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Protect Your Employees: Have a Bullying Policy

image for Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock
Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock
  • Bullying is defined as any words or actions that make a person feel uncomfortable, threatened or intimidated, and is against the law in some states.
  • Harassment is defined as aggressive pressure or intimidation and is equal to discrimination in some states.
  • Your office should create strategies and training to address both bullying and harassment accusations.

Bullying isn't confined to the schoolyard. Especially with social media and the ability to hide behind a screen, bullying has seeped into office culture. While schools are likely to have policies to combat this behavior, many offices don't have such documents.

"Bullying in the workplace is something that's often overlooked," said Jennette Pokorny, chief operating officer of human resources service provider Ever Next 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 threatening employees with violence or blackmail, engaging in 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 on their own, but Pokorny said this can be a dangerous attitude. [Read related article: Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It]

The Oxford Dictionary defines harassment as "aggressive pressure or intimidation." For employees, it comes in many forms. Under the law in many states, harassment is defined as discrimination based on one or more of the following:

  • Race or color
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Disabilities
  • Pregnancy

However, harassment can include issues outside of discrimination. For instance, a supervisor's remarks to an employee about how dumb or lazy he or she is may be considered harassment. Threats of physical violence also qualify as harassment. All harassment can be noted under an anti-bullying policy.

"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 to 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.

It doesn't help that some employees quit as a result of bullying, which increases the employee turnaround at a business. Additionally, bullying leads to problems at home and may weigh on a person's mental health.

Every state has some type of anti-bullying law, anti-bullying policy or both to protect students and employees. The laws vary from state to state based on what is considered bullying and how bullying is addressed. 

For instance, the following states have laws but no policies, while all other states have policies:

  • Texas
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina

One example is the Healthy Workplace Bill, which addresses various issues related to bullying in the workplace, including employer liability. Eleven states have adopted this bill.

Discrimination laws also vary by state. For example, in Alabama, age discrimination laws apply to employment agencies, labor organizations and businesses with 20 or more employees, whereas some other states implement laws for businesses with one or more employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  

In California, discrimination laws protect breastfeeding women. The state of Kentucky even protects those who smoke, which means a bullying policy in a workplace must protect smokers.  

If your company doesn't have a strategy for dealing 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 where to report a case of bullying, and encourage workers to speak up as soon as possible after an incident.

It's important to address the issue by investigating. Treat the situation as you would a sexual harassment claim. Talk to both parties. Once you understand the situation, review the bullying policy with the individual who has been accused of harassing the employee. Remind them of the policy, and inform them of the future consequences of their actions if they should do it again.

However, sometimes, it isn't so clear-cut. Leaders often need to consider bullying on a case-by-case basis, Shawe said.

"Whether you have a policy or not, the reality is that the really difficult and important calls are in the day to day," he said. "[It's] the standards we set with each other when it comes to attitude, respect, decorum — and enforcing these standards."

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 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."

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.