7 ways to tackle workplace bullying

We look into how to manage “one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations”

7 ways to tackle workplace bullying

Workplace bullying poses serious challenges to organizations and undermines the health of employees. However, the issue remains “one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations,” according to David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University and an affiliate of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

In fact, new research from the WBI found that 76 million, or 30%, of all US workers have experienced workplace harassment or bullying.

Read more: Beauty retailer faces claims of bullying, vows reform

Harassment takes many forms and can take a toll on a victim’s mental and physical well-being – and though without fault, 29% of victims end up losing their job, either by termination or constructive discharge.

Both employees and companies suffer from low morale and productivity due to bullying, and the latter can incur losses from legal costs. Moreover, 30% of the victims tend to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even thoughts of suicide.

But what qualifies as bullying and how can human resources prevent it from happening? Let’s take a closer look.

What is workplace bullying?

The WBI defines bullying as the malicious, repeated, and health-endangering mistreatment of one employee by another. Yelling, false accusations of mistakes, and non-verbal intimidation are among the most frequently reported abusive behaviors.

“It comes in many varieties, overt and covert, direct and indirect,” says Yamada. “Workplace bullying does not concern everyday disagreements at work. It encompasses a power relationship vested in organizational hierarchies, interpersonal dynamics, or both.”

Read more: EEOC insider reveals ‘bullying’ tactics towards employers

Can bullying happen in a work from home environment?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, remote workers already felt left out and ganged-up on. According to a 2017 study by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), 570 out of the 1,100 remote employees they polled say they have received unequal treatment from their bosses and colleagues.

“They worry that co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities,” says HBR.

And a year after COVID-19 broke out, WBI’s study revealed that 43% of the remote workers they polled say that they suffer from bullying – with around half of these incidents happening during virtual meetings with multiple people.

This is equivalent to being berated in front of an audience – only on a computer screen where facial expressions are a lot more prominent. The study found that mistreatment can also happen on emails and chats, but on a smaller scale.

Whether it happens at the office or online, here are seven ways that you can address bullying.

1. Build awareness around the impact of gossip, sexual harassment, and cyber-bullying

Bullying prevention starts with a consistent information campaign at the workplace. Human resource professionals can start this campaign by holding mandatory training sessions on the different types of harassment and outline how employees can report an incident, whether they are the victim or a witness.

During these sessions, employees can also learn that gossiping and incessantly mocking a co-worker – either in person or online – are forms of bullying that have serious repercussions and consequences.

For example, employees can learn that harassment based on gender orientation can be grounds for termination and be escalated to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Read more: Are 'cliques' killing your company culture?

2. Create a reporting system for employees

Sixty-five percent of harrassment incidents involves a high-ranking co-worker as the principal perpetrator, causing many victims to shy away from reporting the incident. As such, it is important to create safe and formal channels for employees to raise their complaints.

The system should also allow victims to report incidents without the fear of retaliation and should include scenarios where HR itself is the problem.

3. Gather and track feedback from employees

A good way to gauge the amount of bullying that may be happening in your organization is by conducting anonymous surveys and using the data to identify the demographics of those who experience harassment and bullying.

Moreover, the survey should ask whether workers feel that the organization protects them from abusive behavior at the workplace. About half (48%) of bullied victims attribute the toxicity of the workplace to organizational retaliation and management’s history of responding to complaints.

Read more: How to spot a workplace bully

4. Consult or partner with mental health professionals

Both intervention and professional support are essential for the target and perpetrator. These measures will help the victim recover from the abuse and receive psychological counsel if needed.

Similarly, professional mediators can coach bullies and steer them in the right direction. They can also conduct prevention training on-site or through video calls.

5. Officially call out abusive conduct

A manager may witness inappropriate behavior firsthand or learn about it through a complaint. Either way, they must confront the bully at the first instance of abuse. He or she should call a meeting with both the offender and an HR representative and document the facts in its entirety.

HR professionals should assess the severity of the incident and whether it violates the policies of the EEOC, which protect employees from any harassment related to race, gender, religion, or age.

If the case does not escalate to level of the EEOC, the offender must apologize to the victim and make assurances that it will not happen again. Issue a formal letter of reprimand and closely monitor the offenders behavior in the near-term.

6. Create visible repercussions for offenders to protect victims

Place repeat offenders under probation and provide strict consequences should they commit bullying acts again. Suspension is typically the next disciplinary action after a written warning, particularly if the employee refuses to cooperate after coaching and intervention.

Use suspension as a tool to stop the disruptive behavior and plan out scenarios in case termination becomes necessary. Be thorough and consult an employment lawyer.

Communicate with the rest of your employees that harassment, at the office or remotely, will not be tolerated by your organization. Additionally, be vocal and direct about the possible consequences.

7. How to address bullying when working from home

Detecting and preventing bullying in a remote working environment can be challenging, given the reduced daily interactions between co-workers. However, HR professionals should still encourage employees to use proper reporting channels if they experience incidents of bullying. Additionally, allocate time to talk about bullying and employee relationships in your performance conversations.

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