Just Say No to Workplace Bullying

The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 19% of the U.S. workforce has faced bullying, and another 19% have witnessed someone being bullied. This includes conduct that is publicly or privately threatening, humiliating, or intimidating. Employees may not see it as discrimination, but they definitely see it as mistreatment, and it adds unneeded angst, and legal risk, to the workplace.

Employers have the power to either condone or curtail such conduct. According the institute, few employers take a firm stand. But it’s unwise to let employees “just work things out” between themselves. An employer is responsible for the environment in which its employees work. And allowing bullies free rein creates a hostile work environment that can backfire when claims are filed or in litigation, in countless ways.

Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, the author of “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” identifies offending behaviors as insults, violations of personal space, unsolicited touching, threats, sarcasm, flames, humiliation, shaming, interruption, backbiting, glaring, and snubbing. Employees may have a hard time defining an exchange, but they know when they’ve been undercut or belittled.

Allowing toxic bullying to flourish increases stress in a workplace, accelerates turnover and adversely affects the mental health of all involved, even those who are not direct targets. Additionally, these bullies create time-consuming problems for HR and can lead to increased legal costs.

Employers should make it clear that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated, even if it is a top performer. Boards must draw the same bright lines when it comes to the conduct of their CEOs. Lay out in the employee handbook the kind of conduct that is expected: that based on respect and mutual consideration. Top management needs to model the conduct it wants, and should publically call out bullies when the situation warrants, ideally in real time. Taking these steps shows employees they will be supported when they report suspect behavior, and will ultimately lead to a more peaceful workplace for all.