The 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) reveals that a fifth (19%) of American workers are bullied, and another 19% witness it.
Perhaps even worse is the fact that employer and coworker reactions can compound the situation: 71% of U.S. employers and 60% of coworkers react to the bullying in ways that harm those being bullied. The WBI writes, “The most frequent negative employer reaction is to conduct what targets describe as ‘sham’ investigations characterized by major shortcomings.”
It can be more challenging for employers to address bullying than it might seem at first blush. For example, employers frequently apply the wrong solution to the problem, e.g. they try to treat the bullying as a form of conflict resolution involving mediation or even just admonishments to “figure it out.” Workplace culture might even foster bullying, if behaviors like competitiveness or one-upmanship are encouraged. Sometimes executives themselves can be cowed by the bullies, who might threaten litigation against the employer if they are reprimanded or terminated.
So, how should employers react when workplace bullying has been reported?
1: Take it seriously.
Don’t dismiss the allegation. Don’t circle the wagons in a misguided effort to protect the company. Many bullying episodes are related to discrimination and can therefore result in litigation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Take the complaint as seriously as you would take the potential penalties.
2: Document the incident, and do so immediately.
Talk to the relevant employees (separately – this is important) to gather details about the incident, including any witnesses. Any single incident may or may not lead to punitive action, but if you are dealing with a serial bully, having a paper trail will make it easier to deal appropriately with them. Act immediately. If legal authorities or courts become involved, delays may be taken as an indicator of indifference.
3: Get ahead of the bullying – take proactive steps to prevent or reduce bully incidents.
Many traditional employee conflict protocols do not really work for bullying, e.g. mediation, but many employers have no other articulated policies. Fix that problem. Create explicit policies and procedures around bullying specifically; and train supervisors and managers how to spot, understand, and react to bullying. It’s common for front-line supervisors to turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior simply because they don’t know what else to do. Fix that problem before the bullying occurs, and you might prevent the incident altogether.
For more information on handling both bullying and harassment effectively at your workplace, join us on October 5, 2017 for our webinar, “Buckle Down on Bullying & Harassment.”