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Workplace Bullying – How to Manage it Effectively

Workplace bullying is a common issue across the United States. As a manager, it can be difficult to effectively handle. Here, we break down the impact of bullying on the workplace, and what managers can do to help!

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is something that impacts employees across all industries, and all levels of employment. Of course, this is challenging for both the employees dealing with it, as well as for the manager trying to effectively handle the situation. It’s always a delicate situation to manage, but one that must be taken seriously and handled as soon as possible in order to minimize the damage.  

What is Workplace Bullying? 

Workplace bullying is defined as persistent mistreatment that occurs in the workplace. It can include behaviors such as verbal criticism, personal attacks, humiliation, belittling, and exclusion. While we often think of junior employees as the victims, it’s important to realize that any employee in any role might be subject to bullying in the workplace. 

Examples of typical workplace bullying include: 

  • Targeted jokes 
  • Actively/purposely misleading co-workers on work duties, deadlines, or directions 
  • Threats, humiliation, or verbal abuse 
  • Denial of requests for support/time off/other requests without a valid reason 
  • Harsh/unjust criticism 

How big is the problem of Workplace Bullying? 

The problem of workplace bullying is so large, that there is an entire organization dedicated to researching and reporting on the issue in the United States. Every 3-4 years, the Workplace Bullying Institute carries out a workplace bullying survey. The most recent survey was completed in 2021. Here are some of the key stats/facts: 

  • Over 79 million U.S workers were affected by workplace bullying in the year previous to the survey. This is made up of 48.6 million employees who are directly bullied, and 30.6 million who witness it.  
  • It is estimated that 13% of the U.S working population is currently experiencing workplace bullying. 
  • Remote workers are also susceptible – with approximately 43% of remoter workers experiencing it.  
  • Workplace bullies are 67% male, 33% female. Interestingly, victims of male bullies are 58% male, and 42% female. However, the victims of female bullies are 65% female, and 35% male. 
  • The survey also found that employers often justify, or deny allegations of bullying happening in their workplace.  

One of the most interesting findings of the 2021 survey is that 90% of adult Americans support a law against abusive conduct at work. This is certainly one to keep an eye on in the future. 

The effects of Workplace Bullying  

It goes without saying that workplace bullying has serious effects on the victim themselves. However, it also has detrimental effects on employers and the workplace as a whole. Obviously, persistent and frequent bullying creates a hostile/toxic work environment, which itself brings a range of other issues. It also leads to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, high employee turnover, and huge issues with employee engagement.  

Not only that, but certain instances of workplace bullying lead to costly legal proceedings that often end in worker compensation. These legal battles are a huge drain on finances, resources, and ultimately, morale across the board. It goes without saying that most employers should be actively working to avoid them at all costs.  

How can Employers Effectively Manage Workplace Bullying? 

While the onus is sometimes placed on the victim to “stand up” to their bully, or “rise above”, it’s important to understand that employers do have a level of responsibility. Let’s take a look at what they can do to effectively manage bullying in their workplace.  

Acknowledge the Issue

One of the first, and most important steps to effectively manage workplace bullying is simply addressing and acknowledging the issue itself. Unfortunately, too many managers are quick to dismiss the idea that it might be happening under their noses. Employers who do nothing are at risk of being sued and paying damages. According to the policy on harassment in the workplace from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Hold bullies accountable

While some managers believe that adults should be able to “work it out themselves”, it’s important that those who are bullying are held accountable for their actions. One of the easiest, and most effective ways of handling this is by developing a clear workplace bullying policy. This should outline what behavior is seen as unacceptable, along with the consequences of those actions. It is also helpful to outline work-relevant impacts to illustrate how detrimental bullying can be. Once your policy has been created, take the time to distribute it fully, and educate your workforce on what it covers. Update your policy frequently, and update the workplace with these updates. Unfortunately, new methods of bullying arise all of the time. This means that you must update your policies regularly.

Remain Impartial

As an employer, it’s likely that you will build close working relationships with some employees or supervisors. This can make situations complex when it comes to workplace bullying. Often, employers fail to believe that someone their close to might be a bully. The only way to effectively manage this is by remaining completely impartial. All of your employees, especially the victims are solely relying on you to do so. Without impartiality, employees or co-workers might feel unable to report any instances of bullying they experience/witness. It’s already difficult to report these things, but as a manager, being impartial is definitely a big help.

Intervene ASAP

While it might be easier to turn a blind eye to workplace bullying whenever you witness it happening, as a manager, it is imperative to intervene on the spot. This doesn’t mean creating a scene, or even addressing the actual issue there and then. Often, it’s helpful to simply interrupt the incident with a reminder to get back to work or give a task to one of the parties involved. This immediately de-escalates the situation and likely lets the victim and perpetrator know that you are aware, and watching. Then, you can handle the issue at a later time behind closed doors, with your own account of events as grounds for investigation.

Frequently Self Assess

As a manager, it’s easy to lose the run of yourself when it comes to leadership styles. Control can be dangerous and often go to our heads. 65% of workplace bullies are managers/bosses, so it’s important to “check yourself” regularly to ensure you are not perpetuating workplace bullying in any way. When managers lead in a style that is consistent with forms of bullying, employees start to see it as acceptible. This leads to increased co-worker bullying, and ultimately a toxic workplace. Ask your friends/family if they think your behavior needs to be changed. You can even simply ask your employees if there is anything you should change. Transparency is key here and generally leads to a better employee experience.

Workplace bullying is a huge, common problem across the US. In order to keep their employees safe, managers should be fully equipped with how to effectively manage it. As a manager, the onus is on you to continually monitor and intervene at any signs of workplace bullying. Your employees will ultimately thank you, and your organization will run smoother than ever.

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