Bullies (Still) in the Workplace

New research finds bullies are still lurking in many American organizations, and experts warn that the companies that are ineffective at addressing bullying may be subject to decreased worker productivity and the loss of valued employees who decide to leave because they do not feel safe.

Thursday, September 20, 2012
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Despite heightened coverage by the news media and ongoing efforts to inform and educate employees about inappropriate behaviors and their consequences, workers are increasingly reporting that they are bullied at work, according to a new study by Chicago-based CareerBuilder.

In fact, 35 percent of the respondents to their 2012 study on bullying said that they had felt bullied at work -- up from 27 percent in 2011. Sixteen percent indicated that they had suffered health-related problems as a result of being bullied; 17 percent decided to quit their jobs to escape the bullying.

Organizations that are ineffective at addressing bullying may be subject to lost productivity, the loss of valued employees who do not feel safe in the workplace, and even the risk of lawsuits and legal liability for their failure to properly address these issues.

"I think that the incidences of workplace bullying are on the rise for several reasons," says Tina Hamilton, president and CEO of hireVision Group Inc. in Allentown, Pa. "People in general are worried about their financial situations and job security, and that can manifest itself at work in aggressive or defensive behaviors. Companies are also getting by with smaller workforces, so naturally tensions can flair, bringing out the worst in some people. Lastly, our society as a whole has become more belligerent over the last few years, so we are bound to see some related negative behaviors show up in the workplace," she says.

It is possible that the increase is more reflective of heightened awareness than an actual increase in incidents, says Khaleelah Jones, a research and communications specialist with the Project Bully Free Zone in New York.

"Not only are reports rising because individuals are starting to feel more confident about reporting incidents, what with the increased media attention to the matter," she says, "individuals are able to identify workplace bullying more easily with the increase in programming and education about it."

No survey or study has been able to quantify if the actual incidents have increased or if it is just heightened awareness that this behavior is not acceptable, says Debby Carreau, president of Inspired HR in Calgary, Canada, and a member of the advisory board for The Respect Group Inc.

But, she adds: "Talking about it is a step in the right direction toward cultural change."

The benefits of taking steps now to ensure the workplace is a safe, non-threatening one are many, says Carreau, and include:

* Better organizational health,

* Higher morale,

* Less illness and absenteeism,

* Limited legal liability,

* Higher attraction and retention for employees,

* A stronger corporate culture and reputation, and

* Increased productivity and profits.

These are benefits that few employers can overlook. So, what steps should they be taking to reduce both the incidence and the perception of bullying among their employees?

Commit to Real Action

At the outset, a firm commitment to taking consistent action is critical.

"All too many organizations sweep this poor behavior under the rug because bullies are often strong performers or in leadership roles," says Carreau. "It is widely believed [that] if it is known your business has these issues, it will reflect badly upon the leadership, stakeholders and even hurt recruitment initiatives." Shockingly, she says: "In my research, even when a victim of workplace discrimination, harassment or bullying comes forward with complaints, upwards of 60 percent of the time no action is taken."

Policies need to be created and committed to across the board, agrees Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, in Boulder, Colo. Companies need to be prepared to take action even when the bully is a top salesperson or someone with hard-to-find technical experience. Every employee is replaceable, she says. "You can and should find replacements for all bullies. They cause too much damage to employee engagement to keep them on board."

Many companies have created programs that are not merely window dressing, says Jones. Employees at these companies face real consequences if found guilty of bullying or harassment. In addition, she notes: "Over 20 states also have workplace-bullying laws pending in state legislatures." Companies without these policies, or with inadequate policies, would be well-advised to take some real action now, she says. In addition, she says HR representatives should keep track of legislation pending in their states to ensure that policies are consistent with existing law.

One challenge that HR leaders face when addressing bullying is coming up with a clear and well-defined definition of what actually constitutes bullying.

Define Bullying

One of the challenges that HR managers face, says Steere, is that "there is still widespread lack of understanding of what constitutes bullying." For example, ostracizing -- or leaving people out of the information loop on purpose -- can constitute bullying. But, she says: "It is not as overt as yelling at employees when they make mistakes." Steere points readers to a list of bullying behaviors on the University of Missouri's website, which conveys the many shades of gray in which bullying can be seen.

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Some bullying is so subtle, says Steere, "that employees can feel it, but they don't know how to document or report it -- so they don't. They worry they will lose their professional credibility if they report it but can't provide solid documentation." It's important, she says, for employees to have a safe way to report bullying behaviors whether they're the victim or a bystander.

Because bullying behaviors can be subtle, training is important.

Training, Education and Awareness

Well-trained managers can play a pivotal role in defending against bullying behaviors, notes Hamilton. "Train your managers how to detect, circumvent and deal with intimidating, threatening and violent behaviors swiftly and directly. Many people who feel bullied are not comfortable telling management about it and not all acts of bullying are conspicuous. Managers need to be able to lead with empathy and compassion, as well as look for clues as to why employees are acting the way they do."

Employees need to be educated and informed as well. Steere recommends sending all employees a list of bullying behaviors and having them sign a contract stating they understand these behaviors are grounds for immediate dismissal. "That would stop some of it. And where the bullies persist, employers would then have the signed paper in hand to help in the disciplinary process."

Edie Raether, a behavioral psychology expert and author of several books including Stop Bullying Now, suggests organizations focus on a number of key themes and actions, including:

* Creating a system of reporting that is easily accessible and anonymous so it is safe to report incidents.

* Establishing clearly communicated boundaries, as well as a system of accountability and consequences.

* Passivity is permission. Too many managers look the other way or want to be the "nice guy (or woman)" and forget that forgiving the offender is not being fair to the target. If we tolerate it, we are encouraging it.

* Leadership is crucial. Creating a caring culture is essential.

* One size does not fit all! Indeed, Stop Bullying Now uncovers seven distinct types of bullies.

For companies that may feel they lack the internal resources to address these issues, there may be third-party options, says Steere, adding that some organizations are even turning to third parties to field and investigate reports of bullying.

But regardless of the approach, with continuing attention and unfortunately all-too-frequent reports of violence stemming from bullying in both school yards and workplaces, bullying remains an issue that HR professionals should keep on their radar screens.


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