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HR Worry: Workplace Bullying in the Workplace

When we think of bullying, we typically think of school children and teens with endless articles written about the impact on the nation’s youth, not about human resources and professional business people.

Yet, 19 percent of Americans endured “abusive conduct” in the workplace, with nearly one in 10 reporting that they have been bullied in the past year, according to a Workplace Bullying Institute study.

Further, 63 percent of those interviewed suggested that they had either witnessed bullying in the workplace or, while they hadn’t seen it first hand, agreed that it was certainly plausible. In total, the report estimates that 60.3 million US workers have been impacted by workplace bullying. Anti-discrimination laws apply to about 20 percent of workplace bullying cases.

Bullying takes place among all industries and sectors, according to a study by Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience,  making it a priority for human resource professionals everywhere.

Workplace bullying can lead to long-term issues with employee mental and physical health. Absence from work due to illness and use of antidepressant prescriptions increase for women experiencing bullying, especially in the years after the bullying occurs, according to research published by the Association for Psychological Science and the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. Men who reported being bullied were twice as likely to leave their jobs as their non-bullied peers.

Bullying victims were also found to have physical effects resulting from bullying, including neck pain, musculoskeletal complaints, acute pain, fibromyalgia, and cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular risks increase with bullying. These chronic conditions can lead to increased absenteeism and rising healthcare costs.

Impacts of bullying on both female and male employees can set off a domino cascade of effects throughout the entire office, including morale, productivity, job satisfaction and overall retention. If you lose employees who are bullied, turnover and replacement costs impact the bottom line.

What is being done about it? The good news is that these staggering figures have garnered attention around the country, ushering in numerous state-sponsored versions of a Healthy Workplace Bill. Versions of the bill generally define bullying in the workplace as:

  • Verbal abuse, or
  • Threatening, intimidating or humiliating behaviors (including nonverbal), or
  • Work interference, when someone sabotages or prevents work from getting done, or
  • Some combination of one or more of the above.

The bill has been proposed in the majority of states and related versions have passed in select states to address the issue of workplace bullying from the perspective of both the employer and the employee.

For Employers

  • Precisely defines an “abusive work environment” (providing a high standard for misconduct)
  • Requires proof of health harm by a licensed health or mental health professional
  • Protects conscientious employers from vicarious liability risk when internal correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect
  • Gives employers the reason to terminate or sanction offenders
  • Requires plaintiffs to use private attorneys
  • Addresses the gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections

For Employees

  • Provides an avenue for legal redress for health-harming cruelty at work
  • Allows you to sue the bully as an individual
  • Holds the employer accountable
  • Seeks restoration of lost wages and benefits
  • Compels employers to prevent and correct future instances

To date, more than 300 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have sponsored some version of the Healthy Workplace Bill and it has been introduced in 29 states and 2 territories (to see if your state is included, click this interactive map). Whether the measure is winding its way through each state’s legislature or hasn’t even made a whisper, there are still a number of actions that human resource professionals can take now to curb bullying in your place of work.

Take it Seriously
The first order of business is to actually accept that workplace bullying actually exists. According to the WBI survey, only 2 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with the outcome after talking to HR about an episode of bullying, with respondents noting that employers routinely “either deny, ignore, or minimize concerns regarding bullying.”

Have a Plan in Place
Develop a written anti-bullying policy – to be included in your employee handbook – that defines what constitutes bullying (including examples), why it isn’t acceptable, what the process for reporting bullying looks like, and what the ramifications are for someone who is found to be behaving like a bully. If it isn’t written down somewhere – and employees aren’t periodically reminded of its presence – they will forget and you could find yourself in trouble.

Provide Training
As we mentioned above, reminding workers of your company’s written anti-bullying policy is helpful to keep it front of mind, but even better is to provide training on the issue. It doesn’t have to be fancy – just really an overview of what’s written in your handbook and perhaps an opportunity to answer any questions or seek feedback on the existing policy.

Do What You Say You’ll Do
Having a policy is all well and good, but if you don’t enforce it, it’s basically useless. If someone makes a complaint about bullying, follow your written procedure to a tee and document, document, document. Instances of bullying in the workplace are certainly fodder for lawsuits, so as much evidence that you can provide to support or refute these claims will hopefully make it easier.

Do you need to develop an anti-bullying policy? A Professional Employer Organization (PEO) like Abel HR can provide human resource solutions that protect your employees and your employer. Ask us how.

HR Managers: Discover how to effectively tackle business challenges with a PEO
Small Business: Discover how Abel HR can help your business.

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