Harassment, bullying, and discrimination in the workplace

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Bullying in the workplace, while not illegal, can put your business at risk of an employment practices lawsuit if left unchecked.
A woman looks upset while onlookers laugh in the background.

In the United States, 35% of workers suffer workplace bullying, according to a 2010 Zogby International survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). That percentage climbs to 50% of workers when witnesses are involved.

Other startling stats:

  • 62% of bullies are men.
  • 58% of targets are women.
  • 80% of the time, female bullies target women.
  • Bullying is four times more rampant than illegal harassment.

Most bullying is same-gender harassment (~68%), which is mostly legal according to anti-discrimination laws. But even though bullying isn’t illegal, your small business could still face an employment practices liability suit if you don’t intervene. Plus, your business may endure a host of other problems as a result of an unfriendly work environment.

What does workplace bullying entail?

According to the Healthy Workplace Campaign, an organization that seeks to enact anti-bullying laws, workplace bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” Usually, this behavior manifests through…

  • Verbal abuse
  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating conduct
  • Sabotage that prevents the target from getting work done

Telltale signs of workplace bullying

Like most employers, the last thing you want is to create a work environment that your employees dread. After all, such a workplace can hamper morale and productivity. Not to mention, no one likes a bully.

But bullying is a quiet epidemic. About half of the people surveyed by Zogby have never been bullied or witnessed it. So how can you be sure something’s amiss?

The Workplace Bullying Institute outlines several signs that your employees or supervisors may be bullying others:

Ignoring / excluding. If you notice workers purposefully ignoring or excluding someone or “forgetting” to invite someone to a meeting, know that this is one of the first clues of an escalating bullying problem.

Rationalization. Is a supervisor constantly defending his behavior for acting in a particular manner toward a certain employee? You may need to dig a little deeper and see what’s really going on.

Belittlement. Be on the lookout for those who fail to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings or those who incessantly disparage someone’s ideas or work.

Undermining work or stealing credit. Blocking an employee’s work or taking credit for their ideas and contributions is a form of bullying.

Criticism. Take note when a worker or supervisor is constantly criticizing someone for unwarranted reasons.

Aggression. Perhaps one of the biggest signs that you’re dealing with a workplace bully: they yell or shout at an employee or act aggressively toward them (for example, pounding a desk).

Intrusion. Ensure your workforce knows that tampering with someone’s personal belongings and needlessly lurking around their desk is a form of bullying and won’t be tolerated.

Embarrassment. Embarrassing or humiliating an employee in front of others is a surefire form of bullying. For example, someone name-checks an employee during a meeting to shame her for the “inefficient” part she played in a project.

Revenge. Does a supervisor or employee seem to have a vendetta against a certain individual? Keep your eyes peeled for those seeking “revenge” when a small mistake happens.

Threats. No employee should constantly feel as though their job is on the line. Watch out for language that threatens unwarranted discipline or termination.

Gossip. Is someone the butt of demeaning jokes or untrue rumors and gossip? If so, you need to step in and make sure the perpetrators know such behavior is unacceptable.

Harassment, the EEOC, and bullying’s legal gray area

Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doesn’t regulate workplace bullying, there are times when it can be considered harassment – a form of discrimination the EEOC does monitor.

Workplace bullying can be considered harassment if the conduct is directed at the target because of their membership in a protected class. Protected classes are a group of men and women who may experience employment discrimination on the basis of their…

  • Sex
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Nationality
  • Age
  • Physical or mental disabilities

For example, if one of your managers constantly makes fun of an employee because of their religion, they could sue your business for illegal harassment. Similarly, if a manager impedes a female employee’s progress at work and belittles her, she could sue for discrimination.

The high cost of bullying for employers

Bullying not only hurts the individuals targeted by the mistreatment – it hurts businesses, too. In workplaces with bullying problems, the employee absentee and turnover rates are high. That means businesses have to invest more in hiring and training new employees. Plus, a business with a bad bullying reputation may have a hard time recruiting new talent once the word gets out about why employees won’t stick around.

Left unchecked, harassment and bullying problems can lead to low productivity and health problems for employees. The Zogby survey cites that 45% of individuals bullied at work suffer cardiovascular problems, impaired immune systems, debilitating anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. This means employees may end up filing more workers’ compensation claims, which can drive up your premium rates.

Plus, bullied employees can always sue a business for the emotional distress workplace harassment or bullying caused. Though you should protect your business from the cost of these lawsuits with employment practices liability insurance, you should also take measures to ensure workplace bullying isn’t tolerated. You can get some ideas here: “The small business guide to avoiding discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”

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