The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

HR’s Role in Managing Bullying and Harassment at Work

This blog post was contributed by Maureen J. Gleason, president of American Behavioral

It seems that everywhere you look these days, cases of bullying and sexual harassment are making headlines. From school teachers to celebrities to distinguished politicians, example after example of bad behavior are coming to light. The #MeToo movement is a reflection of the extent of the problem, but also represents the need to monitor, talk openly and take action to prevent more victims from suffering.

Bullying and harassment can be devastating to the victim, and can create a toxic atmosphere in the workplace if not dealt with appropriately. As pop superstar Taylor Swift told Time magazine about her case against a former radio host accused of groping her, “Going to court to confront this type of behavior is a lonely and draining experience — even when you win, even when you have the financial ability to defend yourself. Even though awareness is higher than ever about workplace sexual harassment, there are still so many people who feel victimized, afraid and silenced by their abusers and circumstances.”

Human resources has an extremely important role to play and a responsibility to maintain a workplace free of bullying and sexual harassment. Not only is it an obligation for HR, but it makes for a much more productive and enjoyable place to work when these behaviors can be prevented or stopped as soon as they are reported. Employees will feel more valued and respected when they know that their employer is committed to providing a safe and professional environment for their workers.

Research suggests that nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers have experienced bullying in the workplace. Bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of an employee or group of employees toward another employee or group of employees. Evidence shows that bullying can cause not only absenteeism and lost productivity, but also depression, sleeplessness, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and PTSD. Bullying can take many forms, including mean-spirited practical joking, constant negative criticism, yelling, isolating, blaming or spreading untrue rumors. While bullying is not necessarily illegal in the U.S., state and federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibit sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can come in many forms, but essentially represents any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment. Any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be considered sexual harassment in the workplace.

Four Strategies for Prevention

  1. Adopt a clear anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy and distribute as part of the employee handbook. Define bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment in clear, understandable terms; adopt a no tolerance policy, including punishment up to termination; provide a clear procedure for filing complaints (consider a confidential, toll-free phone number); state that any complaint will be taken seriously and will be investigated thoroughly; state that any act of retaliation will not be tolerated.
  2. Train employees at least once a year to explain what bullying and harassment are and the procedures to file a complaint, as well as consequences for participating in these behaviors. Often these trainings have the effect of bringing forth complaints, so it will be extremely important to have a confidential and secure reporting mechanism in place.
  3. Train managers and supervisors separately from employees on the above as well as the procedures for handling such complaints. Many states now require sexual harassment training, so be sure to check your state regulations to ensure you are in compliance.
  4. Monitor your workplace periodically. Talk to employees and ask open-ended questions about the work environment, atmosphere and how things are going. Do the same with supervisors. Encourage open communication and a willingness to intervene when needed.

You should also consider offering counseling services through your employee assistance program or other medical benefit program to anyone who has been impacted by bullying or harassment.

At CUPA-HR’s Higher Ed Symposium, to be held March 4-6 in Charleston, South Carolina, Maureen Gleason will present a session on how behavioral health issues impact the workplace and how HR professionals can provide resources for employees, dependents and management in dealing with stressful and complex behavioral health issues.

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The CUPA-HR office will be closed Fridays through August 16.