HR experts: Workplace bullying is ‘prevalent,’ hurts employee morale

08/09/2014 4:53 PM

08/11/2014 1:03 PM

Workplace bullying affects employee morale and productivity, and a follow-up response by employers is as important as weeding out the problem, human resource management consultants say.

After obtaining Winthrop University records that detail allegations about former President Jamie Comstock Williamson’s conduct on campus, The Herald talked to two nationally-recognized human resources consultants about workplace behavior.

Margaret Fiester and Bonnie Turner are with the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest human resources membership organization that provides training and advice for human resources professionals.

Intimidation at work, employees insulting other employees, and repeated inappropriate behaviors are forms of bullying and are not acceptable on the job, Fiester said.

“Bullying is kind of in the eye of the person being bullied,” she said, but added there are some workplace behaviors generally considered “bullying” or “intimidation” by human resources professionals.

In contrast to specific verbal or physical threats – which may be considered criminal activity in and out of the workplace – bullying is “a little more vague,” Turner said.

One way to define and recognize workplace bullying, she said, is “when people feel picked on and frequently others have observed it.” It’s harder to spot than a direct threat, Turner said, such as “meet me outside and we’re going to fight.”

Human resources officials may also consider bullying the act of leaving someone out at work or consistently giving them the office’s “bad jobs,” she said. Generally, bullying is happening when an employee “makes someone feel that they’re not as important.”

Fiester and Turner said they were not comfortable giving an opinion about Winthrop University.

In reviewing records obtained recently from Winthrop, The Herald found that at least one employee who worked for Williamson said in June that the former president had “a bully approach.” Other employees mention being afraid or intimidated by Williamson. One employee claims Williamson grabbed his or her arm and pulled them into an office to yell at them in September 2013.

The employee statements were compiled by Winthrop’s Board of Trustees. Trustees say the records are part of the evidence they had when firing Williamson on June 26.

Fiester says a 2012 study by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that while employee bullying may not be an “epidemic,” it is “fairly prevalent in the workplace.” That study, she said, used a small sample size of about 400 member responses.

Half of the respondents reported that they knew of incidents of bullying in their workplace. The most common consequences of workplace bullying cited in the study were decreased employee morale, increased stress and depression and decreased trust among co-workers.

Fiester says the 2012 study shows bullying happening at about the same rate as in 2010 when SHRM previously did the survey.

Workplace bullying isn’t limited to supervisors or managers targeting those who work for them, she said. But, experts find that supervisor-to-employee is the most likely chain of bullying on the job. Still, peer-to-peer bullying can happen, she said, when some co-workers purposefully exclude someone from going to lunch or participating in office meetings and projects.

By the time an employee complains to a supervisor or human resources official about bullying or other inappropriate activity at work, the problem has typically been ongoing for some time, Turner said. Everyone has “a breaking point,” she said.

Companies should consider establishing hotlines or employee assistance programs where workers can report bullying and other problems, Turner and Fiester said. When a group of employees has been bullied, the human resources department should consider whether meetings should be held for employees to talk.

“People want to talk. They want to vent,” Fiester said. Experiencing workplace bullying, especially repeated bullying, can affect a person’s self-worth and self-esteem.

“It’s important to clear the air,” she said, so that employees can try to return to normalcy.

Fiester and Turner say preventing workplace bullying starts at new employee orientation and can be bolstered by policies that have consequences for inappropriate behavior.

After an investigation, a best practice for HR officials is to follow up with affected employees and reassure them that bullying will not be tolerated, Turner said.

Businesses and organizations should appreciate an employee’s bravery for flagging inappropriate behaviors, she said. It’s important to tell workers “thanks for reporting this” and “we have taken care of it.”

Confidence in the chain of command and the human resources’ department’s ability to handle problems, Turner said, will help remove any organizational “stigma” associated with reporting issues to HR.

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