How does your organization deal with issue of employee bullying?

Bullying — both inside the workplace and out — is an issue that’s been getting greater attention over the past several years. So what role should HR be playing in the effort to stamp out this kind of behavior?

A recent poll from Workplace Options and the Tyler Clementi Foundation showed:

  • 50% of respondents have experienced or witnessed bullying in their workplace.
  • More minority respondents (75% of Hispanics; 74% of African-Americans) than white respondents (60%) believed that bullying is a more serious problem for youth today than in the past.
  • Bullying is largely seen as a “not in my backyard” issue – 64% of respondents believe bullying is more of a problem today than in the past, but just 12% believe it is a serious problem for youth in their own county.

So what should companies be doing about it?

What does bullying look like?

One of the major issues with workplace bullying: It’s not always easy to recognize.

A lot of bullying involves teasing and banter, but it’s a stretch to say that all teasing and banter qualify as bullying.

Dennis A. Davis, national director of client training at Ogletree Deakins, says managers and HR pros should look out for three subtle signs of bullying:

  • the teasing isn’t reciprocal – i.e. the person receiving it doesn’t return the banter
  • the behavior is targeted – certain employees are always the ones on the receiving end, and
  • it’s personal – the teasing is about a staffer’s weakness, deficiency or inferiority.

How to deal with an offender

Spotting workplace bullying can be difficult. Getting it to stop might be even harder.

Christine Comaford, writing for Forbes, has outlined a six-step plan for a conversation managers must have with workplace bullies:

  • Set the stage. Managers should explain why the meeting’s been called and the outcome they want to achieve
  • Lay out the observable behavior. It’s crucial that managers describe specific instances where the bully acted out or said something inappropriate
  • Describe the impact. Bullies likely don’t understand the damage their behaviors are doing to both their co-workers and the company
  • See if the bully agrees with you. Does the bully now see the problem and acknowledge it needs to stop?
  • Create a plan. Work out a set period of time (maybe 30 to 60 days) where the manager will meet with the worker once a week to check on progress. The key here: Be specific. Managers should be clear on which behaviors need to stop. Also, supervisors must state the consequences if a turnaround doesn’t occur.
  • Make sure you’re on the same page. Does the bully understand everything? Also, managers should make it clear they want the bully to succeed and continue the working relationship.

What to do moving forward

Congratulations: You’ve stopped one workplace bully.

But is there something HR can do to try to prevent workplace bullying before it even starts?

Jon Hyman, writing for the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, suggests one thing: Treat bullying like it’s illegal.
What does that look like?

  • Add bullying to anti-harassment and workplace conduct policies
  • Tell staffers you don’t allow bullying, and train them on how they can report incidents of bullying.
  • Immediately investigate reports of workplace bullying, and
  • After an investigation, take corrective action to ensure the bullying doesn’t happen again.

The ‘bystander dilemma’

The Workplace Options/Tyler Clementi poll also found that bullying is more of a problem for young Americans today than ever before – and that parents are seriously conflicted when it comes to teaching kids how to appropriately respond.

Respondents were split on how to teach kids to best handle bullying situations that involved either online or in-person threats. The results:

  • 53% of respondents said children should be taught to notify an authority figure when faced with bullying.
  • 24% said direct confrontation was the best response.
  • Males (31%) were much more likely to recommend direct confrontation than females (13%).
  • And eight percent said ignoring the problem was the best way to handle bullying.

Handling bullying, whether in the workplace or on the playground, isn’t easy. In a youth bullying scenario, the poll says when family is not involved, most adults are keen to turn a blind eye — thus, the “bystander dilemma”:

  • 69% of respondents said they would intervene if a bullying situation involved a family member or someone they personally know.
  • But just 44% said they would intervene if they saw a scenario that did not involve a personal acquaintance.

We’re afraid a similar response is likely in the workplace setting — if a witness to bullying behavior doesn’t have a personal stake in changing the dynamic, they probably will be reticent about bringing a complaint to management.