The Business Risks of Workplace Bullying (and 4 Ways Managers Can Stop It)

Linda Childers

Remember those childhood bullies who taunted their peers on the playground? Well many of them are now grown and wreaking havoc in workplaces across the country.

A 2014 survey published by the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash., found that 65.6 million workers in the United States have been affected by bullying, and that many employers still fail to fully address reported mistreatment and abusive conduct by managers and co-workers.

According to Dr. Lisa Barrow, author of In Darkness Light Dawns: Exposing Workplace Bullying, unresolved workplace conflicts can take a huge toll on employee health and productivity.

How to Spot Workplace Bullying

“Workplace bullying is repetitive, abusive behavior that devalues and harms employees,” says Barrow, an international workplace bullying expert and researcher based in Ontario, Canada. “While not physically violent, workplace bullying relies on hostile actions and words that intimidate and torment the targeted individual, putting their self-esteem and overall health at risk.”

Barrow notes the ramifications of workplace bullying can also affect the bottom line of a small business by causing high turnover, damage to the company’s reputation, a decrease in employee morale, and potential legal costs.

Ready to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against bullying? Barrow and Tara Fishler, a conflict resolution coach, and owner of Customized Training Solutions in New York, offer the following tips for small business owners:

Tailor Your Plan

Barrow, who helps small businesses create more respectful workplaces, says business owners need to make anti-bullying policies part of their company’s overall business plan.

“It’s important for small businesses owners to set the tone and be clear on what workplace behaviors will not be tolerated,” Barrow says. “They need to lead by example, and to hold workplace bullies accountable. It’s not enough to have a plan, employers also need to be ready to enforce it.”

Create a Safe Workplace

 “Since victims of bullying are often reluctant to come forward out of fear of retaliation, safe processes to report bullying should be implemented and any employee reports of bullying need to be reported and taken seriously,” says Fishler, who consults with small businesses on conflict resolution.

Small business owners are encouraged to take bullying as seriously as they would any form of workplace harassment, and to investigate the bullying claim, assure the victim there will be no retaliation, and then work to resolve the situation.

“It’s not only imperative to have a zero-tolerance against bullying policy in place, but to also enforce it,” Barrow says.

While bullying in the workplace isn’t illegal, over 20 states have introduced some version of The Workplace Bullying Institute’s Healthy Workplace Bill.

How to Be Vigilant

Since bullying can often be subtle, a small business owner might not realize there’s a problem until they begin to see declining morale and employee absenteeism.

“If you have a revolving door of employees, that’s going to eat away at your company’s bottom line,” Barrow says. “It’s important for small business owners to look at how their employees are interacting, and to catch bullying early.” In some cases, Barrow says bullies aren’t consciously aware of their behavior. “Sometimes it’s possible to change the behavior of bullies by putting them on an improved performance program, and ensuring they meet certain goals within a specified period of time.”

Implementing 360 feedback, where managers are evaluated by their employees as well as their superiors, can also be a way to draw attention to workplace problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The Right Questions To Ask

Fishler says workplace bullies can often be identified (and avoided) during the hiring process. “I always ask potential employees how they would go about resolving conflict at work,” she says. “This offers insight into a prospective employee’s problem-solving and people skills.”


Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

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