According to the Employment Law Alliance, almost half of American workers have experienced bullying at work. Common bullying tactics range from humiliation and sabotage, to threats and intimidation, all of which interfere with productivity and may create a toxic work environment for one or more employees. Many managers may be tempted to simply tell employees to work out their own differences and put their personal issues aside, but ignoring that bad apple can actually cost the company much more than minor inconvenience.

Employees that are targeted by a bully are more likely to struggle with undue stress, potentially leading to poor attendance, medical and/or legal claims, lost productivity and high employee turnover. Those that experience bullying at work are less likely to notify managers or HR about potentially dangerous or costly situations. This fear of reporting and productivity limitations can spell out major losses for organizations.

Employee turnover is often the most costly loss for most employers facing a bullying problem. With today’s highly competitive talent market and the high cost of replacing an employee, many employers cannot afford to risk high employee turnover. From searching for and interviewing candidates, to training new employees and making up for lost time, SHRM estimates employee replacement costs can range anywhere from 20-200+% of the original employee’s salary. While a high salary, good benefits and flashy perks may attract the best and brightest talent, retaining those same high performers can get complicated in a less than desirable working environment. Ultimately, talent loss can dramatically impact an organization’s reputation, productivity and bottom line.

Though no federal laws exist to protect employees against workplace bullying, some state legislatures, such as those in California and Tennessee, are introducing workplace anti-bullying bills to coincide with harassment protections. Current laws protect employees from harassment that is directed at their age, gender, race or religion. Bullying is rarely considered unlawful conduct as “equal-opportunity bullies” tend to harass employees in order to gain power and influence rather than to harass them for personal attributes.

Without overarching legal ramifications in place to guide employers on bullying, HR becomes the first and only line of defense for victims and the organization. Through effective policies and practices, HR can lead organizations toward building healthy workplaces and ultimately avoid unnecessary losses. HR can take a proactive approach to actively preventing and effectively managing bullying by following the tips below.

  • Adopt and enforce strong policies. Create a policy that outlines the scope of potential bullying issues and sets forth reporting and response procedures. These response procedures should involve potential consequences by the organization such as write-ups, position re-assessment and even dismissal when necessary.
  • View bullying as a performance issue. Approach bullying issues as performance problems by requiring the individual to acknowledge and augment their behavior in order to continue employment and be considered for future promotional opportunities.
  • Set forth clear expectations. Leverage training sessions and company meetings to discuss the organization’s policies and expectations surrounding appropriate conduct. This training should include examples of unacceptable behavior, consequences of those behaviors and assurance that reports will be handled confidentially
  • Avoid Hiring Bullies. To best avoid bullying within the workforce, HR can be proactive during the hiring process to ensure candidates are an appropriate match for the organization’s culture. When collecting references from potential hires, requesting peer or subordinate references may offer a clear picture of the individual’s work style and reputation.
  • Lead by example. Building a successful, welcoming workplace environment begins with the HR Department. Be a positive influence on the workforce by treating employees and peers appropriately and acting as an advocate when bullying issues arise.

Whether you have encountered bullying yourself, have witnessed toxic behavior within your current workplace or want to prevent potential issues, understanding the impact inappropriate behavior can have on the workforce and organization is the first step toward promoting a bully-free environment.

How do you plan to handle workplace bullying?