According to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, 19 percent of workers had experienced bullying in the workplace and another 19 percent had witnessed it. Applied to the total workforce, these percentages translate to about 60 million workers. The #MeToo movement has brought renewed attention to the alarming prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, causing many employers to revisit their anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures. Employers should also take this opportunity to examine their workplace anti-bullying policies – or create them in the first place – as workplace bullying is unfortunately also not an uncommon problem.
Workplace bullying can be defined as persistent, malicious, unwelcome, severe and pervasive mistreatment that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, at the place of work or in the course of employment. Unlike workplace anti-sexual harassment policies, companies are usually not required by law to have anti-bulling policies – but they would be wise to, so when issues inevitably arise, there are clear guidelines that leave little room for confusion, interpretation, and disagreement.
A complete anti-bullying policy contains five elements: (1) definition; (2) examples; (3) reporting procedure; (4) investigation procedure; and (5) disciplinary action.
In addition to the description above, workplace bullying can also be defined more generally as any words or actions that make an employee feel uncomfortable, threatened, or intimidated, or that interfere with others’ work or prevent work from getting done.
It is important for employers to provide concrete examples of workplace bullying to eliminate confusion and be as clear as possible in an effort to maintain the integrity of the policy. The list of examples should address issues such as: name-calling; persistent phone calls, emails, or other communications; unreasonable public criticism; exclusion from meetings or social situations; destructive gossip/rumors; intentional interference or sabotage of one’s work; stalking; etc. There are endless potential forms of bullying, and any list of examples should include a disclaimer that the list is merely illustrative and not exhaustive.
Reporting procedures should generally follow that of the company’s anti-sexual harassment policy, with a clear indication that employees may report directly to HR rather than their immediate supervisor. This is important because workplace bullying can be perpetrated by supervisors as well. It is also important that employees understand that they are encouraged to report bullying and abusive behavior as soon as it occurs.
The investigation of any reports must be carried out confidentially and in a timely manner. The investigating supervisor should request written statements from the victim/target, the accused “bully” and any witnesses. All statements, meetings and events should be documented. The policy must clearly state that any form of retaliation against the reporting employee during or after the investigation is strictly prohibited.
If behavior in violation of the policy has been found to have occurred, then depending on its severity, the employee may be given an opportunity to change course. Employers should consider an “action plan” with specific goals and check-ins, or requiring an apology, counseling, and training (or both). Further, the policy should make it clear that egregious behavior may result in immediate termination, without a chance for reversal.
All employees should be made to understand that management wants to see all employees succeed, and that bullying co-workers is bad for the workplace as a whole, and the offender’s career as well.
Training and Awareness
While having a policy is critical, if employees don’t understand it, it will be ineffective. It is imperative that every employee is aware of and understands the company’s anti-bullying policy. This can be done through periodic training and by making the policy constantly visible (e.g., with a poster) and easily accessible. Bullying diminishes employee morale, and preventing and addressing it results in a safer, happier, and more productive workplace.
contact us with any questions about your particular policy or for assistance
drafting policies for your workplace.