Worked Up At Work

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Workplace Bullying, It’s Also Called Harassment

How do you prevent bullying in your workplace?

Bullying has received enormous attention in the media during the last 12 months.

States have enacted anti-bullying rules in the schools, and the Department of Labor and the state Human Rights Commissions have long been interested in eliminating bullying from the workplace.

In the business setting, bullying directed at employees by employers has been a staple at the table for years. Bullying directed at employees by other employees, often ignored as office drama by employers, also exists in abundance. The government, the courts and the media are all focused on these bullying issues.

The government and the court's position is that employers cannot do too much to protect employees. They can do too little (they can underreact) and that will get them in trouble. But they can't do too much to protect employees while they are on the job. The expectation is that employers will take a comprehensive approach to providing a completely safe environment for their employees. If the employers cannot or will not do this, they face the wrath and ire of federal and state governments.

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If sexuality is involved, it's called sexual harassment. If sexuality is not involved, it's just called harassment, but can be equally serious on several levels. The existence of bullying in the workplace could clearly be labeled a hostile work environment. If it is perpetrated from management to employee, it could even be labeled Disparate Impact, which is the belief that an employee is subject to greater on the job scrutiny than other employees. In any event, harassment will usually attract the attention of the government, and it's not the attention management ever wants or needs.

So, how do you prevent it in your workplace?

The solution starts with a policy forbidding bullying behavior. Reminders, both ongoing and intermittent, follow up the policy. This is followed by mandatory training for all existing and future employees and is capped off by management's zero tolerance response if it does happen in the workplace.

Part of the response is values based. A values statement could include: It is not a part of the values of this organization to allow anyone to bully our employees. If it is discovered to exist, it will be dealt with quickly and definitively. Our values are that employees are to be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect. At our company, we will hold all employees at all levels accountable to treat all other employees thusly.

If allegations of violations are found to exist, management should investigate or cause an investigation to occur in a thorough and timely manner. If the allegations are substantiated, then harsh penalties, including written warnings or even terminations, should occur. If the company does not handle the matter internally, it should expect the matter to be handled externally. And, if these external forces find that the company underreacted or otherwise allowed the harassment to occur, the company can expect fines and right to sue letters issued. Trust me, at that point it is not pretty.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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