I promised you some useful follow-up on the issue of workplace bullying in my last column.  The questions percolating in my mind as I delved into the topic were (1) what is bullying? and (2) how can I help my clients identify it?  Consulting a dictionary is of little assistance.  We know that bullying involves intimidation, threatening behavior, or even humiliation.  But how does that manifest in the workplace?

Charles Warner, Esquire, of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, LLP, provided some interesting examples of bullying behavior at a recent meeting I attended.  Aside from traditional forms of employee-to-employee bullying, such conduct in the workplace may also include:

  • Holding an employee to standards that are not imposed on other employees or even followed by the manager imposing them
  • Submitting a competent employee to negative feedback without providing support for improvement
  • Accusing employees of making errors that the employee did not make
  • Discounting or criticizing employees in front of their peers.

The immediate theme I noticed with these examples was a potential power imbalance.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most victims of workplace bullying are females, regardless of the gender of the bully.  This fact may make gender discrimination or harassment claims the go-to for plaintiffs’ attorneys, but the law still requires proof that gender was a motivating factor.  This may make a retaliation claim the more successful route for aggrieved employees.

One tool for addressing workplace bullying, as I mentioned previously, is an anti-bullying policy.  An employer considering this option needs to consider as well that creating a policy may create rights for their employees.  If a policy is right for your workplace, you must train on it, communicate it, and follow the mechanisms put in place.  Most employers have the necessary expertise from dealing with their anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policies, so even if you choose not to have a written policy, you can apply the same principles when addressing workplace bullying.

In addition to drafting a bullying policy or simply creating a workplace environment that rewards appropriate, respectful behavior and punishes bullying behaviors, employers have another tool in their toolkit which they may not have realized can aid in addressing this issue.  Perhaps you have a department with high turnover or low productivity?  An exit interview with departing employees may bring to light a management style that could fairly be described as bullying under the examples provided above.  Use the exit interview with employees not just to gain other beneficial information to make your business better, but also to ferret out this type of information, and then deal with it appropriately.  Prompt, effective, remedial action may be an employer’s saving grace should a lawsuit follow.  What do you think?

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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