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Confronting bullying in the workplace

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Employment-practices expert Cathy Padalino suggests ways to identify and address workplace bullying without alienating a nonprofit’s tight-knit staff.

Cathy Padalino

Cathy Padalino

Cathy Padalino

One of the challenges employers have, particularly in the nonprofit sector, is determining how to draw the line between bullying by superiors and firm management.

Nonprofits often are built on very close relationships and small offices with less formal policies and procedures. They often face deadlines and looming financial deficits that can lead to office tension and a need for strong leadership.

The challenge employers have is to understand the difference between strong leadership qualities and those demonstrating bullying behavior.

Defining ‘bully’

The legal definition of bullying has not yet been determined in the United States. However, employers have been held liable for bullying that was driven by other charges of illegal employment practices, such as harassment.

While the jury is still out on a definitive legal definition, some groups have already outlined what they consider to be the essential elements of workplace bullying.

A report issued by the Irish Taskforce on Workplace Bullying in April 2001 can be a useful guide for employers. The report defines bullying as behavior that is:

  • Repeated
  • Inappropriate
  • Either direct or indirect, such as gossip
  • Verbal, physical or otherwise
  • Conducted by one or more persons
  • At the workplace or in the course of employment, and
  • Capable of reasonably being regarded as undermining a person’s right to dignity at work.

Generally a single incident of abuse, unless it’s extremely severe, does not qualify as bullying. For instance, if a manager yells at an employee once, the employee probably won’t have cause for action under current law.

As managers seek to identify bullying conduct, they should closely evaluate repeated offenses such as ignoring an employee’s contributions, excessive or unwanted criticism or monitoring, manipulation of an employee’s job content, the silent treatment, frequent shouting, targeting or blaming, mean pranks and malicious gossip.

This type of conduct could readily be construed as harassment by the employee and could lead to an employment practices liability lawsuit.

What to do about a bully?

If an employee complains about bullying, the organization should conduct an objective investigation and consider consulting with outside counsel or even have them conduct the investigation.

Organizations should avoid the following common reaction to a complaint of bullying since it is generally a discriminatory response. Before an investigation has even begun, employers may be tempted to say, “Since you believe you’ve been bullied, we’re going to move you to a different job function or workplace location.”

An undesired transfer in location or job function of the individual who believes he or she has been bullied could be deemed discriminatory, as it has been in a recent Supreme Court case.

Nip bullying in the bud

The best action an organization can take is to put in place best practices that help prevent harassment, such as bullying, before it becomes a costly liability lawsuit. Organizations should consider, among other things, offering the following:

  • Anti-harassment training programs that include all types of workplace harassment, including bullying
  • Training for managers and supervisors to help identify and handle bullying behaviors
  • A strong anti-harassment policy that conveys zero tolerance for all types of workplace harassment and addresses specific types of inappropriate workplace behavior
  • An open reporting policy and clearly communicated complaint resolution procedures so that victims of bullying can report incidents without fear of reprisal

It is also important to stay up-to-date with your state’s legislative progress on workplace bullying. There are currently seven states considering anti-bullying laws and more states could follow in the future.

Finally, nonprofit organizations should consider purchasing employment practices liability insurance to help protect their balance sheets from the potentially devastating financial impact of a harassment liability lawsuit.

Look for an insurance carrier that has a good reputation for paying claims and offers loss-prevention services targeted to the unique needs of nonprofit organizations.

All workplaces should ensure that anti-bullying policy violations are treated as seriously as discrimination and sexual harassment. Nonprofits should set a high bar for what’s acceptable within their walls and make it clear to all employees from the outset.

After all, the impact of bullies can be serious. Bullies can create costly turnover, lower employee morale and tarnish your organization.


Cathy Padalino is employment practices liability product manager for Chubb Specialty Insurance, based in Warren, N.J.

2 responses on “Confronting bullying in the workplace

  1. Anonymous says:

    How do I report bullying at the work place?

    1. Sandy Cyr says:

      While each situation is unique, and the process ought to be driven by the nonprofit’s HR policies and procedures, the general goal of changing bullying behavior to move from focusing on the inter-personal problems to looking at organizational outcomes. Here are the general steps to follow to address bullying in the workplace:

      1) As difficult as it sounds, if possible, the first step is to discuss the situation with the person responsible for the bullying to hopefully resolve the issue before escalating the problem. If the individual is not able to confront the bully or there is no change in behavior, then;
      2) Discuss the impact the bullying is having on workplace productivity with their supervisor and develop strategies to address the issue with them. If that does not resolve the problem, or if the supervisor is the problem then;
      3) If the nonprofit is large enough, report the issue to the HR department. If that does not solve the problem or there is no HR department in the nonprofit then;
      4) Identify the individual or committee of the Board of Directors that is responsible for HR and report the issue to them.

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