Workplace Harassment and Bullying


The topic of workplace bullying is frequently in the headlines, and there are worrisome signs that it is on the upsurge. Many organizations believe harassment, violence and bullying do not affect their environments despite the staggering prevalence of such incidents. Conflicts inevitably arise in every workplace. However, it is the way they are addressed that makes the difference.

Although women are more likely to be victimized by workplace bullying and harassment, men can become victims, too. These behaviors affect employees from every background, regardless of race, income, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability.

Bullying and harassment create a toxic work environment, resulting in a myriad of negative effects, such as decreased productivity, increased use of sick days, damaged employee morale and attrition of good employees. It can also result in significant legal liabilities. Considering these potential impacts, the tangible and intangible costs of workplace harassment and bullying can be very high.

Those not motivated by practical business outcomes or healthy employee relations should consider the laws that protect employees from harassment and bullying, and the significant liabilities that can arise when such issues are not properly addressed. HR departments working to educate managers on ways to identify, mediate and ultimately prevent harassment and bullying, is one of the most important things an organization can do to end occurrences of the behavior.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Employees expect more from the organizations for which they work – from nondiscriminatory, harassment-free workplaces to flexible schedules and benefits, work-life balance, and child care and family-friendly policies. Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment, and they are liable for any harassment suffered by employees. Every instance should be considered and addressed on a case-by-case basis with the goal of always creating a peaceful and productive workplace.

Here are some suggested ways to prevent workplace harassment and bullying:

1. Like any workplace issue, fostering a culture that is free of harassment and bullying must come from the top down. Human resources practitioners must be proactive; first, have a bullying and harassment policy in place, making it clear that this type of behavior is considered a gross misconduct and those found guilty will be terminated. Human resources practitioners must ensure

that organizational policy is not a “tick box,” exercise, but a real commitment to building a working environment that values all employees.

  1. Words alone will change nothing. Human resources practitioners must train team leaders/managers and senior executives/directors to understand what constitutes bullying and harassing behavior. This is a good opportunity to reflect on management style, as well as build awareness of discrimination, characteristics which are often the precursor for ridicule.
  2. Bullying and harassment may be verbal, non-verbal, written or physical. It is important to lay out examples that ensure staff members are not only aware of their own behavior, but can take responsibility for it.

Coworkers, supervisors, contract workers or labor representatives may all instigate workplace bullying. Some situations involve employees bullying peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee. Since human resources is the go-to department for dealing with harassment, HR must take a stand against bullying and harassment of all sorts and help to eliminate them. Of course, there are many ways to tackle this issue, from establishing harassment policies to instituting disciplinary actions. However, changing the company culture is becoming increasingly important when dealing with workplace harassment.

The overarching principle is that all employees have the right to work and support themselves, to balance their career and family lives, and to live without the fear of abuse. Human resources practitioners should not underestimate the value of immediately sending out a message to all employees if an incident occurs, as this has the potential to knock a bullying issue on its head from the start. Bullying and harassment can be extremely complex. However, making sure that lines of communication are open among human resources practitioners, line managers and employees inspires the team to come forward. This harnesses trust and demonstrates that victims have someone to talk to when serious issues arise.

Last (but by no means least), while employers should encourage employees who believe they are being harassed or bullied to notify the offender that the behavior is unwelcomed (by words or by conduct), it is worth recognizing that this is not always possible. It is essential that human resources practitioners make it clear that all allegations of harassment or bullying will be taken seriously and that grievances or complaints of harassment will not be ignored or treated lightly. Reliable human resources involvement and communication with the team at all levels is key to helping stop bullying and harassment.