Moderated by Rick Badie
Last week, Fulton County banned bullying in the workplace, making it a firable offense. The director of a workplace institute praises Commissioner Bill Edwards, who proposed the rules for addressing the harm bullying inflicts on victims and the work environment. While a criminal justice professor applauds anti-bullying policies intent, he says they aren’t an instant answer. And another professor suggests that Georgia adopt legislation geared to deter bullying.
Fulton takes stand against bullying
By Gary Namie
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) introduced the British term, workplace bullying, to Americans in 1997 and has since refined it to refer to malicious abusive conduct. It is a nonphysical form of workplace violence. Bullying involves deliberate wrongdoing that undermines work.
According to the WBI 2010 survey, 35 percent of respondents, an estimated 54 million workers, reported being currently or historically bullied; 15 percent only witnessed it, while 50 percent had not ever experienced it.
Most bullying is top-down in America. That is why few employers are motivated to stop it. Perpetrators either benefit from inflicting harm or believe they are innocently acting as bosses do in movies and TV shows. Executives discount the problem as trivial spats. Human resources doesn’t have to act because it’s currently not illegal in most cases unless discrimination plays a part. HR is also powerless to confront managers guilty of misconduct. Bullying masquerades as conflict or the exercise of routine managerial rights. It is neither.
Bullying matters because it is a serious occupational health hazard. Voluminous research links prolonged bullying and accompanying stress to cardiovascular problems that include hypertension, heart disease and strokes. It has also been linked to gastrointestinal disease; neurological changes that affect memory, concentration and decision making; and accelerated aging from telomere damage that interferes with cellular replication. Psychological and emotional problems can range from panic attacks, anxiety, clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to suicide.
Bullying is costly for employers. It wreaks more havoc than rudeness or disrespect. It leads to turnover, flight of the most talented workers, absenteeism, excessive health care utilization, workers comp, disability and litigation expenses.
Government employers know the pressure to account for how taxpayer dollars are spent. Costs from workplace bullying are mostly preventable with smart leadership. Sadly, government employers are notorious for not managing wisely. People who file complaints are banished. Those brave souls are canaries in the mine, warning the agencies about trouble caused by abusive bosses and coworkers. Change in government rarely comes from within.
Remarkably, Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards stopped the silence in one local government. His successful resolution mandating a policy to prohibit bullying by elected officials and county workers is a bold first step toward introducing accountability. It will save the county money.
Expect a backlash. Apologists for abusive management will whine that adults don’t require protections. Alarmists will decry our “nanny state.”
These mean-spirited, blame-the-victim people utter the same excuses once made for domestic violence. “What did she do to provoke him?” Society finally stood with the victim. Adult abuse victims deserve protections, too.
To understand the power of workplace bullying, consider it domestic violence in the workplace. That’s no way to run a family, business or government.
Gary Namie is director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.
Bullying policies aren’t magic bullets
By Sameer Hinduja
For the last 10 years, I have been studying the phenomenon of bullying primarily among youth (www.cyberbullying.us), but also adults. Workplace bullying continues to require our attention and response because of the emotional, psychological, physiological and behavioral outcomes that tend to result.
Still, I never get excited about the potential of policies or laws to reduce the frequency or gravity of this problem. Bullying, whether in the workplace, classroom or playground, tends to inflame our emotions and sensitivities in a way that causes us to demand a heavy-handed response. We see the harm it inflicts. We want something to be done, something with repercussions and meaningful sanctions.
The problem is that when it comes to interactions like bullying and harassment, they tend to occur regardless of any formal prohibitions. When people are about to start (or continue) bullying someone in the workplace, they are already not thinking in a rational manner. They won’t take a deep breath, assess the situation and context surrounding what they are about to do and think: “Oh yeah, my county recently passed an anti-bullying policy for the workplace, which prescribes strong penalties for what I am about to do, and so for that reason I’d better take a deep breath, calm down, and not do it.”
Bullying and harassment often are triggered by emotional responses with little forethought. They tend to be rooted in primitive, immature, short-sighted aspects of human nature that all of us possess. We feel slighted, envious, insecure, or we’re having a rough day, month or life. We feel the need to tear someone else down. We don’t think about the potential fallout, collateral damage, or possibility of detection and sanction.
Workplace bullying occurs in a variety of forms, in many shades and with many subtleties. Fulton County’s policy defines it as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment,” but who gets to apply that definition and make sure the application is accurate? Isn’t it subject to interpretation? It is also now a fireable offense, but shouldn’t it always have been one? What makes employers more likely to fire an individual now than in the past?
Finally, how are employers held accountable to enforcing this policy? Because of it, would a sales firm now be more likely to fire or discipline its top agent, who brings in millions to the company, if he is a jerk to others? Probably not.
What tends to work better, instead of laws and policies from the top, is creation of a culture or behavioral norm among all peers/co-workers where everyone agrees that bullying is unacceptable. Recasting and developing positive socio-emotional climates in organizations, and doing everything possible to maintain those climates, is much more productive and beneficial than flash-in-the-pan policy implementations.
Sameer Hinduja is a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University.
Concern rises over bullying in the workplace
By David Yamada
Workplace bullying is the ultimate lose-lose proposition for workers and employers alike, but it remains the most serious form of interpersonal abuse largely neglected by American employment law.
In severe instances, targeted workers may experience impairments such as clinical depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, impaired immune systems, and even symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Workplaces where bullying is common are likely to experience lower productivity and morale, higher absenteeism and turnover, and greater risk of employee retaliation and violence. These consequences may translate into higher health care, employee benefit and workers compensation costs.
Still, too many employers dismiss reports about bullying. Very few have anti-bullying policies. Why? One big reason is that workplace bullying, for the most part, is entirely legal.
The Fulton County Commission, by a 7-0 vote, has adopted a workplace anti-bullying policy that covers county employees. Suspension and termination are possible sanctions for those who engage in severe bullying.
The Fulton County measure draws its definition of bullying from the Healthy Workplace Bill, model anti-bullying legislation I drafted that is the template for bills introduced across the country. It prohibits abusive conduct such as repeated insults and epithets; conduct of an intimidating nature; and the deliberate sabotage of someone’s work. It provides targets of severe, health-impairing bullying at work with a claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to act responsively.
I drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill after extensive legal research led me to conclude that most bullying targets are without legal protections, especially if their claims are unrelated to discrimination or retaliation for whistle-blowing.
The legislation has yet to be enacted, but during the 2011-12 sessions of state legislatures, it was active in 12 states. Support is growing. Two years ago, the state senates of Illinois and New York approved the Healthy Workplace Bill, the latter with strong bipartisan support. Legal commentators have observed that the enactment of workplace anti-bullying laws is only a matter of time. Law firms increasingly advise business clients to adopt policies about workplace bullying in anticipation of the Healthy Workplace Bill becoming a reality.
Even some insurance companies are beginning to include coverage for bullying-related employment claims.
Further evidence of expanding receptivity is at the county and municipal levels. During the past year, some 100 local governments across the country have adopted “freedom from workplace bullies” proclamations. Georgia has yet to consider the Healthy Workplace Bill, but perhaps the Legislature, inspired by Fulton County Commissioners, will act.
David Yamada is founding director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School.