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The back-to-school season can often be anxiety-inducing for children, and parents of children who have experienced bullying at school.  Many schools have instituted anti-bullying measures in order to protect children from behavior from that falls outside the realm of appropriate.  Bullying is also an important topic for employers to face head-on.

In 2014, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) completed a national survey on bullying in the workplace.  That survey defines bullying as “repeated mistreatment; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse.”  Bullying spans the range from good natured teasing, at one end of the spectrum, to truly abusive conduct, at the other end of the spectrum. 

Allegations of bullying in the workplace are not uncommon.  According to the WBI, 72% of American workers are aware of workplace bullying; 27% of those workers report having direct experience with abusive conduct in the workplace.  WBI reports that the majority of workplace bullies are supervisors; and that 72% of employers tend to look the other way when it comes to workplace bullying by denying its existence, minimizing its effects, encouraging or participating in the behavior, or defending it.

These statistics seem grim, for good reason. Employees who are bullied often feel powerless to report the bullying, for fear that they might be fired or otherwise retaliated against for reporting the behavior.  Likewise, employees who are bullied by their supervisors may have no chain of command to whom the report should be addressed.  These are issues that employers can, and should, address. 

If the prospect of a more harmonious workplace is not enough motivation for an employer to take action, employers should know that they can face legal and financial implications if they fail to address bullying in the workplace.  Although bullying is not illegal per se, employers who fail to put policies in place or otherwise address allegations of bullying can be sued for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress, constructive firing, or breach of contract.  Employers have also faced federal civil rights lawsuits where the bullying focuses on a protected characteristic, such as sexual orientation, race, or gender.

The proactive employer will take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to addressing this kind of conduct, but may not know what steps to take to curb the bullying and ensure that bullying behavior stops.  Here is a list of steps you can take as an employer, large or small, to protect yourself and your employees: 

  • Institute an anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy

Public and private employers alike should utilize a policy handbook that specifically states what type of behavior is unacceptable.  Make your handbook crystal clear that you have a zero-tolerance attitude on bullying, and then make sure you enforce it.  Make sure your handbook is clear, that your employees have a copy and have access to a copy.  Define bullying and harassment for your employees, who may not know what is appropriate workplace behavior.  Use specific examples and describe a list of behaviors that are unacceptable. 

Make sure your policy describes the specific steps your employees can take to report bullying. Describe the chain of command, ensure your employees will not be retaliated against for making a report, and tell your workers how complaints of bullying will be investigated. If you cannot assure your employees’ confidentiality, don’t promise it. Some employers offer the option of anonymous reporting, which can encourage reporting. Get a feel for what will work in your particular workplace.  An office of three people will require a different approach than a factory with hundreds of workers.

  • Follow through

 In addition to defining bullying and describing examples of bullying, your policy or handbook must tell your employees what will occur to the bully if allegations of bullying are substantiated. Don’t bluff.  Adopt a no-tolerance policy. Corrective action short of termination may be suitable in some circumstances, but will not always insulate you from a bullied employee’s claims that you created a hostile work environment for him or her, if the bully is not terminated.

 It is vitally important that you ensure your employees know that additional victimization or retaliation following a report of bullying will not be tolerated. Even if a claim of bullying is later found to be unsubstantiated, firing an employee for making the initial report can lead to a lawsuit. 

  • Straight talk, not passive aggression

It is uncomfortable to talk about bullying. Often there are office politics, power dynamics, or personal relationships in the workplace which make conversations about bullying difficult to have.  It is always the better approach to tackle issues head on, rather than hope they go away.  As the employer, get know your people.  Having a human relationship with your employees helps put your vulnerable staff more at ease to report bullying, and lets you be direct when confronting behavior that you feel has crossed the line. Likewise, after an allegation of bullying has been made, make sure that you keep the parties in the loop on the investigation. Don’t drop hints or sweep it under the rug; make sure your employees know you hear them and are addressing their concerns.

When workplace bullying goes unchecked, your business suffers.  Bullying leads to low morale, high turnover, employee dissatisfaction, in addition to potentially expensive lawsuits.  It is so important for employers to know how to handle bullying in the workplace and be proactive when allegations are made.

For more information on how to protect your business and your employees with a workplace policy against bullying, contact one of Goosmann Law Firm’s skilled employment attorneys at 605-371-2000 or click below to contact us.

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