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There's No Place for Bullying at Work: The Innovators

The death of fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince, who reportedly took her own life after relentless bullying by her peers, has sparked a national firestorm of debate about how far schools should go to protect children. Nine of Ms. Prince's classmates have been indicted for charges including statutory rape, criminal harassment and stalking. Yet, Slate reported this week that Edward Boiselle, the school committee chairman from Ms. Prince's district, will almost certainly be re-elected without opposition and, as of this writing, no charges are pending against school officials who failed to protect the girl. It seems that bullying continues unchallenged even in the face of deadly distress.

If only it stopped at the schoolhouse door.

Those of us who endured bullying as children often heard from our parents that, once we graduated into the "real world," things would get better. Unfortunately, our parents were wrong. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute), almost half of all American workers have either suffered workplace bullying themselves or been vicariously distressed by witnessing it. It's a systemic problem, and one that's growing worse. According to two (admittedly unscientific) surveys by the Institute, the recession has made bullying even more prevalent and employers do little to prevent it. As of Labor Day 2009, the Institute reported that 54.6% of employers did nothing after receiving complaints from victims of bullying, and 28.2% of bullies were actually promoted or otherwise rewarded in the face of such complaints.

It doesn't help that, all too often, the office bully is the boss. In 2009, an article in Psychological Science by Nathaniel J. Fast and Serena Chen explained that bosses bully when they feel inadequate. That may be why office bullying is on the rise. It's hard to imagine anything worse than a lingering recession followed by a jobless recovery to make bosses feel incompetent and inclined to vent their insecurities on employees who are in no position to resign.

Interestingly, bullies are not always male. Last month, The New York Times reported on a Zogby International survey showing that 40% of workplace bullies are women. The victims, however, are usually female regardless of the gender of their tormentors. Three out of four times, female bullies harass other women, and male bullies target women about two-thirds of the time. According to The Wall Street Journal, however, a growing number of sexual harassment complaints are coming from men since the start of the recession, and the "locker room" behavior like vulgar talk and suggestive horseplay that many of those complaints describe sound suspiciously like bullying.

Employers may consider bullying to be nothing more than an unfortunate fact of working life, reasoning that adult workers should be able to let a little hazing roll off their backs, but such a laissez-faire attitude comes at a high price. Bullying takes a tremendous toll on employees, both victims and witnesses, in terms of turnover, productivity and morale. U.S. data on the economic impact of bullying is difficult to find, but studies abroad show that bullying is a costly indulgence. In the U.K., for example, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently came under fire for bullying his staff, one study estimated that more than two million Britons are bullied at work, costing British employers18.9 million working days each year.

Then there's the cost of defending lawsuits brought about by bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that only 20% of bullying is legally actionable, but that estimate may be low. Laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, race or other protected status may prohibit bullying, and state common laws frequently prohibit bullying behavior like harassment, infliction of emotional distress and interference in business relationships. It can be expensive to defend a lawsuit based on bullying, and the damages awarded to injured employees can be significant. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber recently lost a $1.38 million suit by two former employees who claimed they were subjected to unwelcome touching and inappropriate racial and sexual comments at work.

Forty-one states have enacted laws prohibiting bullying in school, but workplace bullying has not yet been similarly prohibited. Legislators may be reluctant to interfere in workplace interpersonal dynamics, reasoning that adult workers should be able to defend themselves, but such reluctance is misplaced. Health and safety laws correctly protect workers from physical hazards and environmental toxins. They deserve to be protected from emotional toxins, too.

While it may not always be obvious in theory where heavy-handed management ends and bullying begins, bullying is no more difficult to define than sexual harassment and just as easy to recognize in practice. Bullying is the assertion of power through aggression, and usually involves repeated incidents or patterns of behavior that are intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular employee or group. It involves mental and sometimes physical intimidation, and may include spreading malicious rumors, undermining a victim's work, constantly changing work requirements or establishing impossible deadlines that set the victim up to fail.

Employers need not wait for legislation to prevent bullying on their premises. As with other forms of harassment, an employer should have a strong anti-bullying policy in its employee manual, and should provide employees with reliable venues to complain when bullying occurs. Employees, and particularly managers, should be trained to recognize and report bullying behavior. Managers should also learn how to recognize when they've crossed the line into bullying, and be taught better, less aggressive techniques to achieve company goals. Most important, companies need to act on employee complaints and take effective steps to stop bullying when it occurs.

Bullying does expensive damage, and offers little benefit. Companies who worry about losing zealous, "go-getter" employees if they discipline them for bullying miss the point. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, victims are usually competent employees whose success rouses less capable bullies' jealousy. Protecting those valuable employees from envious bullies is not only good for the bottom line - it's the right thing to do.

Lauren Bloom is a Washington, D.C. attorney and the CEO of Elegant Solutions Consulting, a consulting firm dedicated to helping professionals, business and association management executives build trust with their clients, customers and members by "walking the ethics talk" in their daily practices. She is the author of the "The Art of the Apology -- How to Apologize Effectively to Practically Anyone."

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