For children, bullying is something that happens in school, on the playground or even in cyberspace. But as the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal involving lineman Jonathan Martin and teammate Richie Incognito shows us, it can continue into adulthood. The setting simply changes from the schoolyard to the office – or the locker room.
For many companies, workplace bullying is commonplace; it is witnessed and endured daily by a substantial number of employees. However, bullying often is ignored (through inattention or willful ignorance) by management, allowing it to perpetuate and infect the workplace. The longer bullying is allowed to persist, the more likely employees will feel powerless to stop it. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, up to one-third of American workers fall victim to workplace bullying. About 20 percent of such instances cross the line into illegal harassment or retaliation.
While employees can sue their employers for allowing them to be subjected to a “hostile work environment,” the harassment must be tied to a protected category, such as race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, etc. Workplace bullying, on the other hand, is much less specific. It is generally defined as deliberate and repeated, physical or emotional mistreatment of a person, which takes the form of verbal abuse, sabotage of work product or aggressive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, demeaning or intimidating. Bullying includes overt aggression such as screaming, belittling comments in front of co-workers, physical contact, use of profanity, etc. It also includes classic passive-aggressive conduct such as assigning demeaning or unimportant tasks or undesirable work schedules, taking credit for the victim’s work, etc.
Studies by victim advocacy groups such as the Workplace Bullying Institute, Bullies2Buddies and Healthy Workplace Campaign have shown that workplace bullying is most prevalent in high-stress occupations such as commissioned sales, health care and (yes) the legal profession. Studies show that those most likely to be bullied at work are: women, very competent subordinates who pose a threat to their superiors and the very weak or timid.
Those who fall victim to workplace bullying may suffer from anxiety, depression, physical ailments (i.e., high blood pressure, migraines, ulcers, heart disease, etc.) and a feeling of helplessness. However, the effects of workplace bullying are not limited to the victim. Even the emotionally sturdy co-worker will be distracted by the conduct and will become less productive. Those who are less resistant to bullying may seek medical or mental health care (driving up premiums), take more sick leave, file worker’s compensation claims or simply quit. Indeed, an estimated 64 percent of workplace bullying victims quit or are fired for poor performance.
Some estimate that it costs an employer 200 percent of the victim’s salary to recruit, on-board and train the victim’s replacement and account for lost productivity – assuming the cycle does not repeat with the same bully victimizing the previous victim’s replacement. All of this decreases the employer’s razor thin competitive edge. With smaller employers, the visibility, disruption and costs of bullying are magnified.
In extreme cases, workplace bullying can result in discrimination and retaliation complaints (where the victim is a member of a protected class) and lawsuits for negligent retention of the bully, assault, battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress. In 2008, a $325,000 jury verdict against an Indiana cardiovascular surgeon for assault was upheld on appeal. The surgeon allegedly charged at a heart/lung machine operator “with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, . . . screaming and swearing at him.”
The U.S. is the last of the Western democracies without a law prohibiting workplace bullying. Following model legislation drafted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and the Healthy Workplace Campaign, 25 states have attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass anti-workplace bullying legislation. Most states appear hesitant to enact such a general civility code. There is also a concern that such “be nice” legislation will, because of its subjective definition, be impossible to enforce.
Rather than wait for the courts and lawmakers to declare employers liable for bullying, employers should establish procedures for investigating complaints of workplace bullying. They should be modeled after existing sexual harassment policies, and employers should treat bullying complaints as they do harassment complaints and take the following actions:
- Document the victim’s complaint, interview witnesses, review relevant emails and performance evaluations, etc.
- Verify the facts to the best of your ability, recognizing that it may be difficult to distinguish bullying from an aggressive management style.
- Determine if the conduct is an isolated incident or part of a pattern.
- Focus on whether the conduct involves references to the victim’s family, physical or emotional characteristics or personality traits or makes references specifically to performance.
- Draw a reasoned conclusion about what happened, and document your conclusion and your reasons for it. Based on your conclusion, decide what action to take, if any, which may include a documented counseling, probation, suspension with or without pay, reassignment of the bully, anger-management counseling or termination.
A workplace bully can harm a company by lowering employee morale, causing an exodus of good employees and creating a toxic environment that clients and customers will perceive. Employers cannot afford to sit idly by. Action, even if it is just recognition of the problem, is a good first step.