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Address Workplace Bullying

Heather Salko, Esq.
October 2020
What to include in an anti-bullying policy, and how to recognize and respond to bullying behavior

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 19% of American workers have experienced abuse at work. Workplace bullies control those around them, creating a difficult working environment for targets of and witnesses to the bullying behavior.

Generally, workplace bullying is legal. However, it affects victims by causing:

  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased stress
  • Poor health
  • Withdrawal from office life

Understand What Workplace Bullying Entails

Bullying is more than rude or uncivil behavior directed toward subordinates or colleagues.

It involves:

  • Repeated, health-harming mistreatment
  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating actions
  • Interfering with productivity and work being completed
  • Potentially verbally abusive behavior

Because bullying isn’t necessarily based on a protected characteristic such as race or sex, and it’s not based on a desire to discriminate, it’s different from unlawful workplace harassment. Likewise, bullying is not retaliation for engaging in a protected activity.

Workplace bullying can involve anyone at any level. Bullies can appear to be productive employees who may label the behavior as “motivating” or necessary for “handling” problematic subordinates or co-workers.

Have a Policy

To eliminate bullying without imposing a general civility code, differentiate between unreasonable bullying behavior and appropriate supervision.

Define and prohibit bullying in your institution’s anti-harassment policy. Include examples of prohibited behavior, such as shouting or swearing at employees, embarrassing or publicly ridiculing co-workers, and sabotage.

The policy should encourage employees to report bullying behavior to a neutral party, such as an ombudsperson or a designated human resources employee. Emphasize that bullying doesn’t need to be unlawful harassment for your institution to take corrective action. Provide an anonymous reporting option to reduce concerns of retaliation.

Identify and Respond to Bullying

At the complaint stage, it can be difficult to differentiate between unreasonable bullying behavior and appropriate supervision. Investigate the alleged actions as well as the surrounding work climate. Don’t ignore the complaint merely because the worker appears disgruntled.

Witnesses to bullying behavior may be reluctant to come forward but may discuss behavioral issues during an investigation. Focus the investigation on the bully’s conduct — not the content of speech — and the conduct’s impact on the workplace.

After identify bullying, act immediately. Consider reassigning the bully if the behavior does not warrant termination. Document the investigation’s findings, corrective actions, and counsel against retaliation. Offer resources to the victim, including access to your institution’s employee assistance program (EAP).

Additional Resources