Safety should be a key component of every business decision an organization makes. But with all the headlines that have emerged over the past few months, from COVID-19 to a renewed push to end racism once and for all, we decided to highlight an aspect of safety for National Safety Month that perhaps does not get as much attention as it deserves: bullying.
Many of us have experience being bullied at some point in our lives, whether it occurred on the playground during our school days or at the workplace during our career days.
When bullying happens at the workplace, it can be a safety issue for employees and a costly issue for employers. A recent study of workplace bullying in Ireland found that the estimated annual value of lost productivity was 293.3 million euros ($329 million). That’s just in Ireland, which has a population of only 4.9 million people. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates 60.3 million U.S. workers have been affected by bullying. With roughly 136 million people currently in the U.S. workforce along with 21 million who are currently unemployed, this suggests more than 1 in 3 people have experienced workplace bullying in the United States.
This is a big, costly problem. While not every bullying incident has direct safety implications, even microagressions can make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable at work. In a 2019 TEDxOakland talk on microagression, Tiffany Alvoid explained those subtle, often unintentional discriminatory statements and gestures this way: “Microagressions wound people. If we were to compare it to getting a papercut, one papercut is manageable, but papercuts all over your body is something quite different. And it’s this accumulation of offensive comments in social settings and professional settings that begin to take a toll on a person’s spirit.”
Sometimes bullying can lead to much more serious consequences.
Japan recently passed anti-harassment legislation to curb what is known as pawahara, or power harassment from supervisors toward their subordinates. “Employers are now compelled to take strict action and preventative measures against power harassment, including implementing consultation systems and presenting clear examples of power harassment to all employees,” wrote the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Employers are also prohibited from dismissing employees who report cases of harassment or treating such employees unfavorably in any other way for reporting such cases.”
And after the recent death of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who died by suicide after allegedly being bullied, another Indian actor, Ayesha Takia, wrote on social media: “Having personally been through many incidents of trolling and workplace bullying. … I wish to spread the word about this, and I want you to speak up please if someone is making you feel less, small or worthless. Please know that you are incredible and unique. You are meant to be here and fight for what you deserve. You are bright and different; you must not let them win.”
It’s a positive message and one that we thought we would share during National Safety Month.
To learn more about workplace bullying, Spark recently caught up with Edward Stern, an expert on anti-bullying initiatives, who spent four decades developing regulatory policy at the U.S. Labor Department, 27 of those with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). An edited transcript follows.
Spark: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what piqued your interest in the subject of workplace bullying?
Edward Stern: Well, narrowly, this would not be one of my topics, because I worked on a variety of workplace safety and health topics. This is a little on the edge, but it fell into my lap when I lost a terrifically valuable co-worker who was highly educated, very conscientious and just a great young woman on whom I was going to rely for some technical expertise, and she quit her job. So I was horrified to lose her, and I asked her why she was quitting. She said, ‘If you want to know why I’m quitting, start studying workplace bullying.’
Spark: For employers, how should workplace anti-bullying initiatives play a role in their overall safety protocols?
Edward Stern: I think workplace anti-bullying initiatives can be very valuable to employers and support and help back up their safety initiatives. … I don’t think I’ve seen any that are perfect, but if they have a decent policy and they make a genuine effort to implement it, of course you have to communicate it to implement it, and then I think they get credibility with employees. If you have credibility and confidence that you’re going to pay attention to these issues, I believe that employees will be more likely to tell their managers and supervisors when they see safety issues that need to be addressed. But if you don’t do anything like this, if you have problems and don’t respond to the problems to which a company’s alerted, or you hide your eyes, then the company loses credibility. That means the employees are not going to trust them, the leadership, on matters of safety either. So for that reason, in my mind, having a workplace bullying policy ought to be one of the leading indicators of whether or not they’re going to have a safe workplace.
Spark: Obviously, we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s been a lot of news related to the call to end racism once and for all. As companies are starting to reopen, are you concerned at all that there’s a bigger potential for workplace bullying as people return to the office after a few months?
Edward Stern: Yes, actually I am for a couple of reasons. One that occurred to me, and one that occurred to one of my colleagues, who alerted me to her concern recently, and she was a labor lawyer and also a union official for some time. She was concerned that the people coming back to the workplace will be anxious. It’s quite a change for people. They’re coming back to something new, and just that anxiety and edginess will prompt bullies to be more aggressive. I think that’s a possibility. I don’t reject her hypothesis on that.
My thought was that these bullies miss the opportunity to torment others. It’s something that makes them feel good. They don’t do it accidentally. It’s done because they need to abuse and degrade others because it makes them feel better about themselves. Consequently, they’ve missed it, and I think it’s quite possible that we will see a good surge of it when they come back. But even for these folks, it may take them a little while to hit their stride just because everybody will be a little off coming back and feeling a little strange.
Spark: For an employer, what are the risks of not taking bullying seriously? Obviously, no employer is going to advocate for bullying. But what about employers that don’t take this very seriously?
Edward Stern: Well, there is a risk, and that is even when you have a substantial number of people out of work, if you’ve got the company running, and you have trained staff, you want to keep them there. You want to keep the talent. If you mistreat people, there will be other opportunities for them. The better the people are, the more talented, more experienced, the easier it will be for them to find other jobs. But my goodness, if you have people with experience and education and good social skills, and you drive them away, then the company loses.
Spark: What are some of the things you like to see in an anti-bullying policy?
Edward Stern: Oh boy, that’s a good one. No. 1, once you have it communicated on a regular basis, at least once a year, to all the employees, put it up on the company website so people can see it easily, including your competitors and the general public. This gets you a little respect. If you have something, communicate it. Next, when you have a policy, it’s not enough just to write about and address the issues of yelling and shouting and cursing at people. Those are obvious things, and that does happen. I have been involved in working with cases like that. But that’s not the only thing that happens. Some of the behavior is undermining. It’s sabotage of people that you want to torment often because of personal envy or out of retaliation for something someone said. These are subtle.
Keep an eye out for a longer version of this conversation in the next SpheraNOW podcast coming soon.
James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.