Reduce Bullying and Harassment at Work

How to reduce bullying and harassment is a popular topic in my consulting practice.  It’s an extremely important topic to address, which is why I’m taking the time today to discuss how to identify and deal with it.

The first step towards resolving any problem is defining and identifying it.

Although there are many variations on what constitutes workplace bullying and harassment, it invariably includes verbal comments intended to hurt, demean, and inflict mental distress on a co-worker in the workplace.

Bullying and harassment can of course also include acts of physical aggression—some of which can be subtle, though by no means any less threatening than actual physical violence.

In British Columbia, WorkSafeBC defines bullying and harassment as: “… inappropriate conduct or comment by a person towards a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated.”

In a previous blog, I referred to workplace bullies as little more than grown-up versions of schoolyard bullies. Despite the age difference, the fact remains that they dominate and control their victims in an effort to overcome their own insecurities.

Bullying is essentially a way for the bully to assert power through aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, bullies often rank poorly in their social skills and empathy towards others. But be wary, bullies aren’t always easy to identify!

What Does Bullying Look Like in the Workplace?

Unfortunately, bullying and harassment can be all too present in workplaces, coming in many different shapes and sizes. It can be subtle and deliberately disguised, or it can be explicit and very obviously aggressive.

It also doesn’t always involve just one aggressor and one victim. Bullying and harassment might start off this way, but it also has the potential to snowball into an exacerbated situation that can affect and even influence many others within an organization. Inevitably, unpleasant and toxic work environments are born out of such employee relations.

The Bully

A bully might act physically aggressive towards a victim or be verbally abusive and overly critical. Remember, it’s often a pattern of behaviour, rather than one specific incident.

The bully might even go so far as to make false allegations, or even deliberately sabotage the victim’s work. Most discouraging is the fact that bullies can often act within the established rules and policies of the employer (remember, a bully isn’t always easy to identify).

The Victim

It goes without saying that the effects of bullying on its victims can be traumatic and have serious mental and physical consequences. Victims often blame themselves and suffer low self-esteem. They might be less productive and begin questioning the value of their own work and performance—which can ultimately lead to a resignation or termination.

These consequences can even spill over into their home and family life. Worse, it can lead to depression, substance abuse, and aggressive behaviour towards their own family!

10 Effective Ways to Address Workplace Bullying and Harassment

So, what can we do?

As I’ve mentioned, bullying and harassment isn’t always the easiest thing to detect (nor address), and the only way to ensure you are prepared to effectively deal with this type of employee conduct is to have pre-existing awareness and procedures in place.

And so, without further ado, here are 10 effective ways to address workplace bullying and harassment:

1. Develop and articulate a zero-tolerance workplace bullying policy. The policy must outline in precise, clear terms your organization’s view on bullying and harassment and its commitment to enforcing a zero-tolerance approach.

2. Provide clear examples of what is considered bullying behaviour and leave no room for interpretation. Your examples should also include working conditions that are indirectly aggressive in nature. The more comprehensively the policy covers a range of incidents (bullying, harassment, physical violence) the better equipped you will be to effectively prevent and eradicate this type of employee conduct.

3. Emphasize the commitment of management to maintain and enforce an anti-bullying workplace. The most important component of any workplace prevention program is management’s commitment. It is most effective when communicated in a written policy.

4. Outline the process by which preventive measures against bullying and harassment will be developed and implemented. This must include encouraging employees to report all incidents they consider to be of a bullying or harassment nature. No exceptions.

5. Have a workplace policy in place that includes a reporting system. A bullying and harassment prevention program needs to be developed by management and employee representatives. All complaints and violations of company policy must be documented (via emails or other communications).

6. Train your managers and supervisors. Of supreme importance is having organizational leaders trained in how to deal with complaints from employees. They must also know how to identify potential situations (including how to spot a bully before any formal complaints are made). Managers and supervisors must be encouraged to address each and every situation promptly—being preventative and proactive is better for everyone.

7. Access to external resources is a must. Although organizational leaders should be trained in dealing with conflict management, they should also have access to resources, such as outside facilitators and coaches.

8. Take all complaints seriously. No complaint should be ignored, and all should be dealt with promptly and confidentially. Be transparent, listen to your employees, and do the right thing, not the easy thing! This should apply to management, employees, clients, independent contractors, and anyone who has a relationship with your company.

9. Educate your workforce and encourage respectful, professional interactions. You must encourage everyone at the workplace to act towards others in a respectful and professional manner.

10. Provide a safe environment to foster an open discussion about the issue of workplace bullying and harassment. Encourage your employees to work out solutions before the situation gets serious or “out of control”. That said, you don’t want to encourage them to resolve every kind of bullying behaviour on their own. Ever.

This may be a lot to digest, but it’s important to take that time. After all, bullying and harassment should always be taken seriously.