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Workplace Bullying Takes Many Shapes, Learn to Recognize Them

One way to risk an employee lawsuit is to not nipping in the bud workplace bullying when you learn about it.

Old school cajoling and demeaning employees can days land a company in hot water and at the receiving end of a costly lawsuit. If you learn about bullying and it’s to the point that an employee is feeling uncomfortable working with another person, it’s your obligation to investigate and correct the problem.

The problem that many employers encounter when confronted with a bullying situation is that it’s not always cut and dried and there are different types of bullying, some more or less overt than others.

You have to decide where the boundary is between harsh words or rude behavior and regular bullying.

Bullying can be verbal or non-verbal, and it can be overt or someone can be bullied behind their back through rumors and actions that mask the identity of the perpetrator.

One of the best ways to create a workplace that is free of bullying is to include prevention plans in your employee handbook and workplace rules.

But in order to prevent it, you should first understand how it manifests itself.

Overt bullying

Overt acts include:

  • Refusing to talk to someone or meet with them, or sidelining them from meetings they should be in.
  • Shouting or cursing at someone either privately or publicly.
  • Public humiliation.
  • Physical intimidation like gestures or expressions, standing too close to someone and invading their space or blocking someone from entering or leaving an area.

Hidden bullying

  • Someone being bullied may not even know it until they learn about it from somebody else.
  • This kind of bullying includes spreading rumors or gossip about a person to hurt their reputation.
  • Gossip, true or not, is a malicious act. Above, we touched on not being included in meetings. This can also be hidden if the affected employee is not aware that others are meeting when he or she should also be included.

A similar act is purposefully withholding vital information from a fellow worker.

The supervisor factor

There are some forms of bullying that can only be done by supervisors or managers.

A supervisor can make life miserable for an underling by:

  • Setting impossible deadlines.
  • Removing responsibilities without cause.
  • Frequently changing work guidelines.
  • Setting impossible deadlines to set the person up for failure.
  • Cancelling an employee’s vacation.
  • Underworking someone so they feel useless.

What’s not bullying

Not all moments when a worker is feeling uncomfortable by the actions of another employee or supervisor are bullying, like:

  • A civil disagreement or argument.
  • Factual, civil, professional criticism of work by a supervisor. 
  • Bad management decisions that were not intended to degrade or undermine a worker.
  • Not greeting someone when they arrive at work.

Setting the rules

It may be easiest if you fold your anti-bullying rules in with the rules you have in place for prevention of discrimination and harassment. They should:

  • Define bullying so that both employees and management can easily identify the behavior and address it.
  • Make it clear that victims should not be fearful of losing their jobs or risk retaliation should they report bullying.
  • Set up a system for employees to report bullying or use the same mechanisms you have in place for reporting discrimination or harassment.
  • Require management to respond quickly to reports of bullying. They should conduct an investigation immediately and, even if names are not provided, the organization needs to let others in the company know when it has taken action — and what the consequences were.

One big danger is to ignore bullying because you think it ads to productivity or profitability. That’s a big mistake.

Your organization should have a zero-tolerance attitude around bullying — no matter who the bully is, or how high up they are in your hierarchy.

Remember that VMA members get free access to an employee handbook builder through Mineral. Contact Shannon Wolford, VMA Director of Membership and Sales at shannon@visualmediaalliance.org or 415-710-0568 for more information.

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