Dec 21 2010

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Workplace Violence and Bullying—How to Manage Employers’ Risks

By By Christopher J. Boman, Fisher & Phillips LLP, and Dennis B. Moschella, HR.BLR.com

While workplace violence and bullying are not necessarily new problems, they’ve garnered recent attention as the recession continues to take its psychological toll on workers. Company downsizing, increasing responsibilities and an ongoing lackluster economy are adding to stressful work environments that can spark bullying amongst employees, as well as lead to workplace violence concerns.

Each day, thousands of American workers are harassed, intimidated, threatened and verbally or physically attacked. And bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment. While only the sensational cases seem to make the headlines, threats and harassment in the workplace are a serious concern for employers. But employers can manage their risk in this area by implementing preventative measures—protecting both their staff and their reputations.

The key to helping manage workplace violence and bullying involves employers taking measures to reduce their liability in advance. From conducting thorough background checks during the hiring process to educating the workforce about these issues and ensuring the company’s workplace violence and harassment policies address bullying, employers must ensure their due diligence can’t be questioned.

Employers are encouraged to consider the following tips to help protect their workforce, stay out of the courtroom, and manage the potential risks associated with workplace violence and bullying.

Conduct Thorough Background Checks: Employers could be liable if someone carries out a violent act and has a criminal record including charges for carrying a concealed weapon, stalking, battery, etc. Ensure thorough background checks and drug tests are conducted for every hire and that risky behavior indicators are reported to HR and employers.

Expand Company Policies: Studies show that fewer than 30 percent of businesses have a workplace violence prevention policy. Adopt and publicize a zero-tolerance policy regarding threats, harassment (including bullying and cyber-stalking) and violence in the workplace. While there is no explicit law against bullying, company policies prohibiting it can help prevent potential problems before they escalate into something more destructive. In addition, regularly train all managers and employees on company policies, violation reporting guidelines and investigation procedures.

Understanding the Psychology of Bullying: Studies show 71 percent of bullies outrank their targets and that 40 percent of bullying targets don’t ever tell anyone. This is an important step in helping staff report bullying, as it shows that most people don’t report it because it’s their boss bullying them. Understanding both the bully’s and the victim’s psychology can help employers address issues in a manner that yields positive results.

Learn the Warning Signs: Warning signs can indicate a potential problem, including verbal threats, paranoid behavior, overstated moral righteousness, expression of extreme depression, disregard for the safety of co-workers, or a romantic obsession with someone in the workplace. Ensure that both management and staff report any potential warning signs.

Don’t Discount Third Party Harassment: Remember that many employees deal with vendors and other third parties throughout the workday, and that employer liability can extend to interaction with these individuals. If bullying or other harassment by third parties is conveyed to employers, the company must address the problem as soon as it’s been reported.

Don’t Forget the Financial Impact: The financial costs to businesses each year as the result of bullying and workplace violence threats and incidents are estimated to range from $36 billion to $120 billion. These numbers reflect absenteeism, decreased productivity, high turnover, theft and sabotage at work, medical care, increased accidents on the job and litigation. Experts advise that the return on investment for a business to implement a workplace violence prevention and education program is real and quantifiable.

The Practical Impact of Bullying: One study indicated that 75 percent of people bullied in the workplace will leave their jobs. Because bullying is often a crime of jealousy, you may lose some of your best workers if they’re being targeted.

Call Upon the Experts: Consultants and legal experts are a smart investment to identify potential risks, mitigate actual threats, and offer solutions for companies to protect themselves and their employees.

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