Latest Legal Threat: Workplace Bullies

by on July 1, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Act now to Preempt Problems with Workplace Bullies

Just what you need: yet another growing risk that some employee is going to get a lawyer and sue you. What are we talking about? Sexual harassment? Retaliation? Nope. The new legal battleground is workplace bullies. We’re not talking about a schoolyard bully taunting the kid with glasses. We’re talking about overbearing, abusive or intimidating non-sexual behavior at work – conduct that could be expanding the definition of hostile environment even as you read these words.

Workplace bullies, unlike their playground cousins, tend to operate within the system and get away with their nasty behavior. With harassment, by contrast, crossing the line is more obvious and getting away with it far more difficult. But now, there are signs that courts and legislatures may start to crack down on workplace bullies. Among them:

  • The Indiana Supreme Court just issued a ground-breaking decision equating workplace bullying to intentional infliction of emotional distress – a civil violation under state laws.
  • Yet another state legislature – New York – is weighing a bill advocated by anti-bullying activists, making the state the 13th to consider such legislation. (No law has yet passed.)

All this means now’s the time for you to act preemptively – to protect both your employees and your organization.

And action is clearly needed. In a survey of 196 HR pros, only 26% of respondents said their organizations have robust anti-bullying policies that are consistently enforced. Fully half of respondents had no policy on workplace bullies.

What exactly is bullying in a workplace context? You have to make that decision yourself as you write a policy. As you do, bear in mind not only potential legal issues but also the harm to morale and retention that workplace bullies can inflict. Here are some behaviors that activists – led by the Workplace Bullying Institute – stigmatize, and which could get you sued:

  • Verbal abuse and insults. (In the Indiana case, the court noted that the bully “aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with …piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing.”)
  • Non-verbal abuse, intimidation or humiliation. This includes the kind of prodding and goading that stops short of violence.
  • Interference with or sabotage of others’ work. This often takes the form of hiding time cards or tools.

Academic researchers into bullying also include such behavior as:

  • Persistent criticism.
  • Spreading gossip, and
  • Shunning, ignoring, or exclusion.

You’ll want to be selective in your definition. You may, for instance, consider that banning “persistent criticism” would stop supervisors from addressing the failings of hard-core underperformers. But also keep in mind that perception matters: An employee may feel that certain conduct is bullying, no matter what his manager thinks.

When you’re ready to kick your bullying initiative into gear, here are three steps you can take to ensure success:

  • Alert top management. Hard driving executives whose own behavior can be very demanding may need some sensitization to the issue’s importance.
  • Craft a policy. Consider adding a stand-alone anti-bullying policy, to call more attention to it. Alternatively, tuck it into an existing policy on harassment or respect for co-workers.
  • Train supervisors on what to look for. Managers need to watch out for bullying by employees, and also to look in the mirror and make sure they’re behavior doesn’t qualify.

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