What Do You Do When The Schoolyard Bully Is Now Your Employee?

Contributed by Allison Chaplick

Just because you employ adults, does not mean that your employees will always act like adults.  And, no, I am not talking about your employees who walk around in skinny jeans, wool hats (even though it is the dead of summer), tattoos and colorful hair.  I’m talking about the bullies. 

Bullies can bring a serious threat to the workplace.  First, no one likes a bully.  Second, employees who are victims of bullying are not shy to file a lawsuit against their employer because of the bullying.  In fact, recently a woman won more than $1 million dollars in a settlement against her former employer because of bullying. Potential common law causes of action for allowing bullying to take place at work could include intentional (or negligent) infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring or negligent retention.  Unlike claims filed under Title VII for discrimination and harassment, there is no cap on what an employee can recover from the employer. 

Just like schools, employers should have a zero tolerance policy that prohibits bullying.  Chances are, you already do, you just call it something else.  First, take a look at your employee handbook, specifically the Anti-Discrimination/Harassment policy where you prohibit “name-calling, letters, gestures, ethnic slurs, racial epithets, and other conduct” that is aimed at a particular employee.  Now, look at your Codes of Conduct policy.  Do you prohibit “fighting or using obscene, abusive, or threatening language or gestures”?  How about advising your employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace.”  Combined, these policies should be your anti-bullying provisions, and you should enforce them just like any other policy: consistently. 

So, what do you do when a victim complains to you about bullying?  Just as if you would investigate any complaint of unlawful discrimination or harassment, you should take all complaints and incidents of bullying seriously, separate the parties if necessary, and start investigating and documenting.  If necessary, take prompt remedial action against the bully by issuing a written warning, suspension or terminating that bully!