Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Mean Kids on the Block

Bullying at Work, at School, and even on the Internet

No, I’m not making fun of what seems to be a growing problem. It’s in the news, on TV, the radio, online. There’s a new story every week. Some are simply heart-wrenching, many are downright unbelievable.

There have always been, and most likely always will be, bullies. It used to be the bratty kids on the playground pulling the shy girl’s hair or pushing the chubby boy into the mud. Now, it can go well beyond that, and have far reaching and serious consequences. Certainly, the Internet plays a part in making what might be childish, but normal behavior, into a much more public and widespread trashing of a person’s self-esteem and image. Today though, even adults seem to be engaging in such behavior.

The recent disclosure of the Rutgers basketball coach's behavior toward his players is a prime example. One of the more surprising aspects of that story was how long that behavior had been going on before someone blew the whistle, and the fact that many of the players and others simply accepted it.   This along with too many reports of teens being seriously injured, or even committing suicide after having endured endless harassment and abuse from their peers.

In my opinion, many of these incidences are dangerously mislabeled as "bullying"; when in fact, we’re really talking about assault. And should be dealt with as such.

And even the workplace is not immune. We HR folks know this well. There have always been the few nasty managers and co-workers who made life miserable for those around them. Social psychologist Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, has said that bullying behavior in the workplace is surpassing incidents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The "mean girls syndrome" is well known in workplaces. [Note: I read an interesting book recently titled Mean Girls at Work that outlines the different types of personalities and how to deal with them.]

A recent AP article notes a management association survey that found that 56 percent of companies have some kind of anti-bullying policy, usually contained in an employee handbook or code of conduct. Most said their response to bullying allegations depends on the circumstances but could include suspension, termination, reassignment or mandatory anger management training. If not a specific bullying policy, I’ve found that businesses often have policies prohibiting harassment, threats and physical violence.

Bullying incidents are most often verbal abuse, such as shouting, swearing and name-calling, malicious gossip, rumors and lies. The use of technology, such as Facebook or other social media sites, accounted for about 20% of incidents, the survey found.

More than a dozen states have recently or are currently considering passage of a Healthy Workplace Bill which would hold employers responsible and allow employees to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses. Namie, and others, are strong supporters of this bill. The US Chamber of Commerce is not. "We would look at a bill like this as overreaching," said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate. And could we really prevent it? Policing social, even when toxic, interactions in the workplace would be extremely difficult. But, we need to lay the blame squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrator, not on the employer.

Furthermore, aren’t we simply giving a new name to an old (age-old) problem? Somehow this type of behavior is becoming more acceptable, more common. I just don’t think using the term "bullying", regardless of where it occurs, gives it the importance it deserves. However, businesses should react to harassing behavior and deal appropriately with offenders, and I believe most do just that.

I’m just not so sure we need to legislate against bad behavior.

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