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    May 2016

    Addressing Workplace Bullying

    Addressing Workplace Bullying

    According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 65 million workers are affected by workplace bullying either directly or as witnesses, and a majority of incidents involve supervisors. Workplace bullies are driven to control those around them, often creating a difficult working environment for both targets of and witnesses to the bullying behavior.

    What Is Workplace Bullying?

    Bullying is more than merely rude or uncivil behavior directed toward subordinates or colleagues. It encompasses behavior that is:

    • Repeated, health-harming mistreatment
    • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
    • Interfering with productivity and work being completed
    • Potentially verbally abusive

    Because it isn’t necessarily based on a protected characteristic, such as race or sex, or a desire to discriminate against a person or class of people, bullying is different from workplace harassment. Likewise, bullying is not retaliation against someone for engaging in a protected activity. Instead, it is based on the victim’s vulnerability and the bully’s need to intimidate and control.

    Workplace bullying can involve anyone at any level. The bully can appear to be a productive employee who may label his or her behavior as “motivating” or necessary for “handling” problematic subordinates or coworkers.

    The Impact of Workplace Bullying

    Generally, workplace bullying is not illegal. However, it can affect victims by causing reduced productivity, increased stress, poor health, and withdrawal from office life. The broader health of the organization is often compromised due to the related consequences of bullying, including significant employee turnover, low morale, and increased costs related to investigations or health and workers’ compensation claims. As a result, institutions should work to eliminate bullying.

    Have a Policy

    Without imposing a general civility code, your institution can differentiate between unreasonable bullying behavior and appropriate supervision. Specifically define and prohibit bullying in the institution’s anti-harassment policy and include examples of prohibited behavior, such as shouting or swearing at employees, embarrassing or publicly ridiculing coworkers, and sabotage.

    Encourage employees to report bullying behavior to a neutral party, such as an ombudsperson or a designated human resources employee. Make clear in the policy that bullying does not need to rise to the level of illegal harassment for the institution to take corrective action. Provide an anonymous reporting option to reduce any concerns of retaliation.

    Identify and Respond to Bullying

    Upon receiving a complaint, it can be difficult to differentiate between unreasonable bullying behavior and appropriate supervision. Investigate the alleged actions as well as the surrounding work climate. Do not ignore the complaint as coming from a disgruntled worker.

    Often, witnesses to bullying behavior are reluctant to come forward, but will talk about behavioral issues during the course of an investigation. Focus the investigation on the bully’s conduct—not the content of speech—and the conduct’s impact on the workplace.

    If you identify bullying, take immediate action. Consider reassigning the bully if the behavior does not warrant termination. Document the investigation’s findings, corrective actions, and counsel against retaliation. Offer resources to the bully’s victim, including access to your institution’s employee assistance program (EAP).

    Eliminating and preventing bullying creates a more inclusive, open, and productive workplace atmosphere at your school or campus.


    Workplace Bullying Institute Survey 2014
    “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” Prof. David Yamada

    Stopping Workplace Bullying, WA State Dept. of Labor and Industry

    Univ. of Louisville Workplace Bullying Information

    Univ. of Mary Washington Workplace Bullying Policy

    Univ. of Georgia Workplace Violence Policy

    Mount St. Mary's University Workplace Bullying Policy

    Univ. of Alaska Workplace Bullying Presentation

    By Heather A. Salko, senior risk management counsel


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