30 June 2009

Life as a Target of Bullying and Harassment - Options in dealing with the bullying

A person in distress using a computer

What comes to mind when you hear the term "bully?"

Some people might recall a school kid from their elementary days who pushed them around at the drinking fountain, or stole their lunch money when the teacher's back was turned. In worse cases, school yard bullies harassed and intimidated their classmates all year long and only granted a reprieve when the summer bell rang.

For most people, once kick-ball was replaced by a white collar job, bullying became a thing of the past. For others, new forms of bullying were introduced as a prevalent health and safety issue that plagues them in adulthood, in ways far worse than they recalled from childhood.

Workplace bullying has many common definitions.

For years it was ignored as a serious industrial problem, and individuals who complained about co-workers who bullied them were essentially told to toughen up. Even Human Resource Departments weren't sure how to respond to complaints about bullies. But targets continued to raise concerns about people who abused power or assumed power they didn't have, and abused it anyway. By doing so they forced hard-working employees to suffer humiliation, generally in the front of their peers, with no means of defense or cure for the treatment.

Imagine the repeated humiliation one suffers at the hands of another. How degrading it must be to face continually senseless, undermining acts, when all you want to do is carry out your job with dignity. The attacker chips away at one's self-esteem and self-confidence by falsely accusing the victim of actions he didn't commit, or by making him the butt of tasteless jokes.

For the target, workplace bullying will undoubtedly manifest itself in the form of emotional and/or mental health problems. Everyone is different, but some can even develop sleep disorders, depression, stress or forms of gastrointestinal disorders. As if these symptoms weren't enough, many will develop other symptoms related to financial insecurity brought on by loss of employment, retirement savings, and other personal income.

The victims of bullying live in a constant cycle of distress. They face relentless abuse at work, and worry about the impending abuse while they lie awake at night dreading their return to work the next day. Their families suffer equally and have no real means to help their loved ones through this vicious cycle.

Bullies are not good leaders.

They run poor organizations or departments, and corporations should heed that. They do very little to motivate their teams of employees, and their actions add financial burden to the bottom line operations of a business. They generally add to higher turnover percentage rates, and their negative actions have a disruptive effect on company culture.

So what can employees and employers do right now to curb workplace bullying?

Many states are pursuing legislation to outlaw bullying, and significant progress is being made. In the meantime, companies can take preventative steps right now to say no to bullying.

They include:

  • Revisit your employee policy manual and draft a section on bullying. Classify workplace bullying as a misconduct issue and determine it is grounds for disciplinary action up to and including termination for repeated behaviors.
  • Host employee training forums dedicated solely to bullying. Invite guest speakers. Insure that your workforce is well-trained on bullying and share your company's "zero-tolerance" policy towards any bullying whatsoever. Put it in writing and hand it out to the employees. Have them sign their receipt and understanding of the zero tolerance policy.
  • Advertise an anonymous tip line to report bullying incidents.
  • Establish an Employee Ombudsman's office. This is an impartial, third party who will listen to employee complaints and file them directly with the CEO himself, or the Board of Directors. Give this individual free, open lines of reporting straight to the highest levels in the organization. Establish the Ombudsman's quarterly reports as a key update in Board of Director's meetings.
  • Draft a Code of Conduct that spells out company standards of performance and expectations. Include a no bullying standard of conduct. Publish it to the employees.
  • Establish a whistleblowers' policy.
  • Encourage employees to speak up.
  • Enforce the employee policy manual and the code of conduct. Enforce, Enforce, and Enforce.
  • Establish 360 degree feedback programs for Performance Appraisal on all manager level employees, and potentially all employees to ensure that everyone is receiving honest feedback from all angles.
  • Management should lead by example. Model good moral behavior. Live the conduct expected of everyone.
  • Establish a special procedure to file a Bullying complaint. This would allow a victim to circumvent normal grievance procedures to get a case heard. Publish the procedure and have employees and management sign off on the new procedure.
  • Conduct quarterly check-in sessions with employees to see how things are going. Company's may wish to establish a Workforce Review Board comprised of all levels of employees to oversee the work environment and keep the company updated on tensions or performance issues.

These are just a few ways a company can begin to clean its own house and start a methodology to prevent bullying. Yes, companies still need new laws as further protection, but they shouldn't wait for legislation to start taking appropriate steps to improve the working environment.


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