Bullying doesn’t just happen to kids on the playground. It happens among adults in the workplace, too. The signs may seem innocent enough—a belittling comment, a roll of the eyes, simple rudeness—but such behavior repeated over time can be harmful to employees on the receiving end, impairing their morale and ability to do their jobs.

Bullying is often subtle and insidious, and can pass under the radar of even the most astute managers. Research shows that one in four employees have experienced abusive conduct at work and another 21 percent have witnessed it. Here’s how you can be alert to the signs and ready to respond with corrective action.

Know the Signs

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying can take the form of verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating or intimidating conduct; and work interference (sabotage) that gets in the way of productivity. Just like on the playground, bullying often starts when one person starts picking on someone else and enlists others to join in. It can also occur, however, with no witnesses present.

Common bullying tactics include:

  • Belittling a person’s opinions, contributions and concerns
  • Excluding the person from decisions, conversations and work-related events
  • Intimidating remarks and behavior
  • Unfair criticism
  • Spreading rumors and gossip
  • Embarrassing the person in front of others
  • Shifting blame and using the other as a scapegoat
  • Undermining the person’s work
  • Stealing credit

Know the Effects

Bullying can take a powerful toll on its victims, with effects that last long after they leave work each day. They may experience heightened levels of stress which can lead to a host of physical problems ranging from insomnia and headaches to digestive problems and the increased risk of heart disease. Emotionally, bullied employees may feel anxiety, frustration, loss of confidence and the inability to concentrate, which can impede their ability to perform on the job and cause a drop in morale and productivity. They’re more likely to become disengaged from their work, call in sick and even quit their jobs. Workplace bullying can also increase workers’ compensation claims and prompt disgruntled employees to file lawsuits against you.

Ultimately, bullying affects the overall health of your organization and everyone who works for you, and can cost your business dearly.

Intervene When Necessary

Bullying won’t remedy itself. Nor will wishful thinking or turning a blind eye and deaf ear to tensions within your workplace. Be sensitive to bullying behavior and look out for evidence that it’s occurring. Respectfully intervene on the spot if you observe any offending behavior. If grievances are reported, take them seriously and act promptly. The sooner you respond, the sooner you can prevent an uncomfortable situation from escalating into a crisis.

Confronting a difficult employee can be challenging, but constructive change is possible if you tackle the issue calmly and directly using the following steps:

  1. Encourage the victim to meet with the bully one-on-one. Offer to be present as a facilitator if that would help ease the conversation. Ideally, the two employees will be able to work the conflict out between themselves.
  2. If your direct intervention is necessary, meet with the bully privately. Describe the specific problem behavior and its impact without attacking the person. Sometimes asking the bully to put a family member in the position of the person who has been harmed is sufficient to soften his or her stance.
  3. Ask for the bully’s perspective and listen carefully to their response. It will cue you in to the person’s potential for change. You may also discover that the employee is unaware of the impact of his or her actions and simply needs coaching on how to be a better team player.
  4. Spell out the consequences that will be carried out if things don’t change. A verbal warning may be sufficient for a first-time occurrence, but if the bullying continues, a written warning, counseling, demotion and ultimately termination may be warranted.
  5. To protect yourself legally, document the details of the incident and your discussions with both the victim and the offender.
  6. Provide support to the bullied employee. Suggest they see a doctor or join a support group especially if their health and well-being has been negatively affected.

Create a Workplace Policy

Current law does not specifically protect employees from bullying behavior, so perpetrators may get away with it unless you have a workplace policy in place. A bullying policy is an essential preventive measure that provides you with recourse should the offending behavior occur.

Include these key topics in your policy:

  • A clear definition of bullying supported by examples
  • A procedure for reporting bullying confidentially and without fear of retaliation
  • Explanation of the complaint and investigation process
  • Consequences of violations

Educate your entire staff on your policies. Have them read and sign a code of conduct built upon respect and professionalism within your workplace, and consistently enforce it. By doing so, you will be on your way to cultivating a supportive atmosphere that lets your employees know they can come to you if they feel they are not being treated fairly.

Know the Law

By itself, a case of workplace bullying will not hold up in a court of U.S. law. Bullying can become illegal, however, when it crosses the line into discrimination or harassment. Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or disability. Some state laws protect additional traits such as gender identity, marital status and sexual orientation.

An employee who believes any one of these characteristics factored into workplace bullying can file a hostile work environment lawsuit against you. If the workplace bully threatens physical harm, your employee can sue for assault.

The cost of bullying is high. The best way to discourage it is to take the lead in creating a culture of respect, kindness and open communication—and take action on bad behavior immediately, before it worsens.

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