Claremont Seminar Examines Issue of Workplace Bullies

(Published in Valley News, December 2010)

Claremont — Bullying. The word evokes schoolyard scuffles and ugly exchanges on student Facebook pages. But it’s also a problem in the workplace, one that employers can’t afford to ignore, experts say.

Charla Bizios Stevens and Colleen Karpinsky, attorneys from McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton in Manches-ter, led a seminar on problem employees and workplace violence and bullying on Friday in Claremont. The workshop, sponsored by the River Valley Human Resource Association, attracted about 35 human resources professionals.

Bullying can include verbal abuse, threatening behavior, and interference that prevents work from getting done or sets up an employee to fail. And it is often subtle.

Tom Rucinski, director of human resource consulting services at Hypertherm, said that due to the company’s inclu-sive culture, he hasn’t encountered bullying situations there. But he has had to address it in other workplaces, and it isn’t easy.

“Bullying is always difficult to pinpoint,” Rucinski said. “Bullies are good at what they do.”

Stevens asked who in the crowd has had to deal with a violence or bullying situation at their workplace. About half raised their hands. In the context of the statistics she offered, it wasn’t a surprising response.

Stevens, who serves as government relations director of the New Hampshire State Council of Society for Human Resource Management, said workplace violence in the United States costs employers $121 billion and 50 million people report having been bullied at work each year.

Often, workers choose not to report bullying because they second guess themselves or fear they will not be be-lieved, she said. “Everybody knows about the person who yells and swears, but not everybody knows who is engaged in more insidious behavior.”

Ignoring bullying can damage a company’s reputation and its ability to attract and retain talented employees. It can also extract a painful human price.

Workers who are bullied may become depressed or develop medical conditions, and eventually take “some pretty serious steps to get themselves out of the situation,” Stevens said. “What’s mostly happened is they look for another job and leave, and management never knows.”

And bullying isn’t limited to the job site — what happens after hours matters, too.

“You need to be thinking beyond the four walls of your workplace,” Karpinsky said. “If someone is harassing a coworker on Facebook … you are entitled to act on that information, if it affects your workplace.”

The presenters encouraged companies to take proactive measures, such as implementing an open door policy and creating policies around bullying. It’s also important to avoid shuffling problem employees from department to depart-ment and to address problems as they arise; a quick response may head off physical violence.

Many local employers have in place policies that address hostile workplace behavior.

In a telephone interview, spokesman Rick Adams said Dartmouth- Hitchcock Medical Center implemented a dis-ruptive behavior policy last spring. It covers intimidating behavior and outlines the consequences for it, Adams said. Disruptive behavior is also addressed in the hospital’s longstanding code of conduct, which identifies behaviors that create a “safe and collegial environment.”

Hypertherm Public Relations Manager Michelle Avila said the company has an anti-harassment policy, but it does not specifically mention bullying.

Several audience members on Friday said their companies were creating anti-bullying policies, and others planned to broaden their codes of conduct to address bullying.

Few states have laws specifically addressing workplace bullying, and it is often prosecuted under other laws. Last year, the Indiana Supreme Court awarded $325,000 to a medical technician who sued his employer for assault, even though the attacks were verbal, and technically “assault” refers to a physical threat, Karpinsky said.

Stevens also cautioned that workplace bullying and violence can happen anywhere. According to a recent U.S. De-partment of Justice survey, 1,000 people are murdered and 51,000 are sexually assaulted at work each year.