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What Employers Must Do to Prevent and Address Workplace Bullying

The “Me Too” movement has sparked discussions about how people treat each other in the workplace. While the “Me Too” movement primarily relates to sexual harassment in the workplace, employers must also be cognizant of the growing issue of violence/bullying that not only exists in workplace settings, but is as frequent and consequential as sexual harassment. Employers must be proactive in preventing bullying as well as appropriately respond to complaints to avoid liability and other adverse impacts on the business.

Workplace bullying is generally defined as threatening, humiliating or intimidating behavior in the workplace. It includes threats of and acts of physical violence. Although there is a legal definition for workplace bullying, as with sexual harassment, each situation is different and it is impossible to specifically categorize what behavior is, and is not workplace bullying. Often workplace bullying is defined by the context of the dialogue and the relationship of the parties. It is also subjective; what is bullying to one person may be more tolerable or acceptable to another.

There are generally two categories of workplace bullying: when a manager or supervisor reprimands an employee and when one employee “bullies” a fellow employee. It is critical to understand that employers, managers and supervisors are entitled to reprimand their staff, speak harshly to them, and in some cases make them feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, there is a line that managers simply cannot cross where their actions change from appropriate reprimand or motivation to improper behavior that is considered bullying. Again, this line is not specifically defined, but employers should simply think carefully before they react, rather than address employees with negative emotion.

Workplace bullying is more common when two employees simply do not get along. Rather than resolve their differences, avoid each other, or seek the assistance of management, employees often react and do and say things that can create significant workplace issues. Any threat of violence or physical act of aggression in the workplace can have serious consequences for both the employee and employer. Moreover, employers must be cautious about making insensitive jokes or constantly badgering or ganging up on other employees. In some cases, this is harmless workplace banter, but in others, if an employee feels intimidated or humiliated, it may rise to the level of workplace bullying.

Similar to sexual harassment, employers must have zero tolerance toward any form of workplace bullying. People should be able to work in a safe environment and feel as though they can work with some level of dignity. As such, employers should have a written policy prohibiting bullying as well as procedures for making and investigating complaints. if an employee makes a complaint of workplace bullying, the employer is obligated to follow through and investigate the claim. If the employer determines that the behavior is not appropriate, it must take appropriate steps to ensure that the behavior ceases.

If the employer ignores allegations of this nature, or fails to take steps to protect its employees, it could lead to serious negative consequences for the company. In addition to legal liability, employers who tolerate bullying often suffer from poor employee morale, reduced productivity, high employee turnover and reputational damage.

Bullying is real and employers need to take it seriously. If you need assistance developing a workplace bullying policy or with investigating a complaint, contact us for a consultation.