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How to Investigate Workplace Bullying When You Can't Even Define It

Treat bullying like sexual harassment to ensure your investigation covers the bases

Posted by Dawn Lomer on December 22nd, 2015

Almost a third of employees have experienced bullying in their workplaces and 72 per cent of Americans say that they are aware of bullying taking place at work, according to research from The Workplace Bullying Institute.

In fact, each year 65 million workers report that they either witness or experience workplace bullying.

And the numbers are climbing.


The Negative Implications of Workplace Bullying

It’s not just the victims who suffer.

It’s been reported that merely witnessing bullying behavior has a negative effect on employee morale and productivity. And it can be a major problem for employers. Workplace bullying can cause employee health issues, increased turnover, lawsuits, and can even escalate to violence.

It’s a significant enough problem for employers that legislation is being enacted and/or considered on a state-by-state basis to deal with bullying.

But the way forward is murky while its definition is still being established.


Defining the Problem

A universal definition hasn’t been established and there’s still a lot of grey
“It’s hard to define or put your finger on, but when you see it, you’ll know what bullying is and if you’re a victim you’ll know what bullying is,” says Dr Michael Corcoran, president of The Workthreat Group.

“But to really define it so that you can say ‘you can’t do that’ is very difficult.”

Various groups have developed definitions of workplace bullying over the past few years, but a universal definition hasn’t been established and there’s still a lot of grey.

This will change, says Dr Corcoran.


A Similar Story for Sexual Harassment

“In the US about 25 or 30 years ago, you had the beginnings of what was called ‘sexual harassment’.

The woman would say ‘I think what he’s doing is offensive’ and immediately the guy would be fired, no looking at evidence, no investigation.

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, and in any workplace. Be prepared for the future with this Sexual Harassment Complaint Form Template.

That had to change because that was unfair and it was unreliable.

So over time, a lot of court cases, a lot of definitions, a lot of work on it, and now we have a clear cut definition, procedures, and we know how to handle it,” says Dr Corcoran. “Bullying I think is in the same category.”

So, through court decisions, the country will eventually have a ruling on what bullying is, says Dr Corcoran. He predicts that this could take 10 years or longer.


Risk of Lawsuits

But employers can’t wait for a clear definition to emerge before putting into place measures to prevent, investigate and correct bullying behavior.

There’s far too much at stake for companies who don’t handle bullying allegations quickly and thoroughly.

“If you feel you have been a victim of bullying and it has affected your health in some way, you can go ahead and sue your employer,” says Dr Corcoran. “And the only criterion is if they can show their health has been affected – mental health as well as physical health.

It’s given the opportunity for people to start suing companies more, so it’s become more important for companies to pay attention.”


Have a Policy

A standard workplace bullying policy should clearly define bullying and its consequences, providing examples of the behaviors that are prohibited.
Your best bet, while the details are being hammered out, is to have a good anti-bullying policy, along with training, follow-up and established procedures for reporting and investigating workplace bullying.

Yet a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found 56 per cent of US employers do not have documented workplace bullying policies. It’s a dangerous situation, given the risks.


Key Elements of a Workplace Bullying Policy

A standard workplace bullying policy should clearly define bullying and its consequences, providing examples of the behaviors that are prohibited, such as:

  • Intimidating, threatening or hostile actions, gestures or language
  • Excluding employees from activities
  • Treating someone differently than others
  • Assigning unpleasant tasks to one person more than to others
  • Yelling at or humiliating someone


Investigate Every Allegation of Workplace Bullying

The key to protecting the company against the risk of employment lawsuits is to be able to show that your company takes bullying allegations seriously.

Aside from having a policy, you’ll also need to show that you investigate allegations thoroughly.

And as with every investigation, it’s important to document the process.
Dr Corcoran advocates treating bullying as you would treat sexual harassment allegations.

“You take the information immediately, you show that you are going to act on it immediately, you show that you’ve got periodic training about this stuff, that you have no tolerance for it.

All those kinds of things are going to show the courts – because you’re going to get sued – that you did the best you could with the information you had and you weren’t just letting things happen..”


Document Everything and Follow Through

And as with every investigation, it’s important to document the process. Get written statements from the reporter, the subject of the allegation, and any witnesses.

When the investigation is complete, if the allegation is upheld and serious enough to suspend or terminate the bully, complete documentation showing that you did a thorough and fair investigation can protect your company from liability for the bullying behavior, a wrongful termination lawsuit, or both.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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