A 3-step plan to land a blow against workplace bullying

Employers aren’t doing enough to stop workplace bullying, according to new research. What’s HR to do?

More than 25% of U.S. workers say they’ve been bullied at work, according to a new survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Worse: More than 70% of staff say their firms haven’t done anything to stop bullying, according to the 2014 US Workplace Bullying Survey.

So what should companies be doing about it?

What does bullying looks like?

One of the major issues with workplace bullying: It’s not always easy to recognize.

A lot of bullying involves teasing and banter, but it’s a stretch to say that all teasing and banter qualify as bullying.

Dennis A. Davis, national director of client training at Ogletree Deakins, says managers and HR?pros should look out for three subtle signs of bullying:

  • the teasing isn’t reciprocal – i.e. the person receiving it doesn’t return the banter
  • the behavior is targeted – certain employees are always the ones on the receiving end, and
  • it’s personal – the teasing is about a staffer’s weakness, deficiency or inferiority.

How to deal with an offender

Spotting workplace bullying can be difficult. Getting it to stop might be even harder.

Christine Comaford, writing for Forbes, has outlined a six-step plan for a conversation managers must have with workplace bullies:

  • Set the stage. Managers should explain why the meeting’s been called and the outcome they want to achieve
  • Lay out the observable behavior. It’s crucial that managers describe specific instances where the bully acted out or said something inappropriate
  • Describe the impact. Bullies likely don’t understand the damage their behaviors are doing to both their co-workers and the company
  • See if the bully agrees with you. Does the bully now see the problem and acknowledge it needs to stop?
  • Create a plan. Work out a set period of time (maybe 30 to 60 days) where the manager will meet with the worker once a week to check on progress. The key here: Be specific. Managers should be clear on which behaviors need to stop. Also, supervisors must state the consequences if a turnaround doesn’t occur.
  • Make sure you’re on the same page. Does the bully understand everything? Also, managers should make it clear they want the bully to succeed and continue the working relationship.

What to do moving forward

Congratulations: You’ve successfully stopped one workplace bully.

But is there something HR can do to try to prevent workplace bullying before it even starts?

Jon Hyman, writing for the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, suggests one thing: treat bullying like it’s illegal.

What does that look like?

  • Add bullying to anti-harassment and workplace conduct policies
  • Tell staffers you don’t allow bullying, and train them on how they can report incidents of bullying.
  • Immediately investigate reports of workplace bullying, and
  • After an investigation, take corrective action to ensure the bullying doesn’t happen again.

What would anti-bullying legislation look like?

Hyman suggests treating workplace bullying as if it’s illegal. But it might not be long before workplace bullying is illegal.

Stephanie Rawitt, writing for Clark Hill’s Labor & Employment Law newsletter, notes that the U.S. is one of the few western democracies to not have anti-bullying laws. Those include Australia and Scandinavian nations as well as many members of the European Union.

Couple with the the recent hubbub over the egregious bullying of Miami Dolphins’ Richie Icognito, perhaps it’s no surprise that workplace bullying is at the forefront of the national conversation.

For an idea of what anti-bullying legislation would look like, Rawitt notes that:

in January of 2013 an anti-bullying bill was introduced in Massachusetts. Under this bill, if an employer is found to have created an abusive work environment, the court could order relief similar to the relief available under Title VII and its progeny: back pay, front pay, medical expenses, removal of the offending party from the work premises, reinstatement of the bullied employee, emotional distress damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. Employer defenses are similar to those under Title VII as well. An employer can escape liability by showing it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any actionable behavior.

How likely is anti-bullying legislation at this point? Critics point to a number of issues with the idea specifically that it would encourage frivolous lawsuits. (And I think we can all agree we don’t need any more of those.)

Rawitt concludes by saying that:

Enactment of anti-bullying legislation could very well be one of the biggest things to happen in the world of employment law since the passage of Title VII given its wide-spread applicability to all employees. If anti-bullying laws are to become a reality, state lawmakers will need to carefully craft the statute in an attempt to both protect employees from harmful workplace bullying while also shielding employers from an avalanche of frivolous litigation.

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