Is There a Bully in Your Workplace?

January 1, 2011

(Published in Business NH Magazine, January 2011)

Identifying and Responding to Offensive Workplace Behavior

“Workplace Bullying: Is it HR’s Responsibility to Control?”  This seemingly simple question posted on the Linked In Group page for the Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”) prompted 742 comments.  The discussion has lasted eleven months and has included human resource professionals, CEO’s, attorneys and therapists all struggling with the definition of bullying and debating how to respond.  The passion in the comments leads one to conclude that bullying is indeed the “new” workplace problem.  So, yes, there probably is a bully in your workplace.  Now what do you do about it?

When the objective is prevention, as with any workplace issue, the mantra should be to define, identify and respond. 

Define.  Dr. Carroll Brodsky offered the following definition of workplace bullying or harassment in 1976:

“…repeated and persistent attempts by one person to torment, wear down,
frustrate, or get a reaction from another.  It is treatment which persistently
provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates or otherwise discomforts another  person.”  

 Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, credited for coining the phrase “workplace bullying” described bullying as

 “…repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which
 is threatening, humiliating, intimidating or sabotage that interferes with work
 or some combination of the three.”

One theme emerges.  The offending behavior needs to be repetitive and provoke a strong reaction in the intended victim.  It does not, however, need to be overt, loud or physically threatening.  In fact, some of the most offensive bullying can be insidious and known only to the bully and the victim. 

Identify.  Some bullies are easier to identify than others.  The behavior may be as obvious as yelling and swearing.  Others engage in childish pranks such as hiding personal possessions, gluing lockers shut or defacing property. Some engage in less obvious methods of harassment:  giving false or misleading information about fellow employees or subordinates, scapegoating, abusing authority by threatening to or giving poor or undeserved evaluations, stealing credit, giving arbitrary instructions and threatening untoward consequences for failing to comply with directives. 

Often the target of the bully is afraid to report such actions for fear that the bullying will get worse, the bully will see their threats through, no one will believe them, or the company won’t take action leaving them even more vulnerable.  Sometimes the target leaves the company without ever disclosing to management what has occurred. 

Respond.  Typically the best source of information that an employee is being bullied is a co-worker who has witnessed the behavior or been the confidant of the target.  When management learns of or witnesses bullying behavior, an immediate response is critical.  The costs to a company which tolerates bullying can be significant:  low morale, absenteeism, high turnover, difficulty recruiting and retaining talented staff or litigation against the company.

The wise employer is proactive about dealing with this issue, the effects of which are compounded by a stagnant economy and general job dissatisfaction.  Companies should include a discussion about harassment, bullying and inappropriate behavior in all workplace trainings.  Policies should prohibit not only sexual and other illegal harassment but all harassment. Bullying should be defined and addressed, and employees should be encouraged to come forward if they believe they have been a victim or if they have knowledge of such behavior. 

Although New Hampshire does not currently have specific anti-bullying legislation, an employer can still get into legal trouble by ignoring the signs.  If the bullying even appears to target a particular race or gender, parents with caregiving responsibilities, disabled individuals or anyone similarly protected by anti-discrimination laws, legal action could result. Employees may bring claims of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress or defamation.  Overt physical actions could lead to claims of false imprisonment or assault and battery. It is common for employees who seek mental health counseling as a result of workplace behavior to lose time from work, take disability leave or even file worker’s compensation claims.

Perhaps one of the many Linked In commentators said it best:

Workplace bullying is a shared responsibility between HR and management.
Bullying is not a stand alone behavior. This act can be coupled with harassment
and, possibly, lead to violence in the workplace.

It is HR’s responsibility to make sure specific and well-defined policies,
guidelines, training and disciplinary actions are in place to address this
behavior, when it is reported. And, this is usually when HR finds out about
 the act, when it’s reported. So, supervisors and managers need also be
trained on how to address the issue. 

Charla Bizios Stevens is a Director and Shareholder in the Employment Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A.  Charla can be reached at 603-628-1363 or The McLane Law Firm is the largest law firm in the State of New Hampshire, with offices in Concord, Manchester, Portsmouth and Woburn, Massachusetts.

 1 Daniel, Theresa A., Stop Bullying at Work; Strategies and Tools for HR and Legal Professionals, SHRM (2009).
 2  Ibid.