Mar 09

Bullying: A Threat to Your Practice

We saw them, and sometimes encountered them, on the playground when we were kids. And they exist today in the workplace as adults–that’s right, bullies. They are often surrounded by sycophants, projecting an air of intimidation.

Human resources experts have been warning about this toxicity in the workplace for years. Whether from a dysfunctional or an unreasonably demanding supervisor; an employee who appears to enjoy placing co-workers in uncomfortable or compromising situations; or a vendor who, when visiting the office, promises rewards for purchases with the veiled threat that you will “rue the day if you ever choose a competitor.” Sadly, this has become more common as a workplace challenge.

Try as we might to avoid and/or ignore them, there will be times, as an employee or an employer, when bullies and bullying behavior is encountered and must be addressed. For the practice owner, the impact can be a loss of team function or productivity and also carries liability. “Hostile work environments” are the concern that employer’s must be aware of today.

Not too many years ago, a federal court in New Jersey dismissed a female auditor’s complaint of harassment by her supervisor. The court found that the supervisor’s “loud, profane and obnoxious” behavior, including vulgar sexual and racist jokes, swearing and abrasive contact was “inappropriate and unprofessional.” They also found that his behavior was allegedly intended to make him “appear powerful” in relation to female subordinates. In the end, the court concluded that the supervisor’s offensive conduct and profanity “was obnoxious to all employees, male and female” and not specifically directed to the complainant because she was a female. Thus, a summary judgment was granted in favor of the employer that appeared based on the patently absurd defense that “our loud, profane and offensive supervisor conducts himself with equal opportunity, therefore we win.”

As Bob Dylan stated almost fifty years ago, “the times they are a-changin’.” And in this arena they are changing fast.

Since then, in March, 2007, the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. reported that “approximately 44 percent of American employees have worked for an abusive boss.” Furthermore, the Employment Law Alliance has found that, when asked about specific kinds of workplace abuse, more than half of workers have experienced or heard about supervisors making sarcastic jokes, rudely interrupting, publicly criticizing, giving dirty looks, personally insulting, yelling at, or ignoring subordinates. An Alliance representative concluded: “only an employer in a state of denial would ignore the poll results and not re-examine their personnel policies, supervisor-employee relations, and management training.”

A 2008 study, conducted by M. Sandy Hershcovis, Ph.D.,, concluded that bullied employees reported more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anger and anxiety. “Bullying is often more subtle and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others,” she observed. She added that “the insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction.”

Last June, the Wall Street Journal reported that the New York Senate passed a bipartisan measure that would allow workers who have been physically, psychologically or economically abused while on the job to file charges against their employers in civil court. The Journal stated that sixteen other states have introduced legislation in recent years aimed at curbing workplace bullying.

Just this February, the state of Washington focused on workplace bullying based on the assertion that one in five employees “directly experiences health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment” and that “abusive work environments can have serious effects on targeted employees and serious consequences for employers.” It is proposed that the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) be amended to make it an “unfair practice” to subject an employee to “an abusive work environment.”

It is easy to see how quickly and dramatically the landscape has shifted as legislation is enacted to ensure a safe and protected workplace for employees. In so doing, the responsibilities and liabilities placed on employers have also increased.

Whether your motivation is impending legislation, potential liability from a claim for a hostile work environment, a tort action for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” a claim of assault based on behavior that is perceived to be “threatening,” a workers’ compensation claim, or simply the belief that all employees should be treated with dignity and respect, bullying must no longer, and can no longer, be ignored or tolerated in the workplace.

  • What is the best course of action? A person subjected to bullying behavior is best advised to:
  • Walk away when behavior becomes abusive.
  • Ask the person exhibiting the offensive behavior to cease doing so.
  • Have a co-worker present as a witness, if the interaction will be confrontational.
  • Log abusive incidents in a journal, including the date, time, and location when they occurred in addition to the specific content of the interaction.
  • Report flagrant and/or repeated examples of bullying to a practice owner, supervisor or human resources representative.

Employers should:

  • Exercise care that hiring procedures are in place that identify the potential propensity to bully. Conducting reference checking is essential. Background checks and personality instruments, such as the one Bent Ericksen & Associates’ provides, are also valuable and proven screening tools.
  • Ensure that bullying is prohibited and is properly addressed with written policies covering:
  • 1) established reporting procedures (call for a copy of our
  • Problems/Concerns Report),
  • 2) retaliation prohibitions,
  • 3) confidentiality assurances,
  • 4) a commitment to a prompt and thorough investigation, and
  • 5) resultant discipline that will be considered if the allegations are found to be true.
  • Have a conflict resolution mechanism in place that will result in allegations being addressed respectfully and decisively.
  • Include the respect for others in the practice’s values statement and include relevant behavioral examples. Recognize and reward unique and/or consistently respectful conduct with regard to customer relations in ongoing and regularly scheduled performance evaluations.
  • Be attentive to ostensibly minor personality conflicts in the workplace and address them positively and constructively before interactions deteriorate and cause tension and negativity.
  • Do an exit interview with employees who are severing employment with your practice (call for a copy of our form for this purpose). This provides you with the opportunity to obtain valuable information, to prevent a severance when you believe it to be inappropriate and/or be able to intervene when problems in your practice are identified.
  • Contact a human resources expert such as the technical assistance team at Bent Ericksen & Associates for assistance. Occasionally, an employee will allege the existence of a hostile work environment when in actuality it is a product of a confrontational but legitimate and non-discriminatory remedial intervention to ensure that work performance expectations are met. A human resources expert can help sort out the details and determine the best way to move forward given the allegations, whether legitimate or not.

Unquestionably, bullying is unacceptable in the workplace and should not be tolerated. The times have changed in this regard and the issue is more important than ever. Whether you are motivated to avoid liability and/or proactively ensure respectful behavior, as noted above, “only an employer in a state of denial would ignore bullying and not re-examine their personnel policies, supervisor-employee relations, and management training.”

Written by: Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg