Bullying IS Harassment

We have all seen it. The manager who yells, screams, belittles, and is an overall bully to his/her employees and co-workers. In my career I have not seen many instances of overt sexual harassment – and it DOES exist, what I do see more often and in almost every organization is bullying, which can be a form of harassment.

In many cases, organizations don’t recognize bullying as harassment, but in many instances it is harassment and it does create a potential liability. Often the office bully is passive in his/her behavior. Below are 10 employee complaints and signs that may indicate you have a bully on your hands:

  1. You may hear complaints from employees who say they frequently feel as if they are being singled out and are being treated unfavorably. Complaints may include being left out of meetings, not recognized for their contributions, not given preferred assignments, not being allowed to take off time, or not being included in frequent lunches; which may make them feel like social pariahs. We have all seen it, the manager who hangs out with select employees socially and treats others differently – this is a concern.
  2. Complaints that another employee/manager is taking credit for a fellow employee’s accomplishments. I had a co-worker who was bypassed for a promotion because his manager took credit for a huge project that the co-worker had lead and the manager had no part in. This could be considered bullying.
  3. Complaints that an employee/manager frequently yells and screams at other employees. I have seen this up close and personal – it can be devastating and should never be tolerated. I actually learned that a manager was telling his employees to “yell back” to handle it – this is not a solution.
  4. You may have employees complaining that they are being treated differently than their co-workers. I once had an employee who was told by her manager that though her performance was excellent, she could not work from home because she didn’t have children, yet other employees with children were allowed to work from home. Another co-worker was told not to attend any meetings with a senior executive because the senior executive could not stand to see this employee. This is a huge liability waiting to happen.
  5. If you have complaints of employees/managers frequently swearing, sending political or offensive emails, etc., which creates a hostile or uncomfortable work environment – you have an issue on your hands. With the political season here this may well be prevalent at your workplace and you are unaware of it.
  6. You may have received employee complaints of being “thrown under the bus” or being blamed for issues in front of other employees. Haven’t we all seen this? I was once in a meeting where a manager made another employee cry. Even if there was a major issue with the employee’s work or conduct it should have been handled differently.
  7. You may also have employee complaints of being threatened to do “something” or else; or receiving threatening communications via email, in person, etc. I once had a co-worker receive an email from a senior executive that had “replied all” shaming the employee for something the senior executive completely misunderstood. At least in that circumstance there were many witnesses to the bullying behavior and plenty of documentation.
  8. If you are hearing concerns that a manager is constantly publically criticizing an employee’s behavior and/or work product, this might be an issue. Whether this is valid or perceived – there is a better way to provide feedback to the employee. I had a manager come to me about putting an employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and/or to receive coaching. At the end of our conversation, there really was no issue with the employee’s performance, but the manager seemed to just have a personal conflict with this employee. It turned out the manager needed the coaching.
  9. You may see frequent turn-over as well as unplanned absences in a specific department or division. When an organization sees more than 25 percent turnover without any massive organizational change or other organizational changes for the turnover this could be an indicator that there is an issue or a “problem child” creating havoc in the group or entire organization.
  10. Pitting employees against one another or speaking negatively about a direct report to another employee is a potential issue. Yes, everyone has a bad day and needs to vent, but there is a time and a place – possibly talking to Human Resources (HR)? The complaining manager could still be deemed as creating a hostile work environment and the behavior needs to be addressed.

Other signs to be aware of:

  • Isolating employees and not communicating with them or delegating work to them.
  • Teasing employees about their dress, accent, or other personal characteristics.
  • Retaliating or punishing an employee for minor issues.
  • Hindering an employee from changing departments or getting a promotion.
  • Forcing an employee to hire or utilize a service that is a personal friend or relative of the manager. The higher the person is in the organization (with more authority) the more often these situations can occur – this may happen over and over again if not addressed.
  • Threatening the employee for not releasing confidential information. True story – executives trying to force confidential information out of HR because of their position within the organization.

You may have seen many of these examples in isolation, but if you are frequently seeing any of these behaviors or you are receiving a number of these complaints you need to address the problem immediately.

How do you address this behavior? If you have had several complaints about a single employee or manager who exhibits any of the above behaviors it is best to address it before there is a legal issue on your hands. Start by sitting down with the employee, observing the employee in meetings, and/or talking with his/her manager. You may want to think about starting a formal investigation if the issue seems to be getting worse or is severe.

Think about putting the employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (Plan) or assign he/she a coach to address his/her management style or work ethic. Be careful here to warn the issue-employee that no retaliatory behavior will be tolerated and that his is a serious issue.

Think about a cultural assessment or team building sessions to open lines of communication and improve the productivity and overall health of the team or department.

Also, it is important to remind employees about your harassment policy. You may need to update your policy to include all forms of unlawful harassment. Think about hosting a training session around creating a respectful workplace.

Stephanie Nelson
About the author: 

Stephanie Nelson is the Chief Executive Officer of Blue Fire, LLC, a Human Resources consultancy based in Chicago, IL.  Ms. Nelson has more than 18 years of human resources experience in healthcare, technology, manufacturing, and non-profit fields. Previously, she was the Vice President of Human Resources at the American Osteopathic Association and a Senior Executive Director with the American Hospital Association. Stephanie is a certified professional coach, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from the University of Dayton and an Executive MBA from Thomas More College.  Follow her on Twitter.