The Hidden Costs of Bullying and Harassment

Bullying and harassment carry significant hidden costs, both to individuals and to their organizations.


"If a complaint is actually filed in court and a lawsuit ensues, costs escalate rapidly to defend the employer. Filing costs, depositions, transcripts, investigation costs all combine to raise a modest defense to $60,000 years before a trial can be scheduled. Trial costs raise the totals even higher." – Workplace Bullying Institute

Bullying” has been defined as a pattern of disruptive behavior that is meant to hurt, dominate or control others. Depending on the laws in your location, workplace bullying generally differs from illegal harassment in that harassment covers legally protected characteristics while bullying could affect just about anyone. Either way—whether bullying or harassment—it does NOT belong in the workplace and it needs to stop.

Your organization’s policies may provide descriptions of the types of behavior that would be considered harassment, bullying or retaliation. Definitions may vary, but examples of conduct that would not be acceptable in the workplace commonly include:
  • Abusive language or conduct that is unreasonable and unwelcome
  • Use of profanity, shouting, or name-calling
  • Persistent teasing or making someone the object of jokes or ridicule
  • Ostracism, isolation or exclusion from group or team activities
  • Public humiliation or threats through technology or social media
  • Intimidation, physical threats or abuse (may be a police matter)
  • Malicious rumors, gossip and lies
  • Destruction of dignity and trust
As a manager or supervisor, you are responsible for supporting your employer’s policies and providing a safe and productive environment for your subordinates. This means one of your responsibilities is to prevent bullying and harassment.

There are obvious ethical reasons for this: most of us believe leaders should be transparent, reasonable, and fair. We see the inherent good of workplaces where these values are modeled by management and where employees are expected to treat each other with respect and common decency.

But there are practical reasons for maintaining a safe and respectful environment, too. Bullying and harassment carry significant hidden costs, both to individuals and to their organizations.



Bullying damages morale and teamwork
Studies have shown that employees do their best work when they feel respected and cared about as individuals. They are more committed to their jobs, work more collaboratively, and get more done.

When you have a bully in your midst — or worse, if the general atmosphere in your workplace encourages antagonistic and overly competitive behavior — communication becomes limited and “silos” form. Individuals move to protect themselves by not sharing important information. They may avoid collaboration, not wanting to take a chance that others will be dismissive of their input.

They can become afraid to ask for information or assistance they might need, whether from a manager or a disrespectful coworker, and try to go it alone without that help, reducing the accuracy and quality of their work.

Valuable teamwork opportunities become lost. Instead of getting the best possible ideas, you get the safest ideas. Instead of making decisions based on all available information, you base your decisions on the limited information people want you to hear. And problems are hidden and swept under the rug instead of being solved.

The results of all this dysfunction can be mediocre products, lost opportunities, lower customer satisfaction. Even worse, individual and public safety can be adversely affected, especially in fields such as medicine, manufacturing, transportation—even banking and finance. These considerations underscore the severity of the potential problems that can be unleashed when the wrong kind of attitude permeates a workforce.



Bullying interferes with productivity
The stress generated by working under the threat of disrespectful or disruptive behavior reduces employee engagement. It’s hard to get absorbed in a project when coping with the mental drain caused by intimidation and worry. Stress damages health and leads to increased absenteeism, creating an added burden on the workgroup. Ultimately, targets of bullying may give up and resign, leading to the high costs of turnover and even more stress for those left behind who have to pick up the slack.

In spite of these high costs, the propensity for targets of bullying to leave their jobs can sometimes lead to a misperception upon managers that it’s OK to mistreat underperforming or disliked subordinates in order to get them to quit. Even though this might seem to be a viable alternative, it is not the right approach. There is a legal term for this, “constructive discharge,” and it can get you into trouble. If you have a problem employee, it’s much better to deal with the issues head on, stating your expectations clearly and calmly, using your discipline process if called for. These are much better methods for turning a problem employee into a strong contributor—bullying is never a substitute for good management.



Bullying tends to escalate over time
Whether bullies are managers or coworkers, once they discover they can get away with aggression and disrespect, the behavior often gets even worse. If not challenged, bullies can convince themselves that what they are doing is right and the targets of their behavior somehow “deserve what they’re getting.”

Bullies can grow to enjoy the feelings of power they get over others, and escalate their activities to get even more of that feeling. An atmosphere can develop that makes observers of the behavior feel free to behave badly as well. Colleagues or coworkers may even be recruited to join in. Before you know it, a negative downward spiral is formed that is very difficult to reverse.

As a supervisor of others, it is up to you to monitor your own management methods and also keep an eye on your workgroup. Be aware of your subordinates’ reactions to your communication style. Watch what is going on between your employees. If you sense that there are unacceptable levels of stress, conflict or disruption, it’s important to step in early rather than late.

It’s easier to stop negative attitudes and habits when they are just getting started—much more difficult after they have become entrenched.

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