Katie Loehrke is a human resources subject matter expert and editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics such as discrimination, privacy and social media, and affirmative action. She is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com and www.prospera.com.
Most adults assume that the bullies they encountered as children “grew up” before entering the workplace. Unfortunately, many bullies continue their mean-spirited tactics in the work world (the case of Richie Incognito currently playing out for the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins is a very visible example). The methods used by these bullies aren’t much different from the ones they used in their school lunchroom or playground days.
Workplace bullying is usually repeated abuse of a psychological nature. While bullying can escalate into physical violence, it can be quite harmful to employees even if it never goes that far, and it can be extremely detrimental to the victim’s work performance. Bullying in the workplace can include any combination of the following:
- Excluding or isolating a coworker
- Publicly berating a targeted individual
- Falsely accusing someone of making errors
- Holding an employee to a higher standard or disciplining him/her more severely than others
- Starting or perpetuating rumors about a person
- Taking credit for another person’s achievements
- Insulting an employee’s character, habits, or personal life
- Attempting to intimidate a coworker by staring or glaring
- Encouraging others to engage in bullying a specific employee
The negative impact
Bullying is meant to intimidate others. This intimidation, and the fear that bullying will get worse, may be enough to keep a victim from reporting it. A victim may find it difficult to prove they are being targeted by another employee, and may feel somewhat childish reporting such actions. Victims of bullying may also fear they will be perceived as the source of the problem.
If employees don’t report bullying (and it otherwise goes unnoticed), some may choose to quit their jobs in search of a more psychologically friendly work environment. If this happens, the company could lose a good employee, and the bully may simply move on to his or her next victim.
When a bullied employee does not leave, and abusive behavior is allowed to continue, the company can expect productivity to drop, particularly as bullied employees spend work hours defending themselves, networking for support, and thinking about the situation. Bullied individuals also tend to become unmotivated and take more sick leave due to stress-related illnesses.
Companies, as well as individual managers and supervisors, not only need to address workplace bullying when it is brought to their attention, but they also need to be on the lookout for the types of abusive behavior listed near the start of this article.
Having “the talk”
Employees must be held accountable for the way they treat their coworkers, and must treat others with respect. If one or more employees aren’t doing that, the employer needs to take action. The company and/or team leader should begin the conversation by explaining the responsibility of being respectful and outlining the unacceptable behaviors that have been directly observed (and are not based on hearsay). The leader should discuss the effects of the individual’s words or actions and the specific reasons the company will not tolerate the behavior.
If there’s a policy about workplace conduct that the employee has violated, the leader should mention that as well. Throughout the conversation, the leader must keep the focus on the bullying employee and his or her actions, rather than allowing the person to rationalize or justify the behavior. The leader should make clear notes that accurately portray the conversation: when it occurred, and what was discussed, including what is likely to happen if the individual engages in such behavior again.
Swift action in response to bullying can prevent the behavior from becoming the norm in the workplace. While such disciplinary conversations can be awkward, efforts by leadership will be worthwhile if the result is a less hostile work environment.
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