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Why Workplace Bullying Goes Unreported

When we hear the term “bullying” most people think of one student who harasses another and creates a threatening environment for the latter, sometimes leading to harming oneself or suicide by the bullied student.

Workplace Bullying is an organization that provides advice for those who feel they may have been bullied in the workplace. It defines bullying as: A systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved.”

Bullying in the workplace is typically a non-physical form of abuse and, instead, one that plays games you’re your mind. It can cause serious health problems.

I prefer to define workplace buying as: One person or a group of people in the workplace who single out another person for unreasonable, embarrassing, or intimidating treatment.

Unlike sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, bullying is relatively unregulated. However, things may be changing, albeit slowly. Today, at least three states have laws specifically on bullying in the workplace. Utah, Tennessee, and California have all passed laws regulating workplace bullying. Currently, Utah and Tennessee laws both focus on public employers.

The California law applies to all employers who have more than 50 employees. As of now, none of these three states have created a private right of action unless, of course, that bullying is in reference to a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. A workplace bullying claim, to be valid under current federal law, must be couched as either discrimination or hostile work environment.

Typically, state laws define the term “bullying” and create a requirement for training and rulemaking. Specifically, California defines “abusive conduct” as “…conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace with malice that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interest.”

I recently read “A Guide to Workplace Bullying” and strongly recommend it to folks in the Human Resources Department and those charged with training and compliance on workplace bullying issues.

The notion that there is, or may be, workplace bullying brings into question the entire ethical structure of an organization and the tone set by top management and its ability to create an ethical culture. The Guide provides guidance on what is bullying behaviors.

  • Name calling

  • Ignoring, isolating, or excluding someone

  • Belittling

  • Scapegoating – i.e., blaming others for mistakes

  • Manipulation of roles – i.e., making threats about job security

  • Setting you up to fail – i.e., setting unachievable tasks or targets

  • Spreading rumors

  • Giving you meaningless tasks

  • Aggressive behavior – i.e., shouting/intrusion of personal space.

According to the Guide, almost six in 10 people have witnessed or suffered bullying in the workplace and 37 percent have been bullied themselves. Out of 2,000 people surveyed, most people had witnessed bullying but only 48 percent did anything about it.

Why do most people decide not to do anything about bullying? I believe it results from the “bystander effect” whereby a person decides not to report a wrongdoing, hoping that someone else will do so. Oftentimes this occurs because the would-be-reporter is afraid of retaliation. In other words, the ‘kill the messenger’ syndrome is alive and well in bullying as it is in sexual harassment.

Reporting bullying is much like sexual harassment. First, check on your company’s policies. How does it define bullying? Who should you report it to? Does the company have a hotline? Typically, it’s best to first discuss the matter with your supervisor to insure you have gone on the record to report the abuse. You should consider reporting the matter to the HR department as well. Be sure to keep an accurate record of what you did, who you contacted, and what was their response.

Acts of bullying have no place in the workplace. They can cause great harm to the individual being bullied including physical and mental health problems. They can infect the workplace, create stress between individuals who have to work together and, taken to its extreme, create a toxic environment.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 12, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

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