If you thought bullying was something we all left behind in junior high school, you can count yourself lucky. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 19 percent of employees experience bullying in the workplace, and 60.4 million of us are affected by it.
Right now, workplace bullying laws don’t exist on a federal level. That said, abuse on the basis of race, gender or another protected class is illegal. But if the bully is just acting like a jerk, there’s no federal law prohibiting it. The situation is complicated further because bullying can be hard to define, and bullies are experts at making their victims look like the perpetrators.
That doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t do anything about it, though. It’s an important issue that can be damaging to your workplace and your employees.
Workplace Bullying Is a Mental and Physical Health Issue
Bullying can lead to depression and anxiety. In fact, bullying victims are 9 times more likely to commit suicide. If that’s not enough to demonstrate the serious consequences of bullying in the workplace, there are physical health consequences, as well.
Overtaxed “fight or flight” mechanisms mean that bullying can make you more susceptible to problems like colds and the flu and can weaken your immune system overall. Some researchers believe this can lead to significant chronic problems, including heart disease and digestive tract issues.
In other words, this is a dire issue. It’s not just about feeling bad for a few minutes. It can have serious long-term consequences.
Men and women. Bosses and co-workers. Pretty much any person can act as a bully. While there are more bosses who bully than peers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, don’t assume that because someone has no hire/fire power over another person that the relationship can’t be an abusive one.
There can even be situations where a direct report bullies a boss. You might think that’s not possible — couldn’t the boss simply fire the offender? But termination isn’t always easy, especially if the boss is emotionally vulnerable to the bully.
What Can Employers Do to Identify and Rectify Workplace Bullying?
First, it’s critical that senior leadership maintain a high level of personal integrity. If the CEO or owner is abusive, other people will feel encouraged to behave similarly. In other words, bullying culture can start at the top.
Second, you need to pay attention. Remember, bullying isn’t always easy to spot. The offending employee likely won’t do anything incriminating in front of the HR manager. They’ll save it for when they’re alone with their victim.
Look out not only for possible bullies but also for possible victims: people who seem to be left out, who don’t speak up in meetings or who came in with stellar recommendations but seem to be producing subpar work. Ask what’s going on, and investigate when you get a hint of bad behavior.
Remember that bullying doesn’t have to be overt to be devastating. A bully probably won’t say, “You’re ugly and you smell bad” to the victim. Instead, they may make subtle remarks that gradually undermine their colleague’s sense of well-being. “Jane, I knew you wouldn’t be able to do that correctly,” they might remark. Or they might say to the boss, “Jane really treats customers poorly. I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” when it isn’t true.
Finally, listen. If someone comes to you with a complaint or concern about bullying, take it seriously. The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 71 percent of employer responses to bullying are harmful to the target. And victims are statistically more likely to be fired than bullies. It’s crucial that you identify the true problem. Never assume that because someone is always nice to you that they aren’t a bully. And be sure to provide affected employees with the resources they need to protect or repair their mental health.
What Should You Do With a Bully?
If you identify someone as a bully, it’s important to act immediately. The first step is to talk to them, explain that you understand what’s going on and be perfectly clear that it must end now. If this isn’t effective, move through the disciplinary process outlined in your employee handbook, up to and including termination.
Yes, it may seem harsh. And sometimes bullies are stellar performers. However, it may be that they only appear to be stellar performers because they’re emotionally abusing their employees and co-workers, stealing credit or suppressing the work of others.
Bottom line: Bullying is damaging to your business. Smart employers stop bullies in their tracks and focus on helping their victimized employees recover.
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