There continues to be a problem today with both bullying and harassment in the workplace. Although, there seems to be a current change in culture with numerous claims at the forefront of today’s headlines, they continue to be persistent issues. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), almost one third of the approximately 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment. This included, charges of unlawful harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion. (EEOC, 2018). On the other hand, bullying in the workplace is not as easily defined. At present, no federal law directly addresses bullying. However, in some cases, bullying overlaps with discriminatory harassment which is covered under federal civil rights laws. (Nagele-Piazza, 2018).
It has been determined that perception can play a vital role to the issue of harassment (Dougherty, 2017), along with the use of technology in today’s environment (Blakely, 2012). Through available reports, statistics and surveys, I will define both harassment and bullying and examine the effects in the workplace. I will also examine the role managers and leaders play in dealing with it, and finally what can be done to improve current policies and procedures.
What is the difference between harassment and bullying? There are two key differences between bullying and harassment. First, is the reason for the behavior. Any form of workplace harassment will target an individual or group based on their class such as, gender, race, or ethnicity. In regards to workplace bullies, class doesn’t necessarily apply. The bullying can be random and arbitrary as to who or what the bully chooses. Secondly, victims of harassment are protected by federal law and have an outlet to which they can raise their complaints. The only option for victims of bullying is to go through their employers Human Resource Department to place a complaint. Currently, not every state has laws making bullying illegal, however because the behaviors can be toxic to an organization and can disrupt the culture of the company it is vital that any complaint of bullying be taken seriously and the problem should be thoroughly investigated. (Helios, 2014).
First, I will address workplace harassment, which has been defined as a form of discrimination which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). According to the U.S. EEOC, harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws”. (EEOC, 2018).
“Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:
• The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
• The victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
• Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim”. (EEOC, 2018).
A 2015 report from the EEOC revealed that charges alleging harassment in the private sector was at 31% and 43% in the federal sector. It also found that harassment is greatly under reported. Approximately 85% of people never file a formal legal charge and nearly 70% of employees never complain internally. They have linked the reasons to under reporting to the following factors: humiliation, retaliation, damage to reputation, blame, and ostracism. It is estimated that between 2010 to 2015, employers paid $698.7 million to process employee’s allegations of harassment during the EEOC’s pre-litigation process.
The following health and productivity impacts have been tied directly to the victims of harassment:
• Psychological issues: depression, anxiety, negative mood, eating disorders, self-blame, anger, substance abuse, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
• Physical symptoms: headaches, exhaustion, sleep problems, Nausea, weight changes, cardiovascular issues, gastric issues, respiratory issues
• Damage to workplace productivity: decreased productivity, job dissatisfaction, work withdrawal, disengagement, tardiness, excessive absenteeism, work time spent discussing the harassment
• High job turn-over (the largest component due to harassment). (EEOC, 2018).
The issue with the law being so specific is it leaves the door wide open for a stream of other offenses that desperately need to be addressed, which do not fall under the aforementioned protected characteristics. For example, what about the fat person who is teased, the ugly or the pretty one for that matter, the smelly one, the annoying one, or just the socially awkward one? Unfortunately, under these circumstances, the individuals have no real recourse except to complain to their supervisors, who, typically are not well-equipped to handle these types of cases. (Zerilli-Edelglass, 2013). This type of behavior much of the time turns to bullying, whereas an individual or group are singled out. According to Stopbullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is defined as unwelcome behavior that is meant to bring harm to someone who generally feels powerless to the situation and it occurs over a period of time. (stopbullying.gov, 2017). Forms of verbal bullying includes: teasing and threats. Social bullying in the workplace might happen by leaving someone out of a meeting on purpose or publicly reprimanding someone. A 2017 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 61 percent of U.S. employees are fully aware that bullying is part of the workplace environment, another 19 percent have experienced it for themselves and another 19 percent have been a witness to the conduct. (workplacebullying.org, 2017).
For a behavior to be considered bullying, it has to include three things:
1. There has to be a target. This can be a single person or a group of people. For example, someone is nice to everyone else but picks on one particular person or a group of individuals are singled out due to their affiliation with one another.
2. The behavior has to be harmful in some way.
3. The behavior has to be repeated. The behavior can’t be just a one-time event, such as, someone losing their temper and yelling at someone during a crisis. (Thompson, 2016).
Bullying is often called psychological harassment due to its psychological impact on one’s mental health and well-being. When the exposure is over a long period of time, the more severe the psychological impact will have. High periods of stress can lead to both physical and mental health issues. The United States, however, still lags behind the rest of the world in the identification and investigation of bullying (Akella, 2016). All studies with a few exceptions have examined workplace bullying and its outcome within a psychological and social psychological framework. According to workplacebullying.org the following are some of the emotional damages due to bullying:
• Debilitating anxiety (80%)
• Panic attacks (52%)
• Clinical depression: new to person or exacerbated condition previously controlled (49%)
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%)
• Shame (the desired result of humiliating tactics by the bully) – sense of deserving a bad fate
• Guilt (for having “allowed” the bully to control you)
• Overwhelming sense of injustice
In addition, prolonged exposure to the stressors of bullying can lead to stress-related diseases and health complications to include:
• Cardiovascular Problems: Hypertension (60%) to strokes and heart attacks
• Adverse neurological changes: neurotransmitter disruption, hippocampus and amygdala atrophy
• Gastrointestinal: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and colitis
• Immunological impairment: more frequent infections of greater severity
• Auto-immune disorders
• Fibromyalgia (21%), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) (33%)
• Diabetes (10%)
• Skin disorders (17%)
Another factor which now plays into today’s environment is the use of technology which is aptly termed as Cyberbullying. This form of bullying has become a major issue and is very difficult to address, due to one’s ability to become an anonymous bully. Cyberbullying takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets via texts, apps, social media forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying occurs when an individual or individuals post or share negative, harmful, mean or false information about someone else. When one thinks of cyberbullying we tend to think of teens or school age children, however the workplace is not immune to this form of bullying. (stopbullying.org, 2017).
The dilemma in dealing with bullying is that the behaviors of bullying may or may not constitute unlawful harassment. Bullying is actionable under federal law only when the basis for it is tied to a protected category of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the absence of federal legislation prohibiting generic workplace bullying, several states are considering legislation that would provide severely bullied employees with a claim for damages if they can prove that they suffered mental or physical harm as a result of the bullying. Legislatures in 29 states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills in recent years, according to the Healthy Workplace Campaign. (Nagele-Piazza, 2018).
There has been a lot of research on how to reduce workplace bullying, however many times bullies are actually being protected by the people that have the power to do something about it. Proof of bullying is difficult enough in the workplace, without the resistance of people in positions of power failing to do anything about the complaints. (Thompson, 2016).
What can be done to prevent both harassment and bullying in the workplace? The company’s Human Resource Department plays a vital role in addressing these areas. Although victims of harassment are protected by federal law and bullying is not, employers must create policies and practices to prevent and prohibit such behavior. The following are some ways a company can protect their workforce and itself:
• Conduct a climate survey which will help the organization identify problems in their particular workplace. The findings from the survey can also be used to assist the company in tailoring their policies and procedures to that workplace.
• Adopt and implement clearly written anti-bullying policies in several languages to clearly articulate those policies and reach every employee in the workplace.
• Regularly demonstrate commitment to anti-bullying policies, by fostering an organizational culture that prioritizes inclusion and doesn’t tolerate bullying.
• Train employees in bystander intervention, which empowers co-workers to intervene when they witness bullying or harassing behavior.
• Conduct dignity and respect training, which promotes respect among employees from different backgrounds and at different job levels. This may help reduce the likelihood that bullying will occur.
• Implement clear and straightforward procedures so that employees know how and where to report incidents. These procedures should include multiple confidential reporting channels.
• Ensure to maintain employees’ confidentiality throughout the investigation. If employees do need to be identified, investigators should notify employees about the possibility that co-workers will learn about their complaints. (EEOC, 2018).
Employees who are victims of bullying or harassment should know they can promptly report incidents to their supervisors, management-level employees, human resource representatives or other employees designated to receive reports. (Nagele-Piazza, 2018).
The EEOC states: “Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take appropriate steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment. They should clearly communicate to employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated. They can do this by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process, providing anti-harassment training to their managers and employees, and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains. Employers should strive to create an environment in which employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident that those concerns will be addressed.
Employees are encouraged to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Employees should also report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation”. (EEOC, 2018).
How much is bullying and harassment costing the average workplace? In some studies, these costs are estimated to be over $250 million annually in expenditures related to health care, litigation, employee turnover, and retraining. In addition to the monetary cost, there is the social cost aspect incurred by an organization. Within this area the costs to the organization are very high when one looks at productivity lost, turnover rate, emotional and physical health costs. Furthermore, this number exponentially increases when it involves the litigation process for unjust dismissal, or workers compensation and disability costs are included. The costs that are harder to calculate but play a major role are the impacts from reduced work and quality, errors, absenteeism, or bad publicity, leading to a poor reputation and negatively effecting customer relationships. (Gumbus & Lyons, 2011).
Increased awareness of bullying in the workplace has encouraged several states to introduce healthy workplace or anti-bullying legislation. For example, on April 21, 2015, Pennsylvania House Bill 1041 – the “Healthy Workplace Act” – was introduced and referred to committee for consideration. The defined purpose of the proposed Act is to provide legal protection and compensation for employees who have been harmed psychologically, physically, or economically by repeated exposure to an abusive work environment. It also provides legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to abusive treatment of employees at work. (Grimm, 2015).
The proposed Act defines what constitutes abusive conduct, an abusive work environment, and adverse employment action. Retaliation is prohibited under the Act and the employer as well as the employee can be held liable for violating the terms of the Act. The act outlines affirmative defenses for the employer and cites protections available to the abused employee, to include rehire, reinstatement, removal of the offending party, back pay, front pay, medical expenses, pain and suffering damages, emotional distress damages, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney’s fees. Other states are following suit and introducing similar measures to address bullying in the workplace in an attempt to limit its effects. (Grimm, 2015).
Furthermore, involvement by Congress is needed in order to address bullying and recognize it as a major issue at the federal level, which has permeated every organization, to include its own. No one person can single-handedly eliminate bullying. The effort will require a full commitment, perseverance, and unwavering support to pursue change. Completely eliminating bullying and for that matter harassment from the workplace is likely not going to happen. However, through dedication and hard work at every level it is possible to drastically reduce incidents of both, if actions are taken now. (Frye, 2017).