May 13th, 2014

Free Lance-Star: Bullies can make a workplace toxic

By Lynne Richardson, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, VA, May 11, 2014

When I was growing up, we saw bullying in elementary schools and on playgrounds.

The bully was generally the biggest boy in the classroom and he picked on “weaker” boys and girls, making rude and ugly comments about those being bullied and acting in a threatening manner toward them. Teachers tried to protect the children in their classes, but they could not be everywhere.

One of our family’s favorite Christmas movies is “A Christmas Story.” If you know the movie, you might remember that Ralphie was bullied, but ultimately fought back after school one day. As children, I think we all cheered (at least silently) when we saw people standing up to bullies, but it did not happen often.

Bullying in the workplace is a topic we are hearing more about today. There are countless employees being bullied daily by supervisors and peers. I have even seen it in the hallowed halls of academia! Perhaps you have been bullied and not even known to give this name to the behaviors. Bullies are both men and women.

As I am certainly not an expert on bullying and what to do when bullying creates a hostile work environment, I reached out to attorney Randy Sparks of the Richmond law firm Kaufman & Canoles. Randy specializes in employment law—bullying is something he knows a bit about. I asked him to share some thoughts on bullying in the workplace. His comments follow.

“A 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby Analytics estimates that approximately 27 percent of Americans have been bullied at work, while another 21 percent of Americans have witnessed an incident of workplace bullying. Not all instances of bullying are unlawful, though, under current law.

“Clearly, if an employee is being bullied because of some protected characteristic, such as her race, gender, or national origin, federal and state anti-discrimination laws require the employer to take action to both prevent and correct the hostile work environment created by the bullying and may hold the employer civilly liable for the conduct.

“However, when bullying consists of rude, offensive, or hostile behavior that is not based on a protected category, the law does not provide such protections. As the courts often point out, the federal anti-discrimination laws are not ‘general civility codes.’

“Even so, such conduct can have detrimental effects on employee morale, productivity, employee health and the work atmosphere in general. While not technically a prohibited hostile work environment, the employees sure believe that their work environment is hostile.

“For example, I recently visited a client’s facility and ended up spending several hours with its employees, listening to them complain about the manner in which they are spoken to by supervisors, how their thoughts and ideas are not valued, and how many of them already have their personal items boxed up, just in case they can’t take it anymore. Many of these employees actually used the catchphrase ‘hostile environment’ when talking with me.

“Employers need to address these issues, particularly when the ‘bully’ is a supervisor. Just because it is not unlawful does not mean that an employer should not investigate and take action to fix the behavior. As I tell my clients, they cannot afford to ignore these uncomfortable situations, even though that might be the easiest route to take, but, instead, should view them as an opportunities to figure out how to become better and to make the right ‘people’ decisions.”

I appreciate Randy’s comments in helping educate us. I challenge anyone who sees bullying in the workplace to address it! You may be the supervisor who knows it is occurring but has been looking the other way. Perhaps you need to educate your employees about bullying (what it is and what it is not).

“Attack emails” and untrue comments about a person to others in the organization are popular means of bullying today. Perhaps you are a peer who might “have a word” with someone who is bullying a colleague. Stand up for your colleagues! I told my (then) elementary schoolchildren not to allow a lie about someone to go unchallenged. Why not do this in the workplace? We should stop ignoring the problem and ensure that bullies realize their actions will no longer be tolerated.

At the end of the day, bullying impacts productivity, morale and the work atmosphere and may cause an organization to lose a valuable employee. Why not address the bully and his or her behavior before this happens?

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the University of Mary Washington’s School of Business and a marketing professor. She writes about various aspects of finance and economics that affect our readers.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 at 1:43 pm and is filed under WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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