I met Dr. Gary Namie Founder and President of the Workplace Bullying Institute at an Employment Law conference in 2013. I have to confess this was my first exposure to the concept of bullying at work. I knew of bullying in school. And like most managers I did not think bullying occurred in the workplace or that bullying was a significant problem.

This was until I heard the confession of a fellow HR professional who shared her experience of being bullied at work. This was an eye-opener but I wasn’t convinced it was a pervasive problem until last year.

Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 35% of U.S. workers (a whopping 53.5 million people) have been bullied on the job. While some victims report the problem, many stay silent for fear of looking weak or not being taken seriously. Workplace bullies are great at hiding their actions from higher-ups, much like schoolyard bullies who slip under a teacher’s radar.

Workplace bullies often intimidate, spread gossip, and use the disguise of jokes to humiliate their victims. They may sabotage someone’s work, conveniently forget to include them on important emails or meetings, or give them the silent treatment. Regardless of style, the intention is the same: create an atmosphere of control and fear.

Since the start of 2018 and the #Metoo movement, victims are starting to raise their voices and approach management with unsettling stories. I have done a record number of workplace investigations involving allegations of harassment and bullying. Owners and managers are faced with ugly allegations and revelations of improprieties at work. In their search for solutions, they turn to me as a third-party investigator.

The American Bar Association defines bullying as “persistent, malicious, unwelcome, severe and pervasive mistreatment that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment.”

For HR professional and managers, stopping bullying behavior is imperative. Bullying impacts not only the victim but also the co-workers who witness it. From what I have seen in my investigations, bullying is like a cancer that spreads across a department, a division, a worksite.

Best Practices to Prevent Bullying At Work

First, we need to recognize that a written policy prohibiting bullying behavior will not stop it from happening but it will give you a basis for action.

Define what “bullying” behaviors look like. Some of the more common complaints of abusive behavior received by employers include: constant singling out of an employee; abusive and offensive language; unreasonable criticism; deliberate exclusion from work-related activities; spreading rumors and innuendo, trivializing achievements and/or taking credit for another person’s work and achievements; affording an employee the “silent treatment”; practical jokes; and excessive demands and micro-management.

Encourage employees experiencing or witnessing abusive behavior to promptly report it. Designate at least two persons to whom complaints should be made under the policy. Usually, those two are the supervisor and HR. Make it clear that reporting can be done to any trusted member of management. This also creates the obligation for all managers to take action, even when the report doesn’t come from one of their direct reports.

Establish an investigation process for a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation. Establish a relationship with a third-party investigator and an employment attorney before a crisis blows up!

Enforce a zero-tolerance policy. In my experience of workplace investigations, management has an inkling that something is not right but they ignore the problems when the bully is in a position of authority and the business results are satisfactory. By not addressing a problem early, we let it fester and grow to a point when drastic actions are required. Addressing problem early give management a chance to coach and minimize the fall-out. 

Schedule refresher training for all supervisors on employee relations topics to include harassment and bullying prevention.

Workplace investigations are very time-consuming and emotionally draining. The solution is not to avoid dealing with it but rather tackling it honestly and fully. However, there is a silver lining at the end of the dark tunnel for employees affected or witnessing bullying.

One of my clients recently sent me an update following an investigation. “Things seem to have improved greatly since the investigation. The management team have checked in regularly with the new manager, the complainant and with most of those interviewed [during the investigation]. All agree that the job is far more productive and pleasant. Someone even used the word professional when describing the workplace, which was GREAT to hear.

Contact me to see how I might help you with a problem or a potential problem in your workplace.