Workplace Bullying: An Issue Not to Be Ignored

A business person bullies a colleague.

Workplace bullying is a widespread, but often overlooked, problem in many organizations.

The emergence of the #MeToo movement has brought an increased focus on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. But workplace bullying may be just as widespread, and as damaging. But how is it defined? What are its potential impacts? And what can organizations do to address it?

What Is Workplace Bullying, Exactly?

Currently, there isn't a specific definition of what bullying in the workplace is. What's been written about the topic consistently centers on patterns of behavior that are abusive, threatening, intimidating or objectionable. These patterns can be physical, psychological or verbal, and result in harm to the victim.

Workplace bullying may differ from harassment or discrimination on the basis that it is not necessarily tied to a person's membership in a protected class, as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or referenced in anti-discrimination or harassment statutes. Also, while it can manifest between a superior and subordinate (due to the inherent imbalance of power present in the relationship), bullying, like harassment or discrimination, can be peer-to-peer. This means the bully may not be someone in a position to make employment decisions against the victim (e.g., threatening a demotion). As compared to harassing or discriminatory conduct based on an individual's protected characteristic, legal remedies may be difficult to obtain if the conduct is not expressly prohibited by law.

Impacts of Workplace Bullying

The impact on the person being bullied is varied and can be significant. The effects from workplace bullying can also result in lower productivity and morale at your organization. It can also include stress-related health issues, up to and including thoughts of suicide, according to the British Medical Journal.

Turnover can be a problem when workplace bullying goes unchecked. If a bully remains employed, talent may feel that leaving is the only way to cope. If the bullying behavior rises to the level of harassment or discrimination — perhaps due to a perceived attack on a person's protected characteristic — the potential damage due to legal threats and complaints or harm done to an organization's reputation can be consequential.

Workplace bullying may also result in higher costs for the organization. These may arise from increased use of benefits, such as health insurance and short term disability to deal with medical issues caused by a bully's behavior.

What Steps Can Organizations Take?

Most states don't have a specific workplace bullying policy, and while a number of states have proposed legislation to handle related issues, the bills have yet to pass. This means it's up to employers to create, maintain and enforce policies related to workplace bullying, such as those outlined in the code of conduct. The policy should be clear, easy to understand and readily available to all employees. Elements of a policy can include what the organization considers as workplace bullying, examples of unacceptable behavior, the complaint and investigation process and potential remedies or penalties.

Organizational leaders should be well versed on the policy, and hold others accountable. They should also serve as role models and exhibit appropriate behavior. Training should be conducted for all relevant organizational members, and managers and supervisors should be trained on how to identify workplace bullying and respond to complaints. Thorough investigations should occur when complaints are brought up, and appropriate action should be taken. Managers and supervisors should also be aware of any actions against the complainant that could be perceived as harassment.

Compared to other forms of misconduct in the workplace, bullying may not be as easy to define given the lack of formal legislation on the subject. But that doesn't mean organizations don't experience it, or that it doesn't have an adverse impact on employees. Workplace bullying should not be tolerated. Recognizing and addressing this issue — through policy implementation, leadership work and staff training, among other steps — can help individuals feel valued, as well as help organizations retain and attract good employees.