HR shouldn’t brush bullying under the carpet

It's easy to ignore at-work bullying (or even deny that it exists), but that doesn't mean you should, says Jeffrey Cassells:

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Apr 25, 2023

It’s common sense that no one should ever be expected to arrive at work in the morning and leave in the evening feeling like they’ve been the subject of at-work bullying.

But the sad fact remains that workplace bullying is a shockingly common event.

Recent data reveals that as many as four in ten employees experience it.

But despite its frequency, I often find HR professionals and management more generally, fails to handle instances of bullying or (worse still) overlooks it completely.

Bullying – it’s still the ignored ill

There are many reasons why bullying does not get the proper attention it deserves:

  • Managers may not feel empowered enough to intervene
  • Managers may worry about potential legal consequences
  • Managers may worry about loss of employees
  • They may worry about the damage it may do to a company’s reputation should the matter be formally acknowledged.

However, management should ‘always’ be an ally to victims, and the detriments of workplace bullying should incentivize them to be that.

Bullying – THE STATS:

  • A recent study by StandOut CV analyzed 2,700 social media posts to reveal the most common reasons employees are quitting their jobs during. It found around 2% of people had quit their job due to workplace bullying. This was more than those who quit their job due to physical health issues, dealing with family commitments, having restricted vacation time and poor remote working options.

  • Some 30% of adult Americans say they are bullied at work (US Workplace Bullying Survey 2021) – 61% of which is same-gender bullying. A further 19% say they have witnessed it; 49% are affected by it; and 66% are aware that workplace bullying happens

  • The US Workplace Bullying Survey also find 43% of remote workers are bullied

  • Prevalence of bullying (30 percent have direct experience being bullied) is up 57% from 2017

Repeated poor treatment of staff should make you feel uneasy

According to the University of Mary Washington, workplace bullying is the repeated unfavorable treatment of a colleague.

But it is more nuanced than this. It includes intimidating, offending, degrading, or humiliating a worker publicly or privately.

Bullying is a problem that affects many people and can happen to anyone. Bullies often target minorities, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ people, those of different religious beliefs, or the differently-abled.

They can also target people they perceive as threats to their dominance; for instance, individuals who are more skilled, experienced, or popular among their colleagues.

US and bullying law

According to a recent Forbes article, “with each year, the United States falls farther behind its peers in the international community with respect to the important issue of workplace bullying.”

In 2020 the International Labour Organisation ratified the first international treaty to address violence and harassment in the workplace, called the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (C190). The treaty, adopted a year ago, was ratified through its adoption by two ILO members states, Uruguay and  Fiji. The U.S. is an ISO member that voted for the treaty but has not adopted it.

America adopted federal laws in the 1960s to protect members of specific groups from harassment based on their protected status (i.e., race, sex, religion, disability, age) but these law do not cover workers who are not in a protected group or generalized harassment.

In addition to this laws must be enforced by victims and do not reach many small employers. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies only to employers with a minimum of 15 employees.

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

Workplace bullies create a hostile work environment, slowing productivity across the office and making their coworkers’ lives miserable.

– The impact on victims:

While it’s impossible to characterize all possible responses to bullying, there are some common effects that bullies have on their victims.

Firstly, bullies severely impact their target’s confidence, productivity, and mental health.

Bullying can have a devastating effect on the rest of the workplace too.

It can create a toxic environment that makes it difficult for employees to communicate effectively with each other and collaborate. The victim may also begin to doubt their abilities or the value of their input.

This combined effect means workers who otherwise have good ideas may stay quiet to avoid attention.

They may also dread the workplace due to the bullies and do everything they can to leave early or avoid coming to the office.

In terms of health, the added stress can cause anxiety and depression for targets, which affects their overall wellbeing. These can also cause physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, sleeping problems, and stomach pains.

Victims often experience an overall decrease in the quality of their lives due to the toxic work environment.

They may find it difficult to stay sane in the office, which can bleed into their personal lives.

– The impact on the business

 Workers who are bullies prevent other employees from functioning and make it harder for them to concentrate on their tasks.

This results in decreased productivity, which may cause the team to miss deadlines or produce outputs more slowly.

The hostile environment bullies create can also cause high turnover rates, which can be expensive as onboarding costs are often high.

High employee resignations can also damage the company’s reputation and make it challenging to hire new talent.

Current employees may also lose trust in management and HR if they fail to act after reporting workplace bullying, further incentivizing workers to leave the business.

In extreme cases, frustrated employees may, rightfully, file lawsuits against the company for their inaction.

Workplace bullies damage the morale of your current workforce and the company’s reputation and prospects.

A reminder of what HR can do to eliminate workplace bullying

Here are some tips that help both to minimize instances of workplace bullying and enable HRDs to respond effectively.

  1. Set clear policies

First and foremost, your policy needs to have zero tolerance for bullying. There should be a clear, no-nonsense definition that the workplace can follow.

  1. Have mandatory training

A clear policy is useless if your employees don’t know about it. Mandatory training will ensure everyone knows what constitutes workplace bullying, what to do if they witness or experience it, and its consequences.

  1. Run transparent investigations

Taking reports seriously and thorough investigations are vital to letting everyone know your company doesn’t tolerate bullying. Reporting your findings to the victim can also be helpful because it’ll reassure them that you’re there to help them and won’t leave them feeling alone and helpless.

  1. Offer victim protection

Like in the schoolyard, bullies may attempt to punish victims who report their actions or threaten them into silence. To prevent retaliation, you must protect the identity of people who report incidents.

  1. Seek third-party help

In severe cases, you may have to involve third-party mediators and investigators. This step is vital if the bully holds a position of authority over their victims.

Standing up to bullies

Management and HR departments must ensure everyone in the office can focus on their duties without outside interference.

It’s their responsibility to prevent workplace bullying, not only for their employees’ health and wellness but also to improve their bottom line and avoid potential legal issues.