As the U.S. lags other countries in addressing the issue, experts offer advice for HR leaders.

Despite calls for understanding and compassion over COVID-19’s massive disruption and an ensuing trend toward empathetic leadership, there’s just no escaping meanness: As many as 75% of employees report that they have been a target of or have witnessed bullying at work, which has affected an estimated 79.3 million U.S. workers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

And, current events are exacerbating the issue. One-quarter of 1,215 working Americans polled online in late January 2021 by Zogby Analytics on behalf of WBI said the pandemic increased harmful bullying. “Workplace bullying remains a wildly out of control epidemic in the United States,” according to WBI co-founder Gary Namie, Ph.D.

Workplace bullying—which can include verbal abuse, offensive conduct, intimidation or assault—can cause employees both physical injuries and mental anguish, as well as high absenteeism and employee turnover, low productivity and morale, and damage to a company’s reputation. Some instances could prompt lawsuits and workers’ compensation claims filed under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, depending on the case. Just three states—California, Tennessee and Utah—have a limited training requirement to address this problem, which other countries have taken more seriously, reports Jeffrey Adelson, general counsel and co-managing partner for Adelson McLean, APC.

He recommends HR leaders looking to enhance their anti-bullying strategies closely review laws and regulations adopted by foreign governments on the issue.

In Puerto Rico, for example, employees who have concerns about workplace bullying must follow internal complaint protocols as part of a law that passed in 2020, and if the offensive behavior persists, then the case is referred to a bureau that resolves disputes. Ireland also adopted a measure last year that reinforces an employer’s obligation to address this issue.

One of the world’s trailblazers on this issue is Sweden, which in 1993 became the first European Union country to pass legislation that outlaws workplace bullying, also referred to as “mobbing.” It requires employers to investigate, mediate and counter any instances of such conduct, as well as educate managers and safety representatives and establish preventive measures.

Mindful of steps other nations have taken, WBI is backing a national grassroots movement to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, a version of which has been introduced in 31 state legislatures. Comparing the legislation to Puerto Rico’s effort, WBI describes it as “the boldest proposed change to U.S. employment law in 50 years.”

An ‘office cancer’

While lawmakers ponder necessary protections, HR remains on the frontlines of this age-old battle. Bad behavior can set a tense tone that kills morale, notes Jan Jensen, director of HR at the Raymond Group. Describing workplace bullies as “the office cancer,” she witnessed earlier on in her career, during stints in professional services and the movie industry, the wide-ranging impacts of bullying at work. “I’ve seen employees be hospitalized or taken off work for long periods of time because of their stress,” she recalls.

Bullying has extended to cyberspace during the pandemic, where toxic behavior can infect email and video conferencing platforms, which complicates matters. For instance, with few protocols for at-home behavior, Adelson says, it’s impossible to escape an abusive Zoom meeting that a child or spouse may overhear.

“If you’re experiencing difficult behavior patterns in the workplace and feel you’re being bullied, you’d be able to take a break, go to the restroom or have lunch with a colleague,” Adelson explains.

Preventive steps

Workplace bullying should be a serious concern for HR departments—but many don’t even hear about it.

“People don’t want to be perceived as a troublemaker, so they may choose to keep their mouths shut,” explains Jackie Gilbert, Ph.D., a professor at Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University and a fellow of the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Abuse, as well as the author of How to Transform Workplace Bullies into Allies.

Developing a people-centric culture with zero tolerance for bullying is an ongoing process that involves managers continually having their finger on the organizational pulse, she says. Her suggestions for laying that groundwork include making the workforce part of a democratic process, including through employee surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings and regular meetings with HR executives or managers. But, she says, it’s important to actually do something with that feedback.

It’s also critical that employees have an opportunity to rate their managers, ensure the information is taken seriously and that corrective action will be pursued if necessary, Gilbert says. Another solution is to make available executive coaches to role-play different scenarios. The goal is to foster an inclusive and courteous culture that values, respects and appreciates perspectives from all ranks within a company, she notes.

Adelson suggests that HR executives implement an open-door policy for reporting bullying and that they train managers to spot red flags such as absenteeism, productivity and turnover that could be tied to abusive behavior. He says managers must also understand they cannot interfere with any HR investigations and that every complaint must be followed up on, not ignored.

“It just gets down to really good HR, listening to what  employees are saying and recognizing the fact that, when there’s bullying, you have to do something about it,” he says.

Bruce Shutan is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.