When people hear “bullying,” most think of high school, cyberbullying, and children. While bullying is rampant in schools, it’s also surprisingly common in the workplace. In fact, according to research from Dr. Judy Blando with the University of Phoenix, as many as 75% of all workers will experience workplace bullying during their lifetime. At the same time, only 29% will ever speak up about it, despite an average of 65% of the workplace being aware of it. The growing acceptance of remote working adds an additional layer of complexity in addressing workplace bullying. A 2017 study by Harvard Business Review found that 52% of 1153 polled remote workers felt they were being excluded from important decisions and feared co-workers lobbying against them.
While adults are more than capable of managing and reporting bullying than children, many simply don’t have the resources or the motivation to do so. More importantly, with data from the Workplace Bullying Institute showing that 71% of workplace responses to reports of bullying actually negatively impact the victim, it’s not surprising that many fail to report these incidents of workplace bullying.
By creating helpful and proactive policies and structures that respond effectively towards workplace bullying, you can increase reporting, decrease instances of bullying, and improve overall workplace satisfaction.
Here are 5 Tips on How to Effectively Address Workplace Bullying:
- Establish What Is Workplace Bullying, and What Isn’t
- Create Policies and Procedures to Handle Workplace Bullying
- Protect the Individual and Avoid Placing Blame
- Create Visible Repercussions for Workplace Bullies
- Address Workplace Bullying by Focusing on Education and Moving Forward
1. Establish What Is Workplace Bullying, and What Isn’t
What some may perceive as workplace bullying may actually be legitimate performance management. Employees—especially younger generations—may complain of workplace bullying at the hands of their managers when the manager was simply implementing legitimate performance management measures. For instance, calling them on the fact that they arrived late, requiring them to run drafts of reports by them before sending to senior leaders, etc.
So, what constitutes bullying behaviors in the workplace? The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators”.
Types of Workplace Bullying Include:
- Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
- Work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done
- Verbal abuse
It’s important for both employees and managers to understand the difference between workplace bullying and performance management. Managers need to understand and use effective and constructive management techniques. By offering training to both employees and managers in critical conversation skills and conflict management, you can help to ensure positive and respectful interactions, even when confronting performance issues.
2. Create Policies and Procedures to Handle Workplace Bullying
Individuals should have multiple clear avenues for reporting workplace bullying; they should also be able to record when and how workplace bullying is happening and understand that a procedure will be followed each time they file a report. Therefore, you should make policies and procedures public, place them in an HR directory, and offer them as part of anti-harassment and anti-bullying education.
When you provide several channels for reporting such as through management, HR, or an online portal or hotline, you allow individuals to file a report regardless of who may be involved (HR, management, or team lead). This is vital for offices with remote working options, where workers often feel disconnected from their co-workers and less comfortable reporting directly to colleagues. More isolated digital environments such as chat groups, document comments, or video meetings are also a common source of bullying for remote workers. The extra channels to make reports allow remote workers to address their issues and allow HR to maintain workplace bullying policies in and out of the office.
Clear policies and procedures to handle workplace bullying provide confidence that an investigation can occur. If people know what their various options are, they are significantly more likely to report when problematic behavior occurs.
3. Protect the Individual and Avoid Placing Blame
It’s easy to respond to a report of workplace bullying with incredulity or doubt—or even putting the focus on the victim rather than the bully—harming the person who made the report. Therefore, it’s important to put procedures into place to protect those reporting workplace bullying.
While bullies are often intentional in their behaviors, in some cases individuals may not be aware of how harmful their words or actions are. For example, a Type A manager, with a singular focus on achieving tough goals and a direct, no-nonsense approach to others, may come across as disrespectful or as a bully, especially by very sensitive individuals. In these situations, HR can point out these behaviors and provide coaching and counseling in more productive communication skills. Whether bullies are intentional or lack personal awareness, the response to their behavior should avoid placing blame and, instead, focus on redirecting behavior to support a harassment-free and respectful workplace.
Meanwhile, victims of workplace bullying often experience a significant amount of blame, sometimes in subtle ways. A project may be delayed for an investigation; their career may stall if others perceive them as someone to be avoided or a troublemaker, and a report can throw the entire team into a negative light. Remote workers may be extra sensitive to these ramifications for reporting workplace bullying. As HBR reported, there is an underlying fear of backtalk and career stagnation that remote workers may feel. Allowing this sort of blame only de-incentivizes people from making reports in the first place. Instead, keep the focus on improving workplace productivity and communicate both the broad impact that workplace bullying has and how it can detract from everyone’s ability to perform at their best.
Putting procedures into place to ensure that reports are investigated fairly, without jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, or blaming the target, is important for protecting the individual. It’s also important not to call out or isolate the person reporting workplace bullying. Instead, take steps to ensure that the person reporting is rewarded and encouraged to continue to speak up.
4. Create Visible Repercussions for Workplace Bullies
It may surprise you to learn that those most likely to be bullied in the workplace aren’t the underdogs. Unlike most bullying that takes place on school grounds, in the workplace, bullies are most likely to target those they perceive as a threat, according to research by the Workplace Bullying Institute. This can be especially true in instances where employees are meeting or exceeding expectations, during periods of change such as a restructuring or merger, or when new opportunities such as promotions are available. The goal of the workplace bully is to diminish the value, or perceived value, of the person he or she perceives as a threat.
Creating visible repercussions for bullies is an important way to both protect victims and prevent future instances. You should create steps to confront the bully, educate the entire workforce on expected conduct, work with the individual to coach them out of bad behavior, implement discipline, and—if necessary—remove them from your workplace. While it’s often the case that bullies feel safe to bully because of factors such as friends in management, family members, tenure, specialized skills, or personal value to the organization, their behaviors can be extremely detrimental to the organization both in terms of cost and reputation.
5. Address Workplace Bullying by Focusing on Education and Moving Forward
Workplace bullying happens. And with 3 out of 4 individuals experiencing it during their lifetimes, it happens a lot. Focusing on ongoing education by creating training, integrating coaching, and ensuring everyone has the chance to attend classes or workshops is important in raising awareness of bullying.
It should be clear that everyone in the organization has a responsibility to eliminate workplace bullying. By including bystander training in your training efforts, you can help educate employees on the role that they can play, their options for standing up or stepping in, and tools and resources available to them for serving effectively in a bystander role.
Educating people on their behavior, teaching emotional intelligence and expected conduct, and creating viable alternatives for expressing problems in the workplace will help to prevent workplace bullying.