Happy Employee


Guide to a Safe Workplace Free of Abuse and Bullying

Originally published by Northeastern University School of Business

Workplaces are a natural melting pot for people of all different backgrounds to come together and work toward a singular company vision. However, not all employees work cohesively with one another, as some people may not get along all that well with others. Most people avoid any sort of confrontation and leave it at being polite, but brief. Others, though, take it further — to abuse and bullying.

According to this Forbes article, experts say there’s a general lack of bullying behavior awareness in workplaces, which may prevent people from immediately realizing that someone is being actively bullied. Workplace abuse can significantly impact victims in a negative way, having severe repercussions on not only their work but also their physical and mental health. Furthermore, companies pay the price when abuse is involved, from employee turnover to compensation claims to a ruined reputation.

Yet, while most companies probably want to foster a safe workplace free of abuse and bullying, that may not be the reality. Unfortunately, spotting bullying can be difficult and the reporting process convoluted. In an effort to increase company transparency and decrease bullying, this guide provides the statistics, identification techniques, developmental tools, and guideline resources needed in order to make and maintain workplace changes to ensure employee safety.

Workplace Abuse Statistics

Workplace abuse is more than just ignoring someone or interrupting them when they talk — workplace violence can injure the victim physically and mentally, and sometimes can even place his or her life in danger. According to a report from the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), workplace abuse can include verbal or physical assault, robbery, and even homicide, with the most common form being simple assault (an attack without a weapon that results in minor to no injuries).

To gain a better understanding of just how rampant the workplace bullying epidemic really is, here are some abuse and bullying statistics from workplaces across America:

Relevant News Reports

The recent #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on workplace and industry abuse. News reports have been rife with instances of workplace violence, sexual assaults, and power-forced nondisclosure agreements. As reported in a Financial Review article, “as a result of the #MeToo movement, people are more inclined to speak up, and you can no longer hide behind reputation or seniority which people may have [previously] used to protect themselves.” These are just a few of the recent news reports centered on workplace abuse:

  • Workplace Violence in 2018. This Bryghtpath article discusses seven incidents of workplace violence from the first half of 2018, ranging from gun-related to physical violence and from clients to employees and between coworkers.
  • Types of Abuse in the Workplace. This Chron article details common forms of workplace abuse ranging from verbal to physical abuse and discrimination to harassment.
  • What Can You Do About Workplace Sexual Abuse When the HR Director Is the Abuser? This Forbes article details a recent sexual harassment case as well as steps a victim can complete to take back control of his or her work life as well as report the abuser.
  • The Insidious Effects of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace. This article published in The Cut covers this year’s Arrested Development interview and the chaos that ensued over verbal harassment as well as outlines repercussions of enduring ongoing abuse.
  • Cyberbullying in the Workplace: ‘I became paranoid.’ This article in The Guardian covers recent news where technology has blurred the lines between the personal and the professional, allowing bullies to reach workers both in and out of the office.

How to Identify a Toxic Workplace Culture

A workplace full of bullying and abuse can quickly lead to a toxic workplace culture. When workers feel threatened or unsafe at work, not only can their work performance suffer, but so can their mental and physical health. To help prevent a toxic workplace culture, workers, especially those in management positions, need to look out for signs that may indicate harassment. According to a U.S. News report, there are many signs of bullying, some of which include:

  • Verbal abuse may include any form of verbal harassment from a coworker or superior, ranging from rude remarks to private threats to open humiliation in front of others.
  • Withholding is a form of bullying that uses suppression or holding back, such as ostracism, isolation, or keeping resources and information from the victim so they cannot complete their work or form connections with others.
  • Malicious intent may involve gaslighting (wherein abuse is targeted toward the victim’s psyche in order to make them doubt their own sanity), sabotage, or deliberately damaging someone’s reputation by spreading rumors.
  • Unfair treatment may include biased negative evaluations of work or unequal treatment such as loss of further advancement or workplace opportunities.
  • Intimidation is a form of bullying or harassment that may be verbal or physical, ranging from words to physically domineering someone’s space in order to silence them.
  • Physical attacks may involve pinching, shoving, kicking, tripping, or hitting, and range from one-time offenses to repeated instances of systematic physical abuse.
  • Sexual harassment is considered a subset of bullying, in which acts of a sexual nature are used to silence or control a coworker or subordinate.

Some of these bullying methods may be carried out without others seeing them, with coworkers or superiors carrying on without any awareness of the problem. In order to take back control at work, bullying and abuse need to be reported.

Yet, it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. According to a 2017 survey by Workplace Bullying Institute, 61 percent of bullies are bosses and in 63 percent of the incidents, the bully worked alone. Unfortunately, this means that if a boss is the one bullying, then the victim may not have anyone to report to and no witnesses to corroborate his or her story, creating an even more dangerous situation for the victim.

Tools to Develop Workplace Empathy

Bullies may choose their victims based on any number of factors, including gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, just to name a few. In order to both improve workplace harmony and also lend support to those disadvantaged within the specific career environment, coworkers must look out for one another and develop workplace empathy.

According to advocate Melinda Epler in her 2018 TED talk, there are three ways to become a better ally in the workplace:

1. Do No Harm. Know what microaggressions — everyday slights, insults, or negative verbal and nonverbal messages that impede someone’s work — are, and don’t do them. Microaggressions only create harmful barriers between those with an advantage and those without, widening workplace division. Instead, give your full attention, don’t interrupt, and listen and learn.

2. Advocate for Underrepresented People. By utilizing small techniques, such as intervening when someone is being interrupted, inviting someone to speak, or referring to someone and encouraging them, coworkers can advocate for their peers, creating a more empathetic environment for everyone.

3. Change Someone’s Life. This may include volunteering or mentoring, or even staying late to help a coworker who is new. Taking major action to help someone disadvantaged within the workplace environment can help crack the “glass ceiling” just a little more and will eventually lead to greater workplace diversity, inclusion, and empathy.

Additional Workplace Safety Resources

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, especially in work-related realms, and the increased vigilance for workplace inclusion and empathy, there has never been a better time for companies to develop and employ comprehensive methods for preventing acts of workplace violence. This is especially true due to the fact that “the average workplace is now 18 times more likely to experience an incident of workplace violence than a fire,” according to an Environmental Health and Safety Daily Advisor article.

As such, it is imperative that companies not only assess current threats and work to prevent them, but they must also establish procedures for future incidents. Below are a few extremely detailed and pertinent checklists, guidelines, and lists of advice on how companies can protect employees against bullying and harassment while improving overall work safety for everyone.

  • Workplace Violence Checklist. This OSHA checklist helps identify present or potential problems with workplace violence. This list can be used to make periodic inspections in order to upgrade current protective measures in place.
  • Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence. This OSHA guide is tailored toward healthcare and social service workers, but covers impact, prevention programs, and checklists that can be applied to any work environment.
  • Workplace Violence Inspection Checklist. This Labor Occupational Health Program checklist covers staffing, training, facility design, safety measures, and workplace procedures and can be used as part of a regular health and safety inspection conducted by internal safety committees or external parties.
  • Managing the Threats of Workplace Violence. This Center for Personal Protection and Safety report outlines workplace violence, mitigation techniques, common risk management strategies, how to respond to threats, and how to respond post-incident.
  • Taking Threats Seriously: Establishing a Threat Assessment Team and Developing Organizational Procedures. This Crisis Prevention Institute article extensively covers establishing a threat assessment team and developing organizational procedures, walking the reader through policies, procedures, roles, analyses, training, education, and investigations.
  • 11 Ways to Deal with a Workplace Cyberbully. This article from Verywell Mind covers the ways in which a cyberbully may attack in the workplace as well as how to deal with the attack with a step-by-step approach.
  • Doing Our Duty: Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. This Human Resources Professionals Association guide includes the legal duties of employers in the prevention of harassment, facts on its prevalence in workplaces, and steps to combat it in the first place.