Bullying isn't confined to the school yard: Especially now, with the anonymity of social media and the ability to hide behind a screen, bullying has seeped into office culture. While schools are the most likely places to have policies to combat the behavior, offices aren't.
"Bullying in the workplace is something that's often overlooked," said Jennette Pokorny, COO of human resources service provider EverNext HR. "People should come to work and feel safe. You don't want to allow something minor to escalate."
Pokorny defined bullying as any words or actions that aren't sexual in nature (which would be covered by sexual harassment) but that still make an employee feel uncomfortable, threatened or intimidated. Common examples include threats of violence or blackmail, hazing of new employees, or spreading rumors about co-workers.
These types of actions occur in many workplaces, but often go unaddressed because leaders take a hands-off approach to interpersonal relationships among their employees. Some bosses feel that employees should work out their issues with one another on their own time since they are adults, but Pokorny said this can be a dangerous attitude. [See Related Story: Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It]
"Having an anti-bullying [or anti-intimidation] policy is important, and having an anti-bullying culture is even more important because this defines what happens in practice," said Phil Shawe, Co-CEO and founder of TransPerfect, a translation services company. "One cannot establish a sizable, successful company in today's world while having a culture of bullying."
When someone at your company feels it's OK to bully, you open the door for liability, Pokorny said. If an accused bully ever follows through on threats at work, the victim can sue. If a leader doesn't step in and intervene, bullying can destroy a workplace, Pokorny said.
Even if no lawsuits are filed, turning a blind eye to workplace bullying can have other negative repercussions that only make the problem worse, she said.
"We've seen cases of workplace violence where people come back and retaliate because they were bullied or hazed," Pokorny said.
If your company doesn't have a strategy in place to deal with bullying, now is the time to implement one. Pokorny offered three tips to help you shape your workplace bullying policy:
- Clearly define bullying and its consequences. It's not enough to tell employees that your company will not tolerate bullying. Your employee handbook should also include a detailed list of what actions constitute bullying in your workplace — threats, blackmail, violence, etc. — and what disciplinary actions will be taken if bullying occurs.
- Get everything in writing. Investigate a bullying claim the same way you would investigate a claim of sexual harassment. Request written statements from both the victim and the accused bully, as well as from any witnesses. If the claim turns out to be true and it's serious enough to suspend or fire the bully, written documentation about the event can protect your company from liability or wrongful termination charges down the road.
- Encourage immediate reporting. Make sure your employees know who they can approach to report a case of bullying, and encourage workers to speak up as soon as possible after an incident.
Sometimes it isn't so cut-and-dried, though. Leaders often need to take bullying on a case-by-case basis, said Shawe.
"Whether you have a policy or not, the reality is that the really difficult and important calls are in the day to day. [It's] the standards we set with each other when it comes to attitude, respect, decorum — and enforcing these standards," he said.
Managers should always consider their employees first when it comes to bullying and harassment, he said.
"You need to coach your managers at all levels to provide a safe workplace where people to do not feel intimidated," Shawe said. "Not only [is it] the right thing to do, [but] it will [also] bring about the best work product from your team and the best business results."
Additional reporting by Nicole Taylor. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.