Researchers have determined that workplace bullying may be more harmful to employees, and consequently employers, than sexual harassment. The hidden costs resulting from workplace bullying can be nothing less than staggering.
Workplace bullying is defined as repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee. Bullying can take many forms and may include invalid criticism, being treated differently than the rest of a work group, being sworn at, exclusion or social isolation, or even excessive monitoring or micro-managing.
While bullying can, at times, be difficult to recognize, there are a few indications. Many organizations where bullying is prevalent show an increase in grievances, sick leave and disciplinary actions. A 2011 Careerbuilder survey reported that while 27% of workers have experienced workplace bullying, the vast majority did not report the abuse. Unfortunately, of the workers who reported the bullying, 62% responded that no action was taken by their employer to investigate or resolve the problem.
Bullying can have a profound effect on the victim or victims. They may experience extreme stress, reduced self-esteem, sleep disorders and depression in the short-term and long-term problems include chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease. Bullied employees tend to be less effective, in part because they are forced to expend time and energy coping with the bullying, and because they are more likely to utilize sick leave.
Bullying can have other financial effects on an employer as well. Increased turnover, from bullied employees quitting, means an employer must pay to post a job opening, take time to review applications and interview applicants, and then take the time to bring new employees up to speed. Every time a bullied employee quits, the employer must expend time and money to replace them. And, of course, the bullied employee may choose to sue the employer, causing the employer to incur legal fees and possibly damages.
I experienced workplace bullying from my supervisor at a previous employer. I was often excessively berated for asking questions, given unrealistic deadlines or projects above my experience level, and intentionally embarrassed in front of co-workers. I felt sick every time I drove into the parking lot each day, and it severely affected my work performance. The most difficult part was feeling like I had nowhere to turn for help. My coworkers would simply repeat the mantra “that’s just how he is” when I brought up the situation. Because he was my supervisor, I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to human resources or anyone higher in the company’s hierarchy because I was afraid of making the situation worse. I didn’t know what to do, so I simply retreated into my office and tried to avoid contact, which did little to improve the situation.
In order to prevent situations like mine, or something worse, employers need to implement strong, clear anti-bullying policies. The policy should be included in the employee handbook and require the employee to sign, stating that they are aware of the policy. Employees need to be assured that they will not be subjected to retaliation for reporting bullying and they need to be provided with the person or, preferably, persons to whom bullying should be reported. As with any workplace policy, a disciplinary system must be put in place, and applied consistently to all employees, regardless of their place in the organizational hierarchy. As with any additions or changes to an employee policy, legal counsel should be consulted to ensure compliance with state and federal law.