Why you need to watch out for workplace bullies

by Kathy Bray, Esq.

When you hear the word “bullying” do you think of a child being taunted on the playground, or a teen being harassed online?

Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t end with childhood. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 60.3 million U.S. workers are affected by bullying.

As an employer, running an inclusive, respectful and bully-free workplace can help your employees and your organization thrive.

The following are some basics for employers on workplace bullying and how to prevent it.

What is workplace bullying?

It’s repeated, harmful, targeted behavior toward one or more persons at work. It can take the form of verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, intimidation, targeted practical jokes, purposeful misleading, unjustified denial of time off, excessive performance monitoring, or overly harsh or unjust criticism, according to Healthline .

How prevalent is workplace bullying?

In a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey , 38 percent of workers responded that they had been bullied themselves, or witnessed it.

What can employers do to prevent workplace bullying?

As an employer, you can institute policies and procedures to make your workplace welcoming for all. Take the following steps to promote a workplace that supports an open exchange of ideas, without fear of belittling or disrespect:

  • Create a workplace civility policy that sets the tone for a professional, respectful work environment. These policies can go beyond the law to address verbal and social bullying.
  • Employ thorough hiring practices that will weed out potential bullies.
  • Call references and past employers, and ask about whether the job candidate exhibited threatening or violent behavior.
  • Do a thorough criminal background check.
  • After hire, make anti-bullying and anti-harassment training part of your orientation process. Make sure you have policies listing guidelines for appropriate employee conduct.
  • A retaliation policy is also important. By prohibiting retaliation against anyone who reports a violation of the law or company policy, you’ll make it more likely that someone will come forward if they’re being bullied.

Is it illegal?

That depends on the situation. If the bullying is based on race, color, religion, gender (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), a disability or genetic information it’s possible it could be a form of harassment , which is illegal. If you are operating in one of the 22 states or the District of Columbia with laws expressly preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation (e.g., Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), bullying on that basis also could be actionable. Physical violence and threats are also illegal.

There’s a national campaign to pass a Healthy Workplace Bill , which would make workplace bullying illegal and allow workers to sue their bullies individually. The bill has been introduced in 30 states, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute website, but Puerto Rico is the first in the United States to enact a workplace bullying law, which was signed into law in August 2020 .

What does workplace bullying have to do with workers’ compensation?

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 , employers are required to provide a safe workplace. One aspect of workplace safety is addressing the risk of workplace violence , which OSHA defines as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

Getting employees back to work as soon as they are medically able is an important goal following an occupational injury. Creating a safe and positive workplace will increase the likelihood of return to work success.

Other resources:

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