Summary

Worried about bullying in the workplace, or that management practices might be misinterpreted as harassment? Learn what constitutes workplace bullying.

Dealing with Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is a serious occupational health and safety risk that has such far-reaching implications that the Department of Labor (DOL) has a provision covering workplace harassment to protect the rights of workers.

While principally aimed at discrimination in the workplace, the law prohibits the harassment of individuals based on a wide range of characteristics including race, creed, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation, age, or other differentiating features.

Bullying Behavior at Work

In spite of this, according to research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of US employees have experienced bullying in the workplace at some point. Obviously, this is a concern for employers who are invested in providing a healthy workplace for staff.

The challenge with managing bullying behaviors at work is that it is sometimes hard to identify the difference between workplace harassment and reasonable workplace action.

What Exactly is Workplace Bullying?

The accepted definition of workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behavior directed toward a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety, as well as emotional well-being. Examples of repeated and unreasonable behavior include:

  • Abusive, insulting, or offensive comments
  • Aggressive and intimidating conduct
  • Initiation and hazing rituals
  • Practical jokes
  • Belittling or humiliating comments

Other issues that might not seem quite as obvious would be unrealistic workload expectations and implementing impossible deadlines. While productivity demands may seem like a priority, when this emphasis leads to unreasonable stress, it may be necessary to train supervisors and management to take greater care when planning schedules.

Symptoms of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying has a significant negative impact on employees’ concentration, confidence, productivity, and job performance.

Being bullied can cause a person many forms of physical and psychological health symptoms, including:

  • Increased stress
  • Depression and anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • Panic attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Gastrointestinal issues

These stress-related issues can lead to further physical symptoms that ultimately put pressure on healthcare resources. Examples include compromised immune systems, migraines, persistent aches and pains, chronic exhaustion, and in extreme cases, death by stroke, heart disease, and even suicide.

Impact of Stress on Productivity

While most employers will immediately see the benefit of preventing bullying, those who need some convincing should consider that a stressful work environment is bad for business, too. Workers who are suffering from extreme distress in an organization will display the following behaviors:

  • Poor creativity
  • Low productivity
  • Lack of initiative
  • Aggression or frustration
  • Disinterest in work
  • Decreased morale with clients
  • Increased sick leave

In many cases, an employer may be aware that their business is flagging but not realize that it could be connected to a staff member or even a manager who is a bully.

Of course, this is not always the case, and for this reason, it is also necessary to identify when certain behavior is acceptable in the workplace.

What is Not Workplace Bullying?

So, just as it is important that an employer must recognize workplace bullying as a risk, it is equally important to recognize what is not workplace bullying.

In some instances, situations can arise out of miscommunication, dissatisfaction with roles, or isolated instances of personality clashes among workers. These are sometimes an unavoidable part of workplace management, and prevention is generally impossible. However, management training can go a long way toward handling these situations effectively.

The following situations are not considered to be workplace bullying:

  • If it is a single incident of unreasonable behavior. For example, interpersonal conflict between workers may arise on occasion, resulting in unacceptable behavior. These instances should be addressed by management but may not constitute actual bullying.
  • If managers and supervisors are allocating work and giving feedback on a worker’s performance if the behavior is carried out in a lawful and reasonable way. This may involve allocating a task within the worker’s official job description that they do not wish to perform, or raising concerns about poor work performance.
  • If a manager is exercising their legitimate authority at work, which results in some discomfort for the worker, this is not considered harassment if protocols are adhered to. 

As a rule, it is essential that managers be aware of possible areas of concern and report any issues about employees’ conduct as soon as they arise.

No-Tolerance Policy for a Healthy Workplace

One thing’s for certain, workplace harassment should never be tolerated. Employers should encourage a no-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying in the workplace, with preventive measures in place to protect employees from being bullied.

Providing a work environment that fosters an attitude of social support will not only assist the person suffering from being bullied but also discourage bullies from feeling this sort of behavior is acceptable from the outset.

The first step is ensuring a workplace where staff feel free to communicate their concerns about the way they are being treated, as well as being encouraged to report issues involving coworkers and team members.

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The Union Workforce Initiative is for educational, training, and awareness purposes only. This is not an Employee Assistance Program. We help build awareness within the workforces of employer/employee assistance professionals, substance abuse professionals, nurses, doctors, and other educational professionals.