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How To Prevent and Address Bullying in the Workplace

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 12/14/2018

how to address workplace bullying
Workplace bullying can have serious consequences for the employees involved as well as a company's culture. Take a look at how business leaders and managers can prevent and address bullying in their place of business.

Table of Contents

Bullying in the workplace continues to be a challenge for employers across the country.

Human resources professionals responding to the 2018 Paychex Pulse HR Survey, for example, listed training for discrimination and harassment prevention as among their top tasks for the year.

As many HR professionals know, there are serious effects associated with bullying in the workplace, including decreased employee morale, lower levels of trust, and employee stress and depression. There can also be legal risks associated with workforce bullying in certain situations.

Workplace Bullying and Its Impact

Conflicts can happen in the workplace; having open lines of communication and clear processes to resolve them is essential. But when does conflict become bullying? Bullying can occur when an employee is harassed or intimidated, when the situation interferes with someone’s ability to complete their job, or in cases of verbal or physical abuse. Often, the target experiences consequences as a result of the bullying if it's not addressed, such as:

  • Stress or health-related impact.
  • Diminished status within the organization.
  • Long-lasting economic, financial, and career-related issues.

Employee attrition associated with bullying — as well as the potential for lost productivity while dealing with incidents — can negatively impact a company's bottom line. There's also the risk of harm to a company's brand and reputation among employees and in the talent market. Businesses can't afford to dismiss or ignore workplace bullies.Bullying can occur when employees are harassed or intimidated, when the situation interferes with or sabotages someone’s ability to complete their job, on in cases of verbal physical abuse

The Need To Report Incidents of Bullying

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with bullying sometimes causes an under-reporting of incidents. A Paychex survey of 1,000 Americans conducted earlier in 2018 showed that the majority of respondents went to HR with complaints about transgressions less than half of the time. In fact, just 11.1 percent reported their concerns in at least half of cases.

These findings indicate those who reported with greater frequency also did so more swiftly on average. Whereas the typical worker reported an incident nearly 29 days after it occurred, that period was significantly smaller for those who usually or always went to HR when a problem arose.

Perhaps reporting would occur more often and more quickly if complaints were resolved more successfully. While 64.9 percent of survey respondents said their complaints were resolved at least half the time, that left more than a third of participants frustrated with the potential failure of their company's HR professionals.

Addressing and Preventing Bullying in the Workplace

As noted, one of the biggest challenges of dealing with workplace bullying is the stigma associated with it. Victims may be afraid to come forward, and employers may not be certain of how to address a bullying case when it arises.

It's important that companies have mechanisms for reporting incidents. Staff should be encouraged to talk to their supervisor, HR representative, or any member of management.

Educate your staff on how to deal with workplace bullies through a clear, written non-harassment policy. Take accusations of bullying seriously, and if you're facing a complicated employee situation, consider consulting a knowledgeable HR partner or labor and employment attorney for further advice.

Here are five proactive ways to help prevent bullying and other forms of harassment in the workplace that you can implement, starting today:

1. Establish a Zero-Tolerance, Anti-Harassment Policy

Work with your HR department to craft a comprehensive, easy-to-understand anti-workplace harassment and anti-discrimination policy covering all employees. Include guidance from your company's legal counsel to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal laws and regulations.

2. Institute Employee Training and Awareness Programs

Everyone throughout the organization must understand why an anti-workplace harassment policy is needed and how they can report a concerning situation. Establish a training program in which all employees must participate. Schedule training on a regular basis, at least once or twice a year, which can include:

  • What constitutes acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior
  • How to recognize when bullying or other forms of harassment takes place
  • Steps to take to report inappropriate behaviorEducate your staff on bullying and take steps prevent it through a clear, written non-harassment policy

3. Create Specialized Training for Managers and Supervisors

People in charge of managing employees must be skilled in recognizing when bullying or other forms of harassment occur. They must always make clear that such behavior can't be tolerated under any circumstances. Offer training so managers are aware of, and know how to respond to, complaints of harassment.

4. Build a Culture Where Harassment Is Unlikely To Take Place

Business leaders have an obligation to mold and enforce a culture where managers and employees behave professionally at all times, including offsite and at off-hour gatherings. In such a culture, bullying has no place, and those in charge assume the responsibility of continuously communicating their dedication to ensuring an environment free of harassment.

5. Ensure Everyone Understands the Process for Reporting a Complaint

At staff meetings and in your employee handbook, clearly lay out the process for filing a complaint of inappropriate behavior. Also, make sure everyone understands that each complaint is taken very seriously and that an investigation will take place when necessary.

Staying Compliant With State and Federal Requirements

Throughout the U.S., certain requirements or compliance mandates exist to prevent bullying and other forms of harassment in the workplace. These may vary depending on where a business is located, but most U.S. employers have specific responsibilities related to anti-discrimination under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Individual states have also taken their own approaches to deter workplace harassment. For example:

  • New York state: New York expanded its law in 2018, offering protection from sexual harassment for independent contractors and freelancers, among a handful of other non-employees. Employers must also adopt and distribute a sexual harassment prevention policy, adopt an internal complaint form, and conduct interactive sexual harassment prevention training for all employees by Oct. 9, 2019. New employees should be trained as soon as possible. This training must be conducted annually.
  • California: Harassment prohibitions apply to all businesses with one or more employees and pertain to independent contractors, as well. Supervisors can be held liable for unlawful harassment. Every employer must maintain a written policy detailing its approach to meeting anti-harassment provisions.
  • Connecticut: Extends workplace laws against harassment to unpaid interns; the laws don't require a minimum number of employees and encompass anyone in Connecticut conducting business.
  • Rhode Island: Requires employers to display an anti-harassment poster in the workplace.
  • Maine: Employers with 15 or more employees must provide training to employees within one year of being hired. Supervisors and managers must receive additional training within one year of assuming supervisory responsibilities.

Several other states strongly recommend instruction or training in recognizing and preventing harassment in the workplace. Every employer should determine which state and federal regulations apply to their specific workplace.

Learn more about the impact of bullying and other detrimental behavior in the workplace, including how it could impact your bottom line.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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