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HR Handled Right

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For every harassment complaint and discriminatory situation I’ve helped resolve, I’ve dealt with ten incidences involving the equal opportunity harasser. Some of us have been unfortunate enough to meet the boss who constantly criticises, demeans, and undermines his employees, or the supervisor who takes delight in overworking and exploiting subordinates. In short, the workplace bully.

With all the recent focus on the potential legal consequences of workplace bully , the last thing HR professionals need is another version to deal with. It’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together, after all many people get snapped at by a stressed-out boss or co-worker.

But bullying is not occasional rudeness or incivility, nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management. The bully wages an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction against employees. It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time, and in its own context a single incident would not necessarily constitute grounds for disciplinary action. Taken together, these instances add up to persistent, abusive behavior designed to make the target feel upset, humiliated and threatened.

For example, according to the U.S. Hostile Workforce Survey 2000, the most popular bullying tactics include:

  • blaming others for errors
  • raising false concerns about or criticising the work of others
  • making unreasonable demands
  • yelling and screaming threats of job loss, insult, or put-downs
  • inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • social exclusion
  • stealing credit for another’s work.

Studies vary as to who is most likely to be a bully – some studies say that both men and women are equally likely to misbehave while other studies indicate that 70% of all bullies are men. There is little controversy, however, that the bully is most likely to be the boss and that, male or female, the boss is most likely to bully a woman. There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line.

Bullying/general hostility is 4 times more prevalent than illegal discrimination and harassment. In fact, a February 2000 study funded by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation revealed that out of 5300 employees in 70 organizations, 47% reported witnessing bullying in the past five years, 1 in 10 said they’d been bullied in the last six months, and 1 in 4 said they’d been bullied in the past five years.

Here Are A Few of the Costs to the UK:

  • On June 12, 2000 a report Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace by the London Chamber of Commerce found that bullies cost UK industry around £2 billion a year. Around 19 million days are lost because of abuse that results in accidents and mistakes, increased sick leave, lost productivity and higher recruitment costs.
    52% of bullying victims spend company time worrying about their tormentor rather than working – and 28% of them actually miss work to avoid that person. Twelve percent change jobs.
    Psychologists at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) found that victims of bullying take seven days off sick a year more than those who had not been bullied.
  • Unlike illegal forms of harassment and discrimination, bullying isn’t directed at a person because of his or her religion, gender, age, race or other demographic variable. S/he isn’t interested in obtaining sexual favors or dominating a vulnerable group. In fact, the target of bullying is most likely to be selected because of popularity and competence, which is perceived as a direct threat to the bully.
  • Unlike a sexual harasser’s need to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, bullying is an effort to control a threat – and prevent exposure of inadequacy. Unlike the power motive behind harassment and discrimination, envy and jealousy are the primary drivers of bullying behavior. And, unlike the racial slurs or sexual comments found in illegal forms of harassment, workplace bullying tends to appear as petty criticism: the withholding of critical information, and/or false allegations of underperformance.

Another difference between generic bullying and hostility directed at a protected class is the availability of legal remedies. Discrimination law does not cover bullying. If the behavior does not have a sexual, racial or physical component, neither U.S. nor U.K. laws are set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law. In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workmen’s compensation claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying. A few years ago, two employees in Texas were awarded $250,000 in damages after a supervisor continually yelled at them, put his head down and ‘charged at them like a bull,’ and made at least one employee wear a sign that said ‘I quit.’ A council official in Hampshire was recently awarded £200,000 damages for psychiatric problems that he says were caused by a bullying boss.

Given the statistics of workplace bullying, chances are that there is at least one bully poisoning your organisation. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  • Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  • Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation.
  • Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit. As the old saying goes; numbers don’t lie. In this situation, they might be telling the truth about a bully in your midst.

In the next part of this article, we’ll talk about how to set a corporate ethos that won’t tolerate bullying behavior – and how to handle the bully who is already there.

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