Ståle Einarsen, University of Bergen psychology professor and a leading authority on workplace bullying, once gave a conference keynote address in which he said, in effect, that rather than using our knowledge of employment relations to help us understand workplace bullying, perhaps we should use our knowledge of workplace bullying to help us understand employment relations.
I had his remarks in mind when I realized that if you want an ultimate test of an American employer’s integrity, examine how it responds to risks and claims of workplace bullying. Here’s why:
1. Limited liability exposure — Until the Healthy Workplace Bill or something like it becomes law, most American workers will not have a direct legal claim against their employers for workplace bullying, no matter how abusive the conduct and its effects. Accordingly, employers that choose to tackle workplace bullying pro-actively are doing so out of a commitment to their workers and to the resulting benefits in terms of productivity and morale.
2. Adopting and enforcing a strong policy — Currently employers are under no legal obligation to develop a policy concerning workplace bullying. An employer that adopts and enforces a policy is making a statement about its institutional culture, while potentially exposing itself to liability in the event of a violation. This is a big step to take.
3. Power differentials — Workplace bullying in the U.S. tends to be a top-down phenomenon, with supervisor-to-subordinate mistreatment being the most common combination. This is why workplace bullying is such a threatening topic to organizations and to individuals in charge: It often implicates the very power structure of a workplace. Thus, preventing and stopping workplace bullying requires a sincere, full-blown organizational commitment.
4. Investigation challenges — Although workplace bullying is frequent and destructive, conducting a fair and thorough investigation can be a difficult and challenging task. This is especially the case when the allegations involve behaviors of a more indirect nature.
In other words, workplace bullying challenges employers to do right by everyone, even if the liability risks are comparatively low, senior managers are among those whose actions will be reviewed, and investigating claims of bullying are difficult and time consuming. Employers that embrace these priorities and practices are special indeed.