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  • Bobbi K Dominick

What To Do With a Bullying Complaint? Investigate First


Organizations want to prevent bullying in the workplace, for many reasons. We want employees to be treated with respect to increase retention and engagement. We want employees to be treated with respect because holding the line there helps to prevent more serious unlawful harassment. Or we want employees to be treated with respect because it is the right thing to do.


So, as explained in the first three posts in this series, your organization has established the policy, and trained the team on what is expected. So then, the first bullying complaint comes in. What do you do? Like any other policy violation, you must first investigate the situation.


Like the word harassment, bullying is a word used by employees to describe a myriad of different situations, some of which may not be a violation of policy. For example, I have interviewed witnesses who used the word "bullying" to describe how they were treated when their supervisor took action to correct their performance. As noted in a previous post, supervisor action to improve performance does not meet the definition of bullying, unless it also includes disrespectful treatment like that noted in the graphic above, things like shaming, shunning, ridiculing, name-calling, humiliating, etc.


Depending upon the workplace, thirteen to fifty percent of workers report being bullied at one time. It would not be unusual to receive a complaint of bullying. Highlighting the potential for bullying to morph into unlawful harassment is that a majority of bullying victims are female, raising a spectre of gender discrimination. Other statistics also speak to protected class, in that 52% of Hispanic workers indicate they have experienced bullying and 46% of those who identify as Black have experienced bullying.


The first step in any investigation is to to review the organizational policy. A complaint of bullying should be measured against the standards and values established by the organization.


A bullying investigation proceeds as any other fact based investigation. First, gather the facts. The difference in this case is that many of the behaviors identified as bullying may be subtle, or open to interpretation, or subject to degrees of abusiveness. For example, one employee may feel they were subjected to angry shouting, while others may identify the behavior merely as an animated discussion. The facts must be explored fully from the different perspectives in order to draw any conclusions.


Another thing that is interesting about investigating bullying behavior is that it is usually repeated, or following a pattern. Often, if one person in the workplace is subjected to bullying behavior, there are likely more victims. Bullying investigations also involve looking for patterns in how the victims are treated to identify the abusive behaviors. So questions like this will be important:


  • How long has the behavior been going on?

  • How often did it occur?

  • What words are spoken that might indicate intent?

  • Do others experience the same treatment?

  • Do co-workers perceive the behavior as bullying?

  • Are there legitimate business reasons for the behavior?


Once the facts are completely explored, often with multiple witnesses, conclusions can be drawn about whether the behavior is abusive, and a violation of the organization's policy.

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