When people think of bullying, they often envision the familiar school setting, where a good-natured kid is shoved in the hallway or the disturbing trend of teens being trolled on social media. But bullying doesn’t stop after school; it continues into adulthood and shows up in the workplace on a troublingly frequent basis. 

Bullying, as defined by Merriam-Webster is the “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful, characterized by overbearing mistreatment and domination of others.”

The abusive conduct—including verbal abuse—is intimidating, threatening, or humiliating to the person or persons targeted. Bullying in the workplace can, and often does, interfere with the target’s ability to get their work done and can lead to their resignation or dismissal through no fault of their own. 

Unfortunately, unlike harassment, bullying isn’t illegal. What’s the difference? Harassment centers on being mistreated based on a protected class, such as gender, race, religion, or national origin. If the bad behavior is unrelated to one of those, it might be toxic, but it’s not against the law. 

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s (WBI) 2017 National Workplace Bullying Survey, most workplace bullies are bosses, however, more than a third are not managers, but rather peers or even lower-level employees. 

Workplace bullying is manifested in multiple ways that may not always seem immediately obvious.  Yes, we all recognize the stereotypical yelling, cursing, angry tyrant, who tends to make a public scene and instill fear not only in their target but also in all their co-workers. 

However, there are three other common workplace bullying profiles that are even more subtle.  

  1. There’s the bully who is the constant critic and belittles a co-worker or subordinate so frequently that the target begins to doubt their abilities and as a result, the quality of their work might suffer. 
  2. Then, there are some bullies who aggressively manipulate their targets by withholding resources—including instructions, information, time, or help from others – setting them up to fail.
  3. And, finally there is the most difficult type of bully to discern; the one who befriends a fellow worker, may even champion them, but is working to undermine and sabotage their target’s contributions to the workplace.

Certain company cultures foster bullying due to the creation of a competitive environment that promotes a “winner-takes-all” scenario. Bullies are often high performers which means they bring value to the company. Bullies also work to gain favorable acceptance to their superiors and instead of being held accountable for their bullying behavior, they might be getting rewarded with praise, raises, or promotions. 

Confronting bullies is difficult. Oftentimes senior managers have been badgered by the bully, too. Most managers are ill-equipped to handle the situation and afraid of emotional confrontation and conflict and find themselves paralyzed. However, by not acting, they wholeheartedly endorse the bully. 

Any report of bullying should be taken seriously and, there must be consequences spelled out in the company policy. As stated by the authors of the WBI survey

“Without the work environment giving the green light, providing the license to unbridled mistreatment, bullying wouldn’t happen.”

Investigating a report of bullying needs to include the following steps:

  • First, keep the target safe.  This may include moving them to a different location away from the alleged bully. 
  • Next, conduct an internal survey of the workplace to gauge employees’ perspectives regarding the occurrences of bullying in the workplace.  Be aware that some employees may side with bullies to protect themselves from becoming targets. Employers must ensure the confidentiality of anyone reporting bullying behavior. 
  • If the facts indicate that the accused did indeed engage knowingly in bullying behavior, then that individual should apologize to the target and face other potential consequences as stated in the policy; including possible termination. 
  • Support the target with counseling, paid time off, or other resources. Keep an eye on retribution after the fact. Employees involved may have reached a resolution but may still be harboring resentments.

In short, bullying can come from any direction in the org chart, and it can take different forms. Even though bullying is not unlawful, it does come with a cost. Employers are responsible to ensure their employees are safe and secure and that includes dealing with bullies before they become a problem. Left unaddressed it will result in lost productivity, a tainted reputation that impacts your ability to recruit good hires and, though rare, potential lawsuits.

For a sample of the Workplace Bullying Policy template contact Neila Neary. MassHire Business Services Manager at nneary@masshire-capeandislands.com.

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