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Bullies Are (Still) in the Workplace

Thursday, February 7, 2013
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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 its 2012 study on bullying said 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.

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."

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. "In my research, even when a victim ... 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 keep them on board."

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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."

Because bullying behaviors can be subtle, well-trained managers can play a pivotal role in defending against them, notes Hamilton. "Managers," she says, "need to ... lead with empathy and compassion, [and] look for clues as to why employees are acting the way they do."

Steere recommends also sending all employees a list of bullying behaviors and having them sign a contract stating they understand these behaviors are grounds for immediate dismissal. Where the bullies persist, she says, employers would then have the signed paper in hand to help in the disciplinary process."

 

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