This year, employers in California must include anti-bullying training for company supervisors as part of their required biannual sexual harassment training. Even though other states, such as Nevada, have not yet mandated such training, employers should take notice of potential liability that may arise from workplace bullying and take steps to prevent it. 

Workplace Bullying Statistics 

According to a 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 51% of responding organizations reported incidences of bullying in their workplaces. Twenty-seven percent of employees surveyed by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2014 reported a current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work. An earlier study of U.S. workers found that 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological aggression at work in the past year (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006). These numbers are significant, indicating that workplace bullying is alive and well in U.S. companies. 

Effects of Bullying on the Workplace 

Effects of workplace bullying are felt not just by the victims of the bullying but also by the organization itself. Some potential effects on your company may include: 

  • High employee turnover, resulting in increased recruiting, hiring and training costs
  • Low productivity, as workers lose motivation and take more breaks or sick time
  • Drain on HR staff and supervisors having to deal with bullying incidents and lost productivity
  • Bad publicity and damage to reputation as word gets out that bullying takes place at your organization 

The negative effects of bullying result in a significant drain on an organization’s time, resources and finances. But because it hasn’t been explicitly “illegal,” companies have been slow to address it. 

Potential Claims Based on Bullying 

Despite the lack of explicit federal or state laws prohibiting abusive workplace conduct that is not based on a protected characteristic, employers should be aware that other types of claims could be raised as a result of bullying. To the extent that an employee suffers a physical or mental injury or illness as a result of bullying at work, it could result in a workers’ compensation claim. In addition, depending on the nature of the bullying and the position/title of the bully, abusive conduct could support claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with employment contract, negligent hiring, retention or supervision, battery or assault. 

Tips to Prevent Workplace Bullying 

Despite the lack of laws prohibiting workplace bullying, it is a sound employment practice to take steps to prevent and address abusive conduct in your organization. Get beyond labeling behavior as legal or illegal, harassment or bullying. If there is unprofessional, potentially harmful behavior occurring at your place of business, you need to ask questions, conduct a thorough and timely investigation and take steps to stop any misconduct. 

To help your organization be proactive in preventing bullying, consider the following steps: 

  • Implement a standalone anti-bullying policy or incorporate the subject of bullying into your anti-harassment policy or code-of-conduct policy;
  • Train all employees on your policy, including your zero tolerance for workplace bullying;
  • Train supervisors and managers on recognizing bullying and what to do if it occurs;
  • Offer employees numerous avenues for reporting bullying and ways to get help, both internally and through an employee assistance program or outreach agency;
  • Be inclusive so that all employees feel comfortable speaking up and participating in company projects and activities; and
  • Treat complaints of bullying behavior seriously and launch a workplace investigation. 

Workplace bullying is an ongoing problem that can affect your reputation and bottom line so don’t wait for legislation or a lawsuit before enacting these proactive measures.