Playground bullies sometimes grow up to be adult bullies, and they trade shaking down children by the swing set for intimidating coworkers at the office. Workplace bullies can interfere with productivity, dampen office morale and even lead to damaging lawsuits. Though supervisors may bully workers, a 2004 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that most bullying is done worker to worker. Businesses should have a program in place to address workplace bullying.
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries defines bullying as repeated and unreasonable actions intended to intimidate, humiliate, degrade or undermine another person, or actions that create a safety risk for other employees. Bullying is an ongoing pattern of behavior, not a single episode. In some instances bullying is a form of discrimination aimed at someone of a particular race, sex or disability. Bullying behaviors include cursing at someone, excluding them, singling them out for criticism, blaming them for things they didn't do, intimidating them either verbally or physically, making threats or other forms of harassment. Supervisors who bully may assign difficult or unfavorable work schedules, give unrealistic deadlines or place unrealistic expectations on workers.
Bullying increases stress on the individual being bullied and on coworkers who witness the bullying. The bullied worker may suffer from stress-related illness, may miss more time from work and may have difficulties at home. Bullying can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. If bullying and intimidation are a problem in your workplace, this can result in higher turnover and the need to train new employees more often, decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.
Except in certain circumstances, bullying in the workplace isn't illegal. Federal laws do prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, sex, religion and handicapped status. If the person being bullied can prove the bullying is a form of discrimination, she can file suit under human rights statutes. Bullying that takes the form of sexual harassment can also be prosecuted. But many workplace bullies act subtly, and proving their actions are intentional and meant to harm can be difficult.
Dealing with Bullying
If you believe you're being bullied at work, you should keep a log of all incidents as well as any physical proof, such as bullying emails or memos. Complain to your company's human resources department and/or your supervisor (as long as she is not the bully) and ask her to investigate. Employers should establish a written policy for dealing with bullying, making it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. As an employer you should investigate all complaints of workplace bullying. If possible, you should arrange work schedules so the bully and his target no longer work together. Failure to address complaints of bullying could result in your company being party to a discrimination lawsuit and charged with contributing to the discrimination.