What was once considered a playground problem has now become a concern for employers.  As awareness of workplace bullying has grown, academics, advocacy organizations and business consultants have focused their efforts on recognizing and addressing harmful and intimidating behavior. 

Anti-bullying messages have even made their way into legislation.  Earlier this year, a “Healthy Workplace Bill” was introduced in Washington State.  The bill sought to amend the Washington Law Against Discrimination so that “subjecting an employee to an abusive work environment” would constitute an unfair practice.  Although the proposed law was not enacted, it highlights the seriousness of issues facing employers as they seek to maintain a safe and productive workplace.

More employers are implementing policies and practices that recognize and remedy workplace bullying.  The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has issued a report intended to assist employers seeking to address these issues. 

Some of the information in the Report is useful, while other portions are too vague and general to provide real guidance.  The questions and answers below are taken from the L&I report, with our modifications and suggestions. 

What is workplace bullying?

  • Workplace bullying is repeated and ongoing unreasonable actions toward one or more employees that is intended to intimidate, undermine, degrade, threaten, humiliate or harm the employees.
  • Workplace bullying generally involves an abuse or misuse of power, verbally or in conduct.  Bullying can also be corporate or institutional, for example where a company uses policies or practices to intimidate and demoralize its employees.

What are some examples of workplace bullying?

  • Deliberately giving employees unrealistic and unmanageable deadlines, or placing unrealistic expectations on employees, where failure to meet expectations means making life unpleasant for the employees or dismissing those employees who might object.  Even high-pressure, high-production work environments ordinarily have an institutional standard for productivity and efficiency.  When a manager or company goes well beyond this standard to “set employees up for failure,” giving physically impossible assignments and deadlines, then criticizing employees for their inability to meet the unrealistic expectations, it might be a sign of workplace bullying 
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-managing of employees. All effective mangers monitor their subordinates, but when monitoring is constant, invasive and oppressive and done without a legitimate purpose, it might be bullying behavior. 
  • Interference or sabotaging actions that intentionally prevent an employee from completing required work.  Examples of interference might include deliberately preventing access to information (such as a key memo or data) that an employee needs to complete a task, or constantly interrupting the employee with a barrage of unrelated menial tasks so that he or she cannot complete the required work.  Such behaviors could be considered bullying. 
  • Providing unwarranted, invalid and excessive criticism of employees or blaming employees without factual justification.  Criticism and discipline should be based on concrete actions or behaviors that need correcting.  Falsely accusing an employee of errors, or consistently commenting on past errors without a constructive reason, could be considered bullying. 
  • Berating or humiliating employees.  Feedback and criticism should be communicated in a respectful manner, as the goal is to elicit improved performance, not to personally attack an employee for his or her failures.  Yelling, shouting and insults could be viewed as workplace bullying. 
  • Deliberate exclusion or social isolation of employees.  Some examples of isolating actions might include: refusing to invite an employee to a meeting in which he/she would normally participate, refusing to include an employee in social, team-building events where the rest of a group has been invited, or moving an employee’s workspace far from the rest of his or her team.  Such behaviors could be considered workplace bullying.

 What is the difference between workplace bullying and harassment?

  • Harassment is a type of illegal discrimination defined as offensive and unwelcome conduct serious enough to adversely affect the terms and conditions of a person’s employment.  A harassment claim arises out of the employee’s status as member of a protected class, such as race, sex or disability. 
  • Bullying, on the other hand, might not be overt or serious enough to adversely affect the terms and conditions of employment, and the target of a workplace bully might not be a member of a protected class.  Bullying might be covert, through indirect, constant criticism, unrealistic expectations or deadlines, or actions that force a person to feel demeaned or isolated from a group.  Unlike harassment, bullying is ordinarily not illegal.

How can employers demand top performance or impose discipline without bullying?   

  • Employers should not be dissuaded from direct and sometimes critical feedback, evaluations and discipline.  Respectful communications are key.  Prudent employers train managers on effectively and sensitively managing their subordinates and correct overly-aggressive or hostile behavior promptly.  Similarly, managers should treat reports of bullying with sensitivity.

How can employers address and prevent workplace bullying? 

  • Understand the behaviors that constitute bullying. 
  • Consider an anti-bullying (or respectful workplace) policy as part of the wider commitment to a safe and productive workplace.  
  • Consider workplace training and awareness so employees and managers can recognize and understand bullying. 
  • Address and investigate bullying behavior promptly, including situations where there are allegations of institutional/corporate bullying. 
  • Consider reassignment of the bullying individual(s) to another group as necessary. 
  • Structure the work environment to allow employees some level of autonomy, create clear expectations of how tasks should be performed, provide constructive criticism and feedback to employees on how to improve performance, and include employees in decision making processes as appropriate. 
  • Adopt and encourage open door policies. 
  • Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the foregoing policies.

For more information on workplace bullying or assistance implementing anti-bullying measures, contact Foster Pepper’s Employment and Labor Relations group.