January 3rd, 2013

HR Connection: Why is bullying legal in the business world?

By Jeanne Allen

Bullying is very much a part of business these days. Those bullies in middle school and high school grew up and are waiting right around the corner for their next target. It’s disheartening but true — in some circumstances bullying is legal.

According to The Workplace Bullying Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding, correcting and preventing all abuse at work, bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment.

The Workplace Bullying Institute commissioned Zogby International to conduct a survey in 2010, asking U.S. workers about whether they had first-hand experience of bullying in the workplace. Their findings show that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, an estimated 53.5 million Americans, report being bullied at work. And according to WBI research of bullied targets, 66 percent had to lose or give up their jobs in order to make the bullying stop.

Anne* is the finance director in a large IT firm. She has seven staff members who report to her, and it is very apparent who she likes and does not like. Anne has a reputation for being tough and is proud of this; she believes this tough persona makes people think twice before putting unnecessary expenses into their budget.

But the other behavior Anne exhibits is seen as bullying by her subordinates and co-workers. Anne corrects her staff in front of others, but instead of being constructive, the tone is more demeaning or belittling. She uses profanity and insults to get her point across, and doesn’t seem to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Anne accuses and judges her peers and direct reports with little regard for the emotional impact she makes, let alone the poor example she gives and the lack of professionalism she shows.

The most outrageous part of this is that Anne is not breaking the law, per se. If Anne were targeting people who are in a protected class, such as minorities and older or disabled workers, then her bullying would be considered illegal. In this case she is simply mean-spirited toward most people.

Frequently a bully is someone in a position of power and the unspoken message is that the bully earned that power, in part by the behavior they display toward subordinates and co-workers. Since employers define work conditions (i.e. who gets hired, work assignments, promotions, etc.) they are the only ones who can control whether or not bullying is sustained or eliminated.
The lack of any kind of action against Anne’s behavior, including discipline or termination, implies approval of that behavior. Thus the bullying will continue and the employees will continue to suffer.

What can a company do when these issues are brought to them? Are they obligated to fix the situation or should they encourage the employees involved to negotiate the conversation and come to a resolution themselves? What if the employer isn’t aware of the situation? What if no one tells?

Believe it or not, most employees who find themselves on the receiving end of a bully’s behavior do not think their employer will do anything to stop it. People start to question their ability to manage the situation. They feel embarrassed or as if they may be part of the problem.

The consequences of these situations are costly. Low morale, high absenteeism, high turnover, and lower productivity are all impacted when there is a bully on the payroll.

Employees are watching to see what will happen next. When employers take a zero-tolerance stance against bullying behavior they send a clear message that the employees as a whole are valued and that universal respect is the expectation. Unfortunately, sometimes bullies are high performers. They might be a top salesperson or a stellar finance director. CEOs and business owners need to decide if the good outweighs the bad; in many instances it isn’t worth having a stressed out, depressed or unproductive staff, or a parade of employees who take jobs with the competition.

Workplace bullying is not an insurmountable problem. Policies need to be put in place and enforced, supervisors must be properly trained, and employees should be given guidelines on how to report bullying incidents. Managing this is not for the faint of heart, because by their nature bullies are intimidating and aggressive, but enabling all managers and employees to understand that your organization will not tolerate bullying behavior is the only way to eliminate it.

Bullying doesn’t stop when kids cross the stage at graduation. These people go on to become working members of society. They are our neighbors and co-workers. The person in the next cubicle has their eye on the office down the hall and will do whatever it takes to get there.

With little regard for whom they may hurt or harm on the way there, some employees revert to their old school-yard mentality and behavior. This pervasive problem has been left unchecked for too long. It is time we stop rewarding abusive behavior and give permission to employees to speak up and shine a light on what has an overarching negative impact on organizations.
We need to tell Anne that this has to stop.

*Anne is not a real person, but her description is based on experiences collected over 25 years in the human resources field.

Jeanne Allen, SPHR is president of HR Logic & Solutions. For over 25 years she has partnered with corporate leaders of small and medium sized companies to impact and strengthen their teams. This article is brought to you by the Rochester Affiliate of the National HR Association, a local professional HR organization focused on advancing the career development, planning and leadership of HR professionals. Visit www.humanresources.org for more information.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 3rd, 2013 at 12:16 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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