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BULLYING AT WORK - THE SILENT CHALLENGE

1/25/2011 -

Tales from O’Seay’s Fables . . .

It was a good facility with a noble calling, one that cared for some of the most helpless among us -- precious physically and emotionally disabled children. If you had been a bit hesitant to visit with them, perhaps because you didn’t know if you could handle the sight of these little ones, so different but so much alike, you were there but a few moments before having them steal your heart in ways you could not have imagined. Surely, you would think that, of all places, there would be no unseemly behavior here. But you would be wrong. Many employees were angry and felt that were being treated unfairly by management. These employees were bad apples. Many supervisors were irritated and felt that some employees were ungrateful good-for-nothings. These supervisors were poorly trained and ill-equipped.

Employees were divided among themselves and there were even rumblings of a union campaign. One particular employee did not want a union – there were other employees who felt the same way but, for some reason, this employee was picked out of the group – and she soon became the victim of a vicious bullying campaign. For one thing, she was short and plump. “Some people have been eating too many Twinkies!” one employee would say loudly to another!” At lunch time, she sat alone while other employees sat together and laughed and told unkind and hurtful stories, some directed at her. One day, she came over to a table of 5 or 6 employees but when she sat down to join them, they all got up and went to another table, leaving her alone. That night after work, she was walking from work to her car, about 2 blocks, and another employee walked directly behind her, very close, carrying what looked to be some sort of weapon. She was afraid and felt very threatened. Finally, when the pressure became so great, she broke down in tears and ran from the workplace, never to return. The essence of this story is true – it really happened.

• Bullying at Work – The Silent Challenge.

One of the rapidly emerging challenges for employers in recent years is the issue of bullying at work. Bullying is a huge problem in our middle schools and high schools and it is moving into the workplace, as well. Sometimes, bullying is known by other names, such as harassment. Other times, bullying may not be technically unlawful, but still be a vile and abhorrent behavior that is an enormous danger to our employees. The deleterious effects of bullying can include (1) depressed and fearful employees, (2) loss of productivity, (3) a workplace where employees feel intimidated and, in some cases, (4) financial liability form harassment or other claims. Statistics vary, but it is clear that a significant number of employees feel that they have been bullied at work. Google “employees who have been bullied” and read the responses. Reports also tell us that many employees are embarrassed to report that they have been bullied and “onlookers” won’t report it because they feel they would be “snitches” or otherwise don’t want to “get involved.” The result is that bullying can be the “Silent Challenge” – we may not know about a bullied employee until much of the damage has already been done.

Bullying has changed and it’s different today. It used to be mostly physical but now it’s emotional and mental, also, which, in many ways, is worse. If you travel back in your mind’s eye to the 1940’s and 1950’s, you may remember the name of Charles Atlas. Charles Atlas was a body builder whom Physical Culture tabbed as “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” He had a company that produced a body building method called “dynamic tension” which you could order through the mail and which would make you look like Charles Atlas, too. He advertised mostly on the back pages of comic books and the story described there told of a young skinny fellow, a “97 pound weakling,” who shows up on the beach with a beautiful girl on his arm. To his dismay, a big hulking bully shows up and kicks sand in his face and steals his girl. Angry and humiliated, the young man goes home, kicks a chair and decides to do something about his woeful condition by investing in a “ten-cents stamp” and ordering the Charles Atlas body building program. Next, we see the young man, no longer skinny, back on the beach where he promptly kicks sand in the bully’s face, beats him up and retakes his girlfriend and his right place in the Cosmos. The moral of the story is this -- if you are a “97 pound weakling,” you can become a tough guy with plenty of muscles. The bullies will be afraid of you and the girls will love you. In the ad’s last panel, the beautiful girl looks up at him with adoring eyes and sighs, “What a man!” Ah . . . all it takes to overcome a bully is determination, a ten-cents stamp, and the Charles Atlas body building program. I have seen no statistics indicating exactly how many 97 pound weaklings actually came to look like Charles Atlas, but the message was clear – the way to handle a bully is to “man up” and take him on straightway. You can revisit an earlier age at http://charlesatlas.com/.

• Bullying Wears a Different Outfit Today.

Bullying looks and feels different today. In the connected world of the early part of the 21st century, bullying can be physical, emotional or mental and can involve malicious rumors aimed at demonizing and degrading another person. I have heard that one young person said, “I can show you the bruises on my arm, but you can’t see the bruises on my heart.” I recently had the privilege of meeting John Halligan, a truly extraordinary gentleman who works with students and parents and has helped a number of states draft anti-bullying laws. See his web page at http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org. John has developed a clear definition of bullying that applies to the workplace:

Bullying is any overt or covert act or combination of acts directed against an employee by another employee or group of employees, which is intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate the employee.

In the story at the beginning of this article, none of this behavior is unlawful or in violation of any employment regulation, with the exception of the threatening behavior in the parking lot, which could be an NLRB violation. But telling “jokes” at someone else’s expense or “shunning” an employee are not unlawful. It is despicable behavior, but it is not unlawful. Unless, of course, the jokes or stories are about an employee’s race or sex or national origin or religion or any one of the other “protected categories,” in which case the behavior could constitute unlawful harassment. For example . . . cartoons that depict derogatory racial images, with the name of an employee written on the cartoon . . . “ragging” an employee about his religion, using harmful religious epithets . . . taunting an employee about his or her size or weight or appearance or “manliness,” etc. . . . other more graphic examples make us cringe, but you get the idea. And bullying is not limited to men – a recent New York Times article reports that 40% of bullying is from women to other women.

• Cyber Bullying – Out of Sight.

In today’s connected society, bullying often takes place in the cyber world where it is called “cyber bullying.” Most employers already have policies on the inappropriate use of email and the Internet but sometimes this is abused. In addition, employees who bully others often do so after work, on their smart phones, on the Internet and on the social networking sites. John Halligan advises parents to refrain from giving cell phones to their children for as long as possible because each cell phone is a mini-computer that allows the child to log in to a cyber world that is largely beyond the knowledge and control of their parents. The same principle applies at work. Employee bullies can engage in bullying behavior after work hours through email, texting and the Internet, which seems to be beyond the knowledge and control of management. However, if this behavior is harmful, are you allowed to discipline employees for behavior that takes place “off the clock?” And the answer is -- you bet you can. Any activity that affects the image, reputation or services of the employer is fair game for discipline. You have to be careful and you have to be systematic and you have to do it the right way, but leaving it alone and doing nothing may lead to a situation that could be even worse.

Seay Management Recommends . . .

Seay Management recommends that you (1) establish and implement a strong anti-bullying policy, (2) communicate this policy to employees, (3) encourage employees to use your Open Door and Complaint Procedure policies to report violations, and (4) investigate all complaints and take swift and effective measures to eliminate bullying in the workplace. Here is a suggested policy that we recommend:

  Here at O’Seay Irish Candy Bars Incorporated, our policy is that all employees should be treated fairly and equally and with respect and dignity. Any behavior to the contrary is not only a violation of our policy but is shameful and appalling conduct that will not be tolerated in any form. Accordingly, bullying of employees by management, other employees, vendors or visitors is completely prohibited at work. Bullying can be physical, emotional or mental and includes any overt or covert act or combination of acts directed against an employee by another employee or group of employees, which is intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate the employee. Bullying can be direct, indirect or on the Internet or other locations. Any employee who engages in bullying at work will be subject to disciplinary action that could include dismissal. Employees who feel they have been bullied by another employee should promptly report this through our Open Door Policy or Complaint Procedure. Management will take all allegations of bullying seriously and will investigate and take appropriate action in each case. No employee will be retaliated against on the basis of making a complaint of bullying.

At our firm, we feel that this is as serious a workplace situation as we have encountered in many years with wide ranging and potentially harmful ramifications for both employees and management. We also feel that cyber bullying will continue as the primary emergent danger, expressed with the developing communications technology of cell phones, the Internet and other electronic devices. Please call your Seay Management Consultant if you have any questions about bullying at work, or about any other Human Resources Management question, issue or challenge. We appreciate having you as a client of our firm and look forward to talking soon. And remember . . . if you have an employment issue or challenge, and you need an answer right away, and you want the very best Human Resources Management advice available, you need to call . . . The Seay Team! We are proud to be your trusted advisors in Human Resources Management.



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