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Bullying in the Workplace: Information for Taking Action

How to Address Complaints of Bullying in the Workplace

By Bridget Quigg, PayScale.com

Anderson Cooper of CNN created a special series on it. School kids suffer from it. And, HR leaders are on guard for it more than ever. Bullying has taken center stage as a major problem in the US. How do you, as a business leader, handle accusations of bullying at your organization?

Is your competition handing out raises in 2011? Hiring new talent? PayScale surveyed them to find out and now we're giving you their answers. Download PayScale's Compensation Practices Survey for 2011 and get up-to-date on your market.

In an earlier post, “What Can Be Bullying in the Workplace: Will Your Workers Be Able To Sue You For Bullying?,” a lawyer specializing in employment law covered the details of what constitutes bullying and the legal ramifications of not dealing with it.

In this post, we will cover the practical realities of how to respond when a worker comes to you with a complaint of bullying or, possibly, harassment. Bullying isn’t necessarily illegal, but it can hurt productivity and can escalate to illegal behavior.

In a recent study, the Workplace Bullying Institute defined bullying as “repeated, health-harming, abusive conduct committed by bosses and co-workers” or "repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevents work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation." If the victimization is happening to someone who has a protected status – disabled, female, ethnic minority, homosexual – or physical violence has occurred, the situation may qualify as harassment and legal action may be an obvious next step. Refer to the post mentioned above for more information.

The Workplace Bullying Institute offers some interesting stats on bullying based upon studies it has sponsored.

- 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand 
- 62 percent of bullies are men; 58 percent of targets are women
- Women bullies target women in 80 percent of cases
- Bullying is 4X more prevalent than illegal harassment
- The majority (68 percent) of bullying is same-gender harassment

Steps to Handling Bullying in Your Office

The following recommendations on how to handle complaints of bullying are based upon a conversation with a long-time training development specialist and HR generalist, with her SPHR, who has directly managed dozens of workers in her career. She requested to remain anonymous.

1. Pay attention to your team. No matter who you are managing - HR, IT operation or sales - you need to be in touch with everyone and have their trust so that they will come to you when they are undergoing stressful or embarrassing situations.

2. Provide reassurance. Harassment is about power and control. It’s about someone else trying to have another person fail because they, themselves, are insecure. It is not about the victim's work performance and sometimes person being bullied needs to be reminded of that. You may need to re-boost their confidence and figure out how to make them feel safe so that they can work, if possible, while the investigation is going on.

You can also remind the person logging the complaint that your company, if it does, has a no retaliation policy, meaning that their complaint cannot cause them to be demoted, fired or bullied further. 

3. Assure confidentiality. Make it clear to the employee that you will only involve the parties that are absolutely necessary to complete a full investigation. And, that there will likely need to be an escalation of the issue at some point to higher management. But, assure them (many times) that their confidentiality will be respected.

Almost always, the person revealing the abuse will regret having spoken up and want to take their words back. They will fear retaliation. But, once they have said something, you have to take action. That is why emphasizing confidentiality is so important.

You also need to ensure that they do their part and keep the matter confidential. They cannot talk to other people outside of the situation about it. It’s easy for those experiencing mistreatment to get caught in the drama of it all and add fuel to the fire by discussing it inappropriately. Remind them to focus on their productivity, which can be tough depending upon the situation.

4. Ask questions without taking sides. Try to find out as much information as you can about what has been going on, without taking sides on the matter. Asking open-ended questions will help you remain neutral and not feed any thoughts to the person you are interviewing.

Here are some example questions for that initial interview.

- What have you experienced?
- Can you give me some specific examples?
- Have you been verbally or physically abused?
- Have you been threatened in any way physically?
- How long has this been going on?
- Have there been witnesses?
- Have you documented exact times and days when it occurred?

5. Outline an action plan. With the person who has logged a complaint, outline the next steps you will take to investigate the situation. As stated before, sometimes the person will become nervous when they find out that more people will be involved. Remind them, again, of the care you will take with their confidentiality and that you must take action now that you know about the situation.

You don’t have to tell them all of the details of the plan because you are also protecting other people’s confidentiality. One helpful approach, so that you can be discreet and avoid having people parading in and out of your office, is to schedule meetings in a conference room or off site.

6. Take action quickly. If you receive a complaint and are not in the HR department, let HR know immediately. Also, let the appropriate mangers know, and let the cops know if anything has been or becomes violent, because sometimes these situations do. Think of the man who came to a morning safety meeting at a quarry in Cupertino feeling disgruntled and opened fire on this workmates. These things can happen anywhere.

If you receive a complaint and you do not act upon it or escalate it as needed, you will be held responsible just as much, if not more, than the perpetrator. Inaction is a huge liability for not only yourself, but for the company. In some states, the manager can be personally sued for mishandling a bullying or harassment claim. Once you know this information, do something about it.

7. Document everything. Document every conversation in electronic and hard copy. Collect dates and times of incidents from the person filing a complaint. If there were witnesses to any incidents, document that information. Be sure to lock away papers and encrypt electronic files so that no one else can see them.

8. Escalate, as needed. Always consult with HR, if you are not HR. If you are HR, your job is to let the appropriate parties know that the complaint has come in. HR must stay neutral as the investigation happens. Use these upper management resources, as needed, to help you decide how to ensure that the individual logging the complaint is physically safe

9. Check the laws. Are you dealing with a bullying or harassment situation? Harassment occurs when someone who has a protected status is mistreated due to their protected status. See the links below to further information.

10. Make some decisions. Your goal is to find out if the employee accused of bullying should still work at the company and if any legal action needs to be taken. While the investigation is going on, sometimes a suspension with pay for suspected perpetrator is needed. Or, perhaps the person logging the complaint is safest not coming in to work. No two situations are alike so use your best judgment.

Further Resources on Bullying

Federal Employment Statutes Prohibiting Discrimination - To Help Determine If It Is Harassment

Section 1981 of the U.S. Code provides additional federal remedies to deter harassment and intentional discrimination in the workplace. Amended in 1991, § 1981 provides the requisite elements for proving a disparate impact claim and permits a jury to award compensatory and punitive damages in situations of intentional discrimination. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently interpreted § 1981 to imply a private cause of action for race-based retaliation claims. A race-based retaliation claim is one in which an employer has retaliated against an employee for having previously filed a complaint of racial-discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in many more aspects of the employment relationship. It applies to most employers engaged in interstate commerce with more than 15 employees, labor organizations, and employment agencies. The Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Sex includes pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. It makes it illegal for employers to discriminate in relation to hiring, discharging, compensating, or providing the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Employment agencies may not discriminate when hiring or referring applicants.

The Nineteenth Century Civil Rights Acts, amended in 1993, ensure all persons equal rights under the law and outline the damages available to complainants in actions brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Information on the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill

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