Ask SCORE: Workplace bullying can be toxic for a business

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 18, 2012 

Question: I hear that workplace bullying and bad behavior are becoming really big issues now. I have employees who sometimes don't get along, and one in particular who is bossy and demanding of his team. Is this a potential problem for me? What do I need to know?

Answer: Yes, it's a complex and very sensitive subject. And it's one of those situations where things that you don't know can really come back to bite you. Let's talk about this.

First off, it's no surprise that groups of people who spend 40-plus hours together each week might well have some disagreements.

To start, we need to define the issue. On the low end, workplace misbehavior ranges from rudeness, lack of worker cooperation, occasional swearing, hurt feelings and mild bullying.

Above that is focused and repeated bullying, harsh supervisor criticism, or incessant disrespect.

A higher degree yet is harassment and the other conditions of a hostile work environment.

Up the scale another notch is a near-toxic workplace.

At the top of the scale is outright physical aggression, assault, or worse.

Many experts think those bad situations are a natural progression, if left unchecked. The sooner a manager is aware and steps in, the better the chance to stop it. Let's look at the various levels in a little more detail.

There's not a clear definition of "workplace bullying" that everyone agrees on. We Americans have pretty clear understandings of, for example, what "sexual harassment" and "discrimination" are. Those behaviors have evolved definitions for years, largely from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But opinions diverge on just exactly what bullying is. For example, need it be damaging to physical or emotional health? Much of the reason for this lack of agreement is that workplace sexual harassment and discrimination are illegal. Workplace bullying is not.

There is a management consulting firm with heavy credentials that specializes in this exact issue. The firm, Workplace Bullying Institute, is considered by many to be the foremost authority on workplace bullying in North America.

Here's the surprise: It's located in Bellingham. Check their informative website at workplacebullying.org.

Some findings from their large WBI-Zogby survey in 2010: 35 percent of employees report being bullied at work; 15 percent report witnessing it occur. About 50 percent report they've never been a victim or observer. Also, 72 percent of the bullying events are supervisor-to-employee.

The WBI will do the survey again in 2013; stay tuned.

There are some strong reasons to be sure that your workplace has a clear and written anti-bullying policy, with zero tolerance. If you don't, you are at a disadvantage when hiring. You also face:

- Worker dissatisfaction.

- Higher absenteeism and lower productivity.

- Employee turnover.

- Customer dissatisfaction and ill will in the community.

- Exposure to legal troubles. Bullies can be very expensive.

If you knowingly allow, or even just fail to prevent, a hostile work environment, you're inviting lawsuits. For example, you should background-check all job applicants. If an employee has a bad history and you didn't bother to look, you might get whammed with a negligent hiring suit, or worse.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has lots of good information on workplace safety. In particular, look into a 2011 document titled "Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior." It's on the L&I website, lni.wa.gov, or just Google the title. The last page has a sample anti-bullying policy that you might want to incorporate into your Employee Handbook.

Consider this: In 2011, a retail employee was sexually harassed by a co-worker. The employer, a large firm, was sued for discrimination. In August 2012 the suit was dismissed. Here's why: the employer had a comprehensive anti-harassment policy in place, including training for managers and a clear procedure to deal with complaints (Mann v. Staples, Inc.).

If this topic interests you, here's a suggestion: For a good overview, Google "e4b-HuddlestonBolen" and enter "bully" in the search box. You'll find an informal video presentation to a business group by a labor-law attorney on "Dealing with bullying and other workplace harassment." I suggest you spend 12 minutes watching it, and maybe take some notes.

Another valuable overview resource is the WBI website mentioned above. Click on the "In the News" tab to view several brief and informative TV interviews with director Gary Namie.

A last thought: check out Business Management Daily's website, businessmanagementdaily.com, for recent, high-quality reports on many business topics, including three on today's subject.

ABOUT SCORE

To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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