Workplace Bullies

Workplace Bullies


  • Dealing with on-the-job harassment
  • Preventing workplace violence and protecting our members

Here are some situations that unfortunately often occur in workplaces:

  • Sally has been employed at the Board of Education for 15 years. Her supervisor Jean, a former worker, feels threatened because Sally knows more about the schools than she does. At least once a week Jean comes over to Sally's work area and begins to criticize her work. She talks in a very loud voice and tries to provoke Sally. She stays in the area criticizing Sally, walking around looking at her work for upwards of 45 minutes at a time. Sally is thinking of quitting.
  • Ramon gets a sick feeling in his stomach every day before work. He knows that his stress is caused by a fellow worker, Jeff, who harasses him daily. Most workers are afraid of Jeff because he is big and loud. He constantly talks about "going postal" and constantly picks on other workers. He steals their lunches, throws things at them and shouts vulgarities. He is friends with the supervisor and never gets disciplined for his actions, even when workers complain.
  • Rachel works in a large hospital in the admitting room. In the last month on three occasions she was assaulted and verbally threatened by people in the waiting room. Her supervisor told her it is all part of the job and to quit complaining.

Previous UE Stewards have dealt with the issues of racial and sexual harassment, particularly the sticky problem of how to handle these situations when the perpetrator is a Union member. This issue deals with the problem of workplace bullies, those people who harass and bother other workers. Like the problems of racial and sexual harassment the perpetrators are usually management, but can also be Union members. It also deals with the issue of workplace violence and what is the Union's role in preventing violence and protecting our members.

What Constitutes Workplace Bullying?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) workplace bullying is one form of workplace violence, which they describe as follows:

WORKPLACE VIOLENCE is any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting. It includes but is not limited to beatings, stabbing, suicides, shootings, rapes, near suicides, psychological traumas such as threats, obscene phone calls, an intimidating presence, and harassment of any nature such as being followed, sworn at or shouted at.

In the year 2000 the "Campaign Against Workplace Bullying" did a survey of workplaces and asked workers who had been the victims of bullying why their harassers picked on them. Here are the top five reasons:

  1. Target refused to be subservient, resisted control.
  2. Bully envied Target's competence in his/her work.
  3. Bully envied Target's social skills, popularity, positive attitude.
  4. The victim was a whistleblower and was retaliated against.
  5. The cruel personality of the bully.

Not surprisingly most of the bullying was done by people who are in higher positions at work than the people they picked on. The same survey showed that:

  • 81% of the time the bully ranked 1 or more levels above the victim.
  • 14% were a peer or co-worker.
  • Only in 5% of the cases was the bully of "lower rank" than the victim.

The big problem with these surveys is that they don't refer to the fact that most of the bullies are bosses, they are referred to as being "higher in rank," but we know what they mean.

One very clear fact came through, most Personnel Managers don't do anything to protect the victims of harassment. In 42% of the cases the immediate boss of the harasser helped harass the victim or tried to punish the victim rather then the harasser! Human Resource Managers refused to help the victims in 51% of the cases despite repeated pleas for help.

Signs of a Workplace Bully

  • Screaming/yelling, public attempts to humiliate, seeking to do battle when and where she/he chooses, needs to compete and "win" to feel good.
  • Controls all resources (time, budget, support, training) so as to prevent you from being successful at your job, undermining, setting you up to fail.
  • Constant, personal verbal assaults on your character, name calling, belittling, zealous attention to unimportant details, committed to systematic destruction of your confidence in your abilities.
  • Manipulates the impression others have of you, splits the work group into taking sides, defames you with higher-ups and at next job, killing your reputation.

Who is Responsible?

In the first place the employer is responsible to provide a safe work environment. It is the job of the Union and the Stewards in particular to make the employer live up to their responsibility.

It is the responsibility of the Union to defend the members from any form of workplace bullying or violence. If the union learns of any harassment or threat of violence the Union is obligated to protect that member. To fail to do so would not only be morally wrong but would be a violation of the Union's duty of fair representation.

Making the Employer Live Up to Their Responsibility

Grievances: If the bully is a member of management a grievance should be filed. Remember that NIOSH defines workplace violence to include verbal harassment. A grievance can be filed using the "health and safety clause" or the "recognition clause" (the Union represents members over all working conditions.) Sometimes the "no discrimination clause" can be used if the harassment is tied to one of the prohibited forms of discrimination.

Publicity: If the employer refuses to take the issue seriously the Union may want to generate some publicity on the issue. An informational picket line (where it is legal) or leaflet distribution may prod the employer to take action.

File a complaint with OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration). Here is what OSHA says about the employer's responsibility:

Employers have both a legal duty and a moral obligation to provide a safe workplace. To prevent loss of life and injuries and to limit financial losses and potential liability, employers should institute policies and procedures to prevent violence from occurring in their workplaces. These policies may include means to identify the potential for violence, procedures to prevent the occurrence of violence and, in the event prevention fails and an incident of violence occurs, plans to respond and mitigate further damage.

Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that "is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." This duty includes inspecting the workplace to discover and correct a dangerous condition or hazard in the workplace and to give adequate warning of its existence.

The OSHA General Duty Clause has been interpreted to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace. An employer that has experienced acts of workplace violence, or becomes aware of threats, or intimidation or other potential indicators showing that the potential for violence in the workplace exists or has the potential to exist, would be on notice of the risk of workplace violence and may be required to implement a workplace violence prevention program.

Please note that the Union MUST notify the employer of the problem and the employer has refused to act, before going to OSHA.

If the bully is a Union member?

Even if the problem is being caused by a Union member harassing another Union member, the Union must still act. First it is best for the Steward and Officer to investigate the situation, make sure all the facts are in. If the investigation shows that there is indeed harassment taking place, they must confront the bully and warn him/her that their continued actions could lead to trouble. In these situations it is best to have a witness.

If this fails then more workers, in a group, should notify the bully that their behavior is unwanted. NEVER threaten the bully with violence, that is playing their game. If the behavior continues then management will have to be brought into the picture. This is not always as simple as it seems. Remember the statistics. In 42% of the cases the boss knew about the bullying and helped the bully. If management does nothing to stop the harassment, then a grievance can be filed against management.

Protecting Members from Assaults

UE Stewards and Officers should not wait for physical assaults to happen before taking action. In those industries where UE members have to deal with the public, an assessment should be made on the likelihood of danger. The union should approach the employer with a plan for safeguarding employees. This may be more lighting in parking lots, more security guards, not working alone but in pairs, etc. DO NOT wait for contract negotiations to present these proposals. The employer has to live up to their obligations all the time, not just at negotiation time.

Contract Language

All contracts should contain language that obligates the employer to provide the workers with a safe and healthy workplace. Additions to current clauses could include language that states that the employer will also provide a workplace "free from harassment, violence or the threat of violence."

Where clauses exist that make health and safety a "joint effort" it should be clear that it is the employer that has the main obligation to provide a workplace free from harassment, and violence.

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