Workplace bullying negatively affects organizational resilience and performance, hindering employees’ best efforts and overall success.
Embrace diverse strategies to prevent bullying, such as promoting respect, inclusive management, bystander intervention, and more.
Maintaining ongoing efforts to combat bullying while prioritizing employee well-being fosters a resilient workforce and propels organizational success.
You know that bullying is hurtful and damaging to individuals. But did you know that it can also substantially impair an organization’s resilience to challenges and ability to thrive? When organizations are burdened by bullying, employees are unable to perform at their best. That, in turn, can affect the performance of the entire organization. Let us look at what research tells us about the prevalence of bullying in the workplace, why it is imperative to confront it, how it can create a toxic environment that affects everyone, and the steps you can take to address bullying now and in the future.
What is bullying, and what are the legal implications?
First, let us define what we mean by bullying, explore how it relates to harassment, and look at the legal implications for your organization. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”
These behaviors may or may not constitute unlawful harassment. Specifically, Title Seven of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides protection from discrimination based on a list of characteristics that includes sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Over the years, additional laws and court decisions have extended the list of protected characteristics to include sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, pregnancy, citizenship, veteran status, and more.
But regardless of whether it is illegal or not, posit Kevin O’Neill and Katherine Cooper Franklin with the employment law firm Littler, bullying “can and does lead to lawsuits. Additionally, along with discomfort and team dysfunction, bullying in the workplace creates problems such as low morale, decreased productivity, stress, anxiety, and depression experienced by impacted employees.” Moreover, bullying can be a stepping stone to the kind of workplace harassment that could result in serious legal consequences for an organization.
Bullying in the workplace: It’s more prevalent than you may think
You may not think your organization is affected by bullying, but it can sometimes be hard to spot. “Just like with kids,” says business psychologist Dr. Helen Ofosu, “sometimes bullying at work is hidden. Let us face it—adults are often better at keeping bad behavior under the radar.” That fits with research showing that workplace bullying may be more prevalent than we think.
A survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute cites these alarming statistics:
- 30% of adult Americans are bullied at work
- 76.3 million workers are affected
- 61.3 of bullying is same-gender bullying
- 43% of remote workers are bullied
And as you see, the last bullet shows that there is no reprieve on bullying for the remote workforce. This research tracks with the AllVoices’ “The State of Workplace Harassment” report, which shows that 38% of employees experience harassment remotely, through email, video conferencing, chat apps, or phone. And 24% believe harassment continues or gets worse through remote work channels.
The surprising ways that bullying inhibits organizational performance
In the HBR article, “How Bullying Manifests at Work—and How to Stop It,” authors Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci and Caroline Stokes point out, “A common assumption is that bullies are often star performers and that high performance justifies bad behavior.” However, according to the authors, “The actual star performers are more likely to be targets than bullies. Bullies are usually mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, but they often take credit for the work of others. Moreover, bullies are not motivated by organizational goals. They are driven by self-interest, often at the expense of organizations.”
The authors also point to research indicating that “bullies often envy and covertly victimize organization-focused high performers—those who are particularly capable, caring, and conscientious. Not only are bullies not the stars, but one toxic employee negates the gains of the performance of two superstars and likely creates additional costs.”
The result? If left unchecked, bullying can lead to true high performers being minimized, while underperforming bullies, posing as star performers, push their way to the forefront. Over time, the effects of bullying can ruin an organization’s reputation, hinder its ability to retain and attract high performers—and lead to a toxic culture where employees are unable to work collaboratively or effectively navigate through challenging times. Ultimately, bullying is like a cancer that impedes organizational resiliency and strikes a damaging blow to the heart of what it means to be a high-performing organization.
7 ways to prevent bullying in the workplace
The best way to prevent bullying in the workplace is to create an environment in which it is least likely to thrive—in a culture of respect, inclusion and belonging. This type of culture shines a positive light on the kind of behavior that is the antithesis of bullying, like empathy, understanding and appreciation.
1. Make it part of a multi-pronged plan
Since bullying behavior can be a precursor to harassment, it makes sense to weave it into a multi-pronged harassment prevention plan with multiple elements, including creating awareness, implementing training, and creating an ongoing communication loop. Include an evaluation component that assesses a baseline for where you are today and where you want to be.
2. Create awareness and understanding
Addressing any problem starts with shining a clarifying light on the issue. Start with creating a common understanding about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Consider that there may be some misconceptions around the definition of bullying. And indeed, people may not even realize that they are exhibiting bullying behavior. Be clear on what you mean and what you expect.
3. Make sure your systems and policies reflect your expectations
“The mechanisms that support productivity via asynchronous work and facilitate inclusive and psychologically healthy organizations do double duty in preventing bullying,” say Praslova, Carucci and Stokes. Support these systems with well-communicated and consistently reinforced policies that outline zero-tolerance for bullying.
4. Make your education and training practical and relatable
To be effective, education and training must be engaging, relatable and applicable to daily life. The training experience must also strike the right tone of seriousness while at the same time offering thoughtful and sensitive guidance with realistic depictions of situations that could believably take place in your organization.
5. Go beyond the obvious—and focus on the behavior you want to see
Classic bullying, like yelling, publicly criticizing or humiliating a colleague is obvious to most people. Harder to spot, but no less damaging, is scheming and manipulative behavior that undermines others. The way to tackle both? Focus on the behaviors you want to see—those that embody respect, empathy and understanding. Make sure your training covers nuanced situations that exemplify positive behaviors, in addition to showing what not to do.
6. Provide guidance on how to be an active bystander
Human resources professionals cannot be everywhere at all times, but with bystander intervention, they do not have to be. The thing about creating a culture of respect, belonging and inclusion is that everyone can participate. A critical part of that is to ensure that everyone has the guidance they need to be a positive force in the form of an active bystander who has the knowledge they need to act in a helpful and appropriate way.
7. Empower managers with inclusive management practices
Managers are your most critical human asset when it comes to elevating your culture. They serve as the conduit between employees, leaders, and other managers. Include them in your planning and equip them with the guidance they need to implement inclusive management practices that can help to recognize and eliminate bullying. Finally, keeping an ongoing communication loop with all employees, and managers in particular, will give you the information you need to assess your progress and make adjustments along the way.
The steps above are just a few things you can do to create a culture of respect, inclusion and belonging, but they will work best if you maintain a concerted effort, rather than a one-off approach. But remember, by prioritizing the well-being and safety of your employees, you are not just protecting people, but also building a stronger and more resilient workforce that is critical if you want your organization to succeed. The bottom line: When we confront bullying in the workplace, everyone wins.