does your company's environment allow employees to thrive and flourish, which should result in greater organizational success?  Sadly, research indicates that many workers are the targets of workyard bullies.  In a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute  and a 2007 survey by the Employment Law Alliance, between 33% and about 44% of responders reported having been bullied at work.  As with school bullying, workplace bullying comes with high costs.  Victims can suffer physical or emotional harm that interferes with their professional and personal lives.  Employers, in turn, may suffer significant costs, including decreased attendance, increased medical and insurance costs, legal costs, and the lost productivity and opportunity costs that result from a demoralized and distracted workforce. All of this affects an employers bottom line and competitive edge.
Despite the costs, less attention has historically been paid to workplace bullies than schoolyard bullies.  This is changing, however, and a movement to legislate against workplace bullying is gaining momentum.  At least 20 states have considered workplace bullying legislation, and New York came close to passing a law last year.  Advocates of such legislation argue that it is needed to address legal gaps.  While the most severe bullying and protected class-based bullying may be unlawful under current federal or state laws, it is generally not against the law to be an equal opportunity bully.  Opponents of anti-bullying legislation counter that it will be impossible to adequately define illegal bullying, that the legal bar for such claims will be set too low, and that employers and courts will see a flood of frivolous litigation.  Despite the debate, the proposed legislation in New York drew bipartisan support.  That proposed legislation required that bullying be severe, carried out with malice and unrelated to any legitimate business interest.  It also modeled employer obligations after existing obligations under discrimination laws.
It is not yet clear whether or when workplace bullying legislation will be enacted, but New York's near- passage of such a law has led some commentators to predict that such legislation is in our future.  Employers should, if they have not already done so, start paying attention both to get ahead of new potential legal obligations and to mitigate the high business costs of bullying.  Some steps that employers might undertake include:

  • Consider adopting a No Jerks rule for your workplace.  While using more colorful language with which not everyone may be comfortable, Robert Suttons book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isnt, contains an interesting discussion of the many reasons to consider such a rule, as well as tips for addressing workplace bullying, some of which are discussed below.
  • Adopt and, more importantly, enforce an anti-bullying policy that includes reporting and response procedures akin to those used for harassment.  To avoid contract claims, however, policies should include contract disclaimers.
  • Take steps to avoid hiring bullies in the first place, such as including the applicants potential managers, peers, and subordinates in the interview process.  Studies indicate that many bullies focus on those with less power than them, so peers and subordinates may be better positioned to spot troubling behavior in interviews.
  • Treat bullying as a performance problem.  Dont reward or promote bullies, because this sends a message that bullying is accepted and not a bar to success.  Instead, reform or get rid of bullies whenever possible.  No matter how valuable an employee may seem, bullying behavior has real and significant financial costs that, if quantified, often outweigh the bullys perceived value to the company.
  • Train your employees on the companys expectations regarding bullying. As suggested in Suttons book, you might also want to train your employees on how to engage in constructive, respectful confrontations and debates, rather than personal attacks.
  • Use available resources, such as anger and management counseling and EAP programs.
  • Most bullying does not turn violent, but bullying can be a precursor to violence by the bully or a target of bullying. Consider forming a threat assessment team to assess and address violence risks as they may arise.
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