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Employee Assistance Program

Hostile work environments: How to deal with workplace bullying

Bullying is no longer a problem only teachers and principals handle. As awareness of workplace bullying increases, managers must know how to deal with it. Workplace bullying can create feelings of fear, anxiety, stress—and in some cases, a hostile work environment.Albrecht, Steve. (2013, July 10). Bullying in the workplace: A national epidemic, a crime, or a misdefined problem?. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from Psychology Today website: www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-act-violence/201307/bullying-in-the-workplace.

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

It’s important for everyone—from employees to CEOs—to know how the law defines a hostile work environment. Legally, for a work environment to be considered hostile, the actions, communications, or behaviors must[mfn referencenumber=2] Heathfield, Susan M. (2018, December 6). What makes a work environment hostile. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from The Balance Careers website: www.thebalancecareers.com/what-makes-a-work-environment-hostile-1919363. [/mfn]:

  • Discriminate against a protested classification (age, religion, disability, or race).
  • Last over time without being investigated effectively enough for the organization to make it stop [intermittent off-color remarks should be reported to Human Resources (HR) and may not be considered a hostile work environment].
  • Be severe to the point of disrupting an employee’s work and/or career progress (failing to receive a promotion or job rotation because of hostile actions).

Note: Employers who are aware of these situations and don’t intervene can be liable for creating a hostile work environment.

How to deal with workplace bullying

You can effectively handle workplace bullying by following some basic steps[mfn referencenumber=3] Murphy, Mark. (2018, October 21). Five ways to shut down workplace bullying. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from Forbes website: www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2018/10/21/five-ways-to-shut-down-workplace-bullying/#cc8e644e7117. [/mfn]:

1. Identify the bully.

Offending actions like yelling, threats, and humiliation are easier to spot. Sometimes a bully’s actions are more secretive, so paying attention to interpersonal interactions can help in some cases.

2. Clearly define workplace civility.

It isn’t enough to tell people to “be nice.” Don’t leave the door open to interpretation. Instead write out a list of what good, great, and bad behavior looks like and post it throughout the workplace.

3. Provide and promote companywide training.

Training on bullying can create an empowering and positive environment. It should include topics like assertiveness to help employees know how to better deal with workplace bullying.

4. Nip it in the bud immediately.

When addressing the situation with the bully, have your facts ready and use them to guide the conversation. Be firm, and don’t give the bully an opportunity to shift the conversation.

5. Follow a script.

Being prepared with a script will help keep the conversation on track. Your script can be candid, but it should describe the specific bullying issue and outline the bully’s options (i.e., make an effort to change via an improvement plan or face possible termination). It should also include support in making change. An employee assistance program (EAP) can help you both get the resources you need to overcome this obstacle.

Note: If any of the issues you are dealing with involve illegal activity, violence/threats, sexual harassment, or employee/customer safety, you should go directly to your supervisor or HR as well as your legal department. Do not try to handle these situations on your own.

Workplace bullying can affect employee morale and productivity, and it can force the company into a position of defending itself legally. Remember, if you ever have questions or concerns while handling workplace bullying, consult your company’s legal counsel. Doing so may help your company avoid liability for a hostile work environment.


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