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HR Handled Right

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One of the biggest frustrations I hear from my plaintiff attorney colleagues is this; jurors (and most people for that matter) have a very hard time understanding why anyone would put up with sexual harassment for weeks or months without doing anything about it.

In fact, ask 100 people on the street what they would do if some creep at work was coming on to them and 90 of them will say they would take some kind of action – tell the person to knock it off, go to HR or punch the guy (or gal) in the mouth. However, if you ask 100 people who have been in that situation what they actually did, you’ll get very different answers. The vast majority will tell you they either a) tried to ignore it; b) tried to stay away from the person; or c) found another way to get out of there (asked for a transfer or quit).

The Top Reason Employees Keep Their Mouths Shut

So why don’t intelligent, usually assertive employees speak up right when the offensive behavior starts? Hands down, the number one reason is this: “I’m afraid of what will happen.” Most employees realize that once the proverbial cat is out of the bag, there’s no way to put it back in – and they no longer have control over where it goes.

Just about anyone who’s thought about speaking up is terrified of what will happen if they do. Before s/he speaks up, s/he is just a regular employee. However, the minute the employee complains about offensive behavior, s/he becomes something far more sinister in many executive’s eyes. A complainer. A prospective litigant. A financial threat. And, all too often, the corporate fear surrounding this new role gets communicated in a myriad of ways.

When the Fear is Justified

Unfortunately, some employees can cite very good, company-specific reasons why they should keep their mouths shut. “I saw what happened to the last person who complained.” “My manager does the same thing and no one cares.” “HR can’t keep their mouths shut.”

It’s not just about how previous sexual harassment complaints have been handled; employees are all too aware of how employee complaints in general are dealt with. An employee who walks through a manager’s open door policy only to encounter a closed mind behind it learns pretty quickly the difference between policy and practice.

So What’s HR to Do?

Fear of retaliation is natural. I don’t think there’s any way to completely alleviate it. However, there are some things HR can do to minimize it, both before and after a complaint:

  • The most important step senior executives can take in this area is simply to communicate ethical expectations more clearly to employees. In fact, research suggests that improving clarity of expectations and disciplinary guidelines can reduce misconduct levels by more than 40%
  • Managers and supervisors should be trained on how to handle employee concerns and how to instill a corporate culture in which employees raise concerns without fear of reprisal. Employees not only expect their managers to know what to do when faced with an offensive behavior complaint, they expect them to do it with tact and sensitivity.
  • All employees should be put on notice (e.g., through training and the employee handbook) that, if they punish another employee for raising a concern, they will be subject to disciplinary action.

Any manager who thinks employee silence is golden should consider that the longer offensive behavior goes on, and the harder a company makes it for an employee to complain, the more likely it is that what’s golden will be the bank accounts of the attorneys involved.

Dear Employees,

At our company, we like to pretend that we have a zero tolerance for offensive behavior. This is to make our legal and HR department happy. In reality, we don’t care what you do as long as you’re getting your job done and making us a profit.

This is especially true of our managers. Look, your manager got promoted because she was better than you. As such, s/he gets special treatment and will not be held to the same behavior standard that you will. So don’t even think that, just because your manager gets away with it, you will.

And, another thing. Your manager was hired to make money. S/he does not like taking time out of his or her valuable day to listen to a bunch of whining about something someone else said or did. So don’t be surprised if he or she is annoyed when you make a complaint. And don’t be surprised if he or she isn’t quite as friendly afterward; after all, you’ve blown the whistle on somebody that you work with. That’s not part of the “good employee” code.

The Role of Managers in Offensive Employee Behavior

Any lawyer would go screaming into the street at the thought of his or her corporate client adopting this kind of offensive behavior policy. So would HR. And yet, this “policy” is communicated by the actions and attitudes of managers who either participate in, or turn a blind eye, to dishonest, ethical or illegal behavior.

Managers commit more fraud, steal more money, and does so in larger amounts than rank-and-file employees ever did, yet they often have exempt status when it comes to accountability for their behavior. In addition, their attitudes and practices establish the caliber of management oversight. When managers are perceived as uncaring or unconcerned about abusive behavior, the blind eye is perceived as an approving eye.

The Bottom Line

What management does is much more important than what management says. Managers who stand by, or participate, in offensive behavior significantly infleunce the level of management or subordinate tacit or direct involvemnet in abusive behavior, the legnth of time this behavior goes on, and why employees who have knowledge or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing do not expose it.

One of the biggest challenges investigators face during sexual harassment investigations is deciding whether or not a witness is telling the truth. In fact, according to a 2009 article in Legal and Criminological Psychology, even judges aren’t’ so hot at it. And one of the reasons is the way most of us go about making credibility assessments.

For one thing, research indicates that we are heavily influenced by schemas (cognitive maps) we’ve developed based on our past experiences with similar individuals. The old adage, “to a policeman, everyone is a criminal” is an example of the tendency we all have to judge new people based on our past experiences with others. This can be problematic for those of us in HR who get railroaded into being the head of the unofficial “employee complaint department.” Dealing with minor (and seemingly ridiculous) employee complaints day in and day out can unconsciously skew our view of new or legitimate complaints in the direction of skepticism and disbelief.

Second, we all have some pretty understandable – and false – beliefs about how to actually evaluate someone’s truthfulness. It is common wisdom, for example, that liars often exhibit nervous gestures (longer pauses, not looking the other person in the eyes, speech disturbance) when research actually suggests the opposite. Throw cultural differences into the mix and the usefulness of relying upon body language to detect deception is virtually nil.

Third, most of us make snap judgments of the general trustworthiness of a witness immediately upon seeing him or her for the first time. Not only is this intuition unreliable, it can influence how we gather, and interpret, future evidence. In a study of criminal investigators, those who presumed guilt were more skeptical about evidence that suggested innocent than they were about information that confirmed their preexisting belief. In other words, we tend to see what we believe.

Here’s the good news. First, we need to throw out any ideas we might have that credibility assessment is a common sense matter and that our intuition is a useful guide. Second, we need to let go of any notions that we can tell someone is lying by his shifty gaze or nervous hand wringing. We need to be aware of how our past experiences with complainants might influence our approach to a new sexual harassment investigation. And we need to build in safeguards (a second opinion, critical thinking that objectively evaluates all evidence, clearly thinking through and documenting why we are taking each step in an investigation). This doesn’t guarantee that we’ll make the right decision; but it does raise the odds that we’ll make a fair one.

“Let me see if I can put this in terms you can understand.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “I thought
that, too, when I was your age.” Condescending remarks hurt. They contribute to an atmosphere of destructive conflict, even when we accompany them with smiles or veneers of humor.

While we most associate those kinds of comments with bosses or managers, anyone in the workplace can patronize. For instance, a low-ranking, technically savvy engineer remarks to a director of marketing, “Yes, as I’ve already explained, we could do as you suggest — if you want to blow our deadline – again.

The sources of condescension range from sloppy communication (I’m in a hurry and I don’t have to time to consider your feelings or worry about manners) to insecurity (I feel threatened by you and am trying to regain the upper footing) to an out-of-control ego (I must appear smart, worldly and in-the-know by demonstrating my expertise at every opportunity).

Strategy: Regardless of the reason, your best bet is to handle the remark calmly and directly. “What do you mean by saying _____________?” This will (hopefully) force the other person to explain exactly what he/she meant. It’s a subtle way to take control of the situation, putting the instigator on the spot to explain/defend his/her remark. That way, you still come across as professional, and deflect inappropriate comments.

Let Me Explain it to You Again

In addition to snide comments, another common way condescension rears its ugly head in the workplace is when a coworker continually “explains” things to others when it’s obvious they already know what s/he is taking about.

Let’s face it; no one wants a lesson in basic science if s/he is a rocket scientist, yet some people routinely view questions as signals that the asker can’t handle the situation. As a result, they jump in and offer advice/help without evaluating what the questioner already knows.

Strategy: The next time you feel like you should explain something, whether it’s a business policy, a technology, an incidental, or something that will help clarifying your meaning… give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Strategy: Preface your response with “You may already know this but…” It’ sets a completely different tone in how we come across to others. If the questioner didn’t already know what you’re talking about, s/he’ll be flattered that you overestimated his or her expertise and, if s/he was already clued in, no harm is done. No one wants to think that we assume they don’t know anything!

Strategy: Before you ask a question, tell them what you already know before you pose the problem to them. For example, if you phrase your question like so: “Hey, I wanted to ask your advice about A, B and C. I was thinking that I could do D and E, or maybe F. Do you have any other ideas?” This way, you present your solution/thoughts, so the person you’re asking knows that you’ve been thinking about the issue already.

Strategy: Whenever possible, avoid asking the advice of people you do not respect or who are simply rude.

Joseph Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Look closely at those who patronize you; half are unfeeling, half untaught.” Make sure you’re not among the unfeeling or clueless and help educate – and reign in – your colleagues who are.

Once, again, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of workplace disability discrimination claims last year. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency received a record 100,000 complaints of disability discrimination in 2010, a 17% increase over the previous year. Employees with mental disabilities are especially vulnerable; according to the U.K. mental health charity Mind, one out of five employees who discloses a mental illness at work ends up without a job.

Employees with intellectual limitations fare no better. A particularly disturbing example is a recent lawsuit against Texas Company Hill Country Farms, who is accused of severely abusing 31 mentally challenged men who worked in their Iowa plant. Among the allegations; verbal abuse, including referring to employees as “dumb-ass, stupid and retarded,” physical abuse including hitting and kicking, and illegally low wages (as low as $65 dollars a month).

Lead Supervisors: First Responders to Disability Claims

While HR continues to bear the brunt of understanding and implementing the new changes and nuances, don’t underestimate the role front line supervisors have in communicating with disabled employees. The attitude and responsiveness of supervisors often determine, more than physical barriers, whether an employee with a disability feels that s/he is being treated fairly. In fact, the words of front line supervisors – both verbal and in careless e-mail — are the single biggest source of evidence that can turn a nuisance claim into a “bet the company” lawsuit.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act: What Supervisors Need to Know

As with all areas of employment law, you should reinforce to your supervisors that they consult with your HR department or legal counsel for additional information and specifics on company procedure. Here are some additional ADAAA points to consider:

  • When it comes to disability requests, the revised ADA, i.e., the ADAAA, shifts the emphasis from investigating (why or how to accommodate) to what needs to be done.
  • When talking to an employee with a disability, supervisors shouldn’t ask questions about the condition itself. Instead, they should focus on job-related questions about the effect of the condition on the employee’s ability to do the job.
  • The ADAAA requires that accommodation be approached with an open mind (i.e., not begin by questioning the existence of the disability). As before, employers must honor the disabled employee’s medical confidentiality and may not explain to other employees why any resulting change is being made.
  • The supervisor may not be in a position to determine the legitimacy of a request for accommodation without medical input. Thus, employers can require employees to provide documentation from an employee’s health care provider about the disability and the need for accommodation. Supervisors should turn to their human resource professionals as they engage in this process with the employee.
  • Employees asking for an accommodation need not use any particular words and are encouraged to talk directly with their supervisor. Supervisors need to be able to recognize when an accommodation is being requested. Examples of accommodation requests can include references to doctor’s appointments, medical treatment, or specific problems (I’m having difficulty hearing other people on the phone).

For every minute spent preparing, an hour is earned. This is especially true for HR professionals, who not only bear the direct responsibility, but also ensure that those in the line of fire have the backup they need.

This year marks my 20th year as an employee relations consultant. Here’s one thing I’ve learned conducting sexual harassment prevention training.

DONT use sexual harassment prevention training as a way to get a message across to one employee. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten a call from a HR professional wanting to hire me to conduct harassment/discrimination prevention training. When I ask what got the training ball rolling (and believe me, I’ve learned the hard way to ask that question), it turns out there’s this one manager or employee who just doesn’t “get it.”

Look, I know no one wants to have the thankless job of having to sit down with a grown adult and counsel him or her on his cluelessness. But putting everyone through a sexual harassment prevention training course in the hope that the problem employee or manager will somehow see the light is like whistling in the dark. Not only is s/he unlikely to get the message, the other employees will be well aware (and resentful) of why they are sitting in the workshop instead of focusing on work. There is no substitute to having a one-on-one conversation with a behaviorally challenged employee and telling him or her the truth. There’s no guarantee it will work, but it’s your best shot.

His peers described him as naturally irritable with a fiery temper. His brilliant subordinate resigned because his boss couldn’t keep his emotions in check. He had a large ego and could be easily offended by threats to his sense of honor and strong need for regard.

Sound like anyone you know? Well, you know this man; his name was George Washington. Cursed with a hot temper from birth, George Washington copied all 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” into his exercise book and carried them with him throughout his life. He spent his entire life consciously practicing self-control and courteousness, to the extent that, at his life’s end, others described him as a model of self-mastery and self-control.

Behavior Coaching for the Bad Manager

Fast-forward to 2011 and, every week, I get phone calls from frustrated HR managers and fed-up CEOs who have finallyhad it with a domineering, insensitive or bullying manager. Perhaps a customer has complained about an insensitive remark. Maybe the turnover in the manager’s department has reached an all-time high. More often than not, an employee has filed some sort of offensive behavior complaint.

And yet, in spite of the manager’s unacceptable behavior, s/he contributes significant value to the organization – through technical expertise, industry contacts, or an extremely high work ethic.

The caller is on the horns of a dilemma. Should they throw in the towel and get rid of the manager (and the assets s/he brings to the company) or give him/her a second chance (and risk more problems)? And, if they give him/her a shot, can s/he change?

Can Bad Managers Change?

Yes, bad managers can change, BUT only some of them and only some of the time. Yes, they should be given a chance to – BUT only some of them and only some of the time.

First of all, if a manager has committed a serious ethical violation, s/he should be fired – not coached. A true harasser is not likely to benefit from coaching or invest in it. On the other hand, a smart, overly competitive manager who impatiently interrupts others, dismisses any opinion other than his own, or whose unrealistic demands and lopsided (critical) feedback alienates peers and subordinates alike is a good coaching candidate. In other words, there’s a difference between a true harasser and someone who exhibits bad judgment.

Necessary (But Not Always Sufficient) Ingredients for Change

In order for ineffective managers to benefit from behavior coaching, these ingredients are necessary:

1) Be aware of the need for change. I don’t just mean someone sits the manager down and reads him the riot act. I’m talking about some specific feedback about the impact of his/her behavior on subordinates, peers, etc. This can involve a 360 degree evaluation or an executive coach gathering data through interviews.

2) Be motivated to change. One of the arguments I hear all the time is that you can’t make someone else change. And that’s true. However, just because the initial motivation for coaching is external, i.e., provided by someone else, doesn’t mean the manager can’t buy into the process. When I was a practicing therapist, I was often amazed at how much some of my therapy clients – ordered into the therapy by the courts – actually used the therapy to their benefitonce the trust in our relationship was established. No, they weren’t thrilled to be in my office, but they were often thrilled as a result. (Of course, it goes without being said that the external motivation needs to continue throughout the coaching process and beyond).

3) Know specifically what needs to change and how to replace it. Bad managers act they way they do because a) at some level, it’s worked for them and b) they don’t know a better way to manage. Effective behavior coaching involves evaluating (and often challenging) the manager’s beliefs about his or her current problem behaviors and helping him or her develop specific skills to replace them.

4) Receive constructive feedback, support and encouragement throughout the change process.Without question, bad managers need the stick to get them into coaching. However, once in it, they also need the carrot. In fact, the more domineering and insensitive the manager, the more likely it is that I find insecurity and fear underneath. Connecting with the underlying fears often allows the manager to lessen his defensiveness and be more open to the ongoing feedback s/he needs to support behavior change.

5) Gain some kind of personal reward (reinforcement) from having changed. Ah, here’s where the coaching really gets to be fun. No matter what led the manager to the coaching trough, once s/he begins to experience the rewards of behavior change in his or her environment, it becomes a self-perpetuating process.

The Bottom Line

Change is hard. It’s much easier to hire or promote a good manager than try to remediate a bad one. However, there are times when a manager’s greatest weaknesses are also his greatest strengths; the manager who has unrealistic expectations of others often sets (and achieves) extraordinary goals for himself, the domineering, opinionated boss may also act decisively and have a keen sense of intuition, the impatient, close-minded executive may be stellar at thinking outside the box. Behavior coaching can help these managers channel their natural skills into being better bosses – not bullies.

Failing to provide critical information on a project. Spreading malicious rumors about coworkers.Destroying or stealing company equipment. Giving classified product information to a competitor.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve seen employees retaliate toward a company for perceived injustices. Plaintiffs don’t talk about what happened (I’m suing because I lost my job or because I was sexually harassed) nearly as much as they relate stories of interpersonal inconsideration and abuse (no one took my complaint seriously, I was marched out the door accompanied by a security guard).

When Employee Trust is Broken

In a work environment, revenge occurs in response to violations of trust, i.e., when expectations concerned another person’s behavior are not met, or when that person does not act consistent with one’s values. Violations of interpersonal justice, i.e.., how one expects to be treated , tend to evoke the strongest emotional responses, ranging from anger to moral outrage.

There is evidence, for example, that dismissals or terminations do not provoke violence in and of themselves. Rather, vengeful attitudes and behaviors result from the humiliation that occurs when terminations are conducted in an abusive and insensitive manner. In fact, numerous studies have found a relationship between unpopular decisions or outcomes (being terminated, for example) and retaliation only when there was anger over how the decision was carried out (was the person treated with respect?) and how it was made (was the decision-making process fair?).

Over 80% of the cases of workplace homicide involve employees who want to get even for what they perceived as their organizations’ unfair or unjust treatment of them. This is not to deny the role of individual differences and how they interact with different workplace situations. An employee who explodes may have a higher level of aggression to contribute to the outburst.

Workplace Retaliation: Don’t Break Your Psychological Contract

Retaliation at work doesn’t just occur in response to interpersonal abuse or humiliation. It can also result from the perceived violation of a psychological contract, i.e., the expectations that both employees and employees bring to the employment relationship that operate above and beyond the formal job responsibilities.

The currency of the psychological contract is not traditional compensation. Rather, it involves intangibles such as respect, freedom from harassment, recognition, continuous, accurate, and updated communications, and opportunities-to-grow and develop. An abusive manager, unrealistic sales projections given to a candidate during a hiring interview, a grievance that falls on deaf ears – these are all things that can lead to a sense of betrayal and injustice – and fantasies of revenge.

Improving Your Fairness Quotient

Human resources can play a vital role in organizational justice by:

Checking all policies and work rules to assure that there are procedures that create fairness. The important ones center on pay, diversity, and etc. Look at decisions made in implementing these rules and general working practices to assure that fairness and equality is explicit in all supervisory and management decisions about employees and their work.
Including leadership and interpersonal skills in your management development program, including 360-degree evaluations by subordinates, coworkers and management.

Making sure all candidates are provided with “realistic job previews” (i.e., providing an accurate description of the job, organization, and opportunities, including both positive and negative features).
Providing multiple avenues for employees to deal with grievances (and the feelings associated with them). For example, in addition to formal grievance procedures, engage your EAP to give informal talks during corporate transitions and offer outplacement services during layoffs.

The Bottom Line

“Revenge is a confession of pain,” says a Latin proverb. While there are many reasons employees engage in sabotaging or aggressive acts in the workplace, HR can play an active role in reducing the odds it would be in response to an unfair or abusive work environment.

Employees who “get no respect” are future plaintiffs, particularly when they’re being fired. In fact, the results of 150 structured interviews with 996 recently fired or laid-off workers (Administrative Science Quarter, September 2000) found that the way an employee was treated at the time of termination had nearly twice as much effect as any other variable in predicting who would sue for wrongful termination and who would not; less that half of one percent of the respondents who felt they had been treated with “very much dignity” at their time of dismissal filed claims in comparison to 15 percent of those who said they had “not at all” received respectful and dignified treatment at the time of termination.

What employees were told when they were let go was also important. Less than 2 percent of terminated employees who were given an accurate and honest explanation of why they were being fired filed wrongful termination claims. In contrast almost 20% of employees who were given no explanation (or this was the first time they were hearing it) filed a claim.

I Don’t Deserve to Be Treated This Way

Looking at the reasons employees file wrongful termination lawsuits (and why they don’t) offers us some insight into how our employees expect to be treated while they’re still working for us. Basically, our employees want us to be FAIR. In particular, they feel entitled to two things from their managers – interpersonal sensitivity and accountability. In other words, employees believe they deserve to be treated politely and respectfully (regardless of the circumstances) and they expect truthful explanations for actions and decisions that that affect them personally.

There are some good psychological reasons why our employees want to be treated this way. For example, research has consistently shown that people who are treated with dignity emerge from experiences – even painful or negative ones – with a sense that they have been treated fairly. And being treated fairly helps us not take the negative outcome quite so personally; when we’re disciplined for something we’ve done, we can handle it. When we’re treated like a bad or insignificant person, it’s a different ball game.

Message from Jurors: Don’t Make a Bad Situation Worse

Jurors apparently agree. In my experience, jurors in employment lawsuits are much more motivated to punish an employer whom they believe has been rude or insensitive during a tough time they are to reward a plaintiff whom they like or feel sorry for. In fact, jurors don’t even have to like, respect, or empathize with a plaintiff if they feel indignant about how an employer handled a termination, layoff or discipline decision.

The good news is that the employer (and, in particular, the immediate supervisor) who treats employees fairly throughout the employment process has a great advantage not only in terms of reducing the likelihood of employees filing claims, but in defending the ones that are filed.

The Bottom Line

While no one is happy about being terminated, it’s the way it’s handled that most often gets the litigation ball rolling. Employees who are fired without warning, who are, without cause, marched out the door by security, or who learn about it through a nasty email are employees with an axe to grind. And there are plenty of lawyers to help them grind it. “It’s not FAIR” is the battle cry of the legal war zone.

Of course, not all mistreatment is intentional. Few managers are trained in how to communicate around discipline and termination and, as a result of their own discomfort, may come across as emotionally uncaring or cold (or take the chicken’s way out and communicate it from a distance). Let’s hope employers wise up to the fact that a manager who doesn’t know how to deliver bad news – a skill that can be easily learned – can be as detrimental to the workplace as one who makes bad decisions.

For each harassment complaint you’ve investigated, odds are you’ve dealt with ten times as many equal opportunity jerks. The boss who constantly criticizes, demeans, and undermines his employees. The supervisor who takes delight overworking and exploiting subordinates, or the employee who taunts and intimidates his coworkers. In short, the workplace bully.

Hypersensitive or Held Hostage?

With the continued escalation in harassment complaints, the last thing H.R. professionals need is another behavior problem to deal with. And, given the stressful work environment these days, it’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together; after all, who hasn’t been snapped at by a stressed-out boss or coworker?

Bullying, though, is not the occasional sharp retort or sarcastic putdown. Nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management. Bullying is an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time; on its own, 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 criticizing 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 percent 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 victim is most likely to be female. There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line. In fact, a recent study suggests that simply being a witness to workplace bullying is linked to sleep problems and increased stress.

The Psychology of Bullying Versus Harassment

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 her 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 harassment is the available legal remedies. U.S. laws aren’t set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate unless it is linked to a protected demographic or is so outrageous that it causes diagnosable emotional distress.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law. In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workman’s comp claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying. For example, 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.”

Is There a Bully in your Midst?

Having conducted numerous morale investigations for employers, it never ceases to amaze me how one person’s dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization. Employers may not face the same legal consequences as they would for discriminatory behavior, but the lost productivity and turnover costs are enormous.

Because victims are often afraid to speak out about their experiences and witnesses reluctant to stick their heads out, it can be hard to know if a bully is poisoning your workplace. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  1. Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation. It can be useful to follow up a few months after the employee has resigned; in my experience, they’re more likely to be candid after some time has elapsed.
  3. Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit. If you spot an anomaly, consider hiring an outsider to conduct an independent morale investigation.

Of course, there’s only so much HR can do; bullies thrive where authority is weak. Until there’s a commitment from top management, a policy is only words on paper and an investigation is meaningless unless there’s some teeth behind it. Still, as an HR professional, you are in a uniquely powerful position to advocate for employees by showing the powers-that-be why – and how – bullying in the workplace impacts the bottom line.