Dealing with Bullying and Incivility

[Editor's Note: This is the debut of a monthly column designed to be a forum to discuss ethical issues that arise in daily business interactions. Explored are possible solutions to assist in making ethical business practices part of how we operate as professionals.]

As defined by the Emory Center for Ethics, "Ethics forms the basis of almost all personal decision-making, whether we are aware of it or not. The same is true of decision-making in professional life, including business, law, and medicine; in civil and political life; and in questions of social justice." And ethics, if it is to be imbued into the culture of an organization, must be lived and driven by the organization’s leadership.

Consider this scenario provided by a Human Resources IQ community member:

I recently went to my HR Dept to make a complaint about an employee who is a room coordinator (not a supervisor) who yelled at me humiliating me in front of other co-workers. Since I did this, others have come up to me to tell me I did the right thing, and told me there have been other people who were bullied by this person who won’t or are afraid to go to HR. Should I go to HR and tell them this? What actions are considered Bullying and Harassment? What is the appropriate action to be taken? What should HR do to correct this sort of problem?


The business environment is complex and multi-dimensional. This complexity is enhanced because our work environment consists of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures that may not be sensitive to the idiosyncrasies perceived by their actions. Couple this with increasingly matrixed organizations that may have employees reporting, directly or indirectly, to several individuals. You can imagine a situation where supervisors and/or manager have differing priorities and demands placed on subordinates. Workplace tension can increase which can lead to workplace bullying and/or workplace incivility.

Additionally, we are doing more with less and the perceived need to protect one’s territory as organizations become flat can lead to behaviors that do not exemplify a team effort. This has created a multitude of concerns for supervisors and managers, none of which is more difficult to address than bullying and/or incivility in the workplace.

In "The Nature and Causes of Bullying at Work" (Einarsen, S.: 1999, International Journal of Manpower 10, 16–27), bullying is defined as intimidation of a weaker person: the process of intimidating or mistreating somebody weaker or in a more vulnerable situation. More specifically, bullying is repeated acts and practices that are directed at one or more workers, which are unwanted by the victim(s) which, may be done deliberately or unconsciously, but clearly cause humiliation, offense, and distress, and may interfere with job performance and/or cause unpleasant working environment.

In an effort to not make waves, employees may downplay or ignore bullying or the uncivil conduct of their coworkers, supervisors or managers, and may have found a way to deal with the stress it brings, at least in the short run. However supervisors and managers who disregard or minimize the seriousness of workplace bullying and incivility do so at their peril and place their organization at risk. Long term, organizations that fail to be proactive in managing bullying and incivility will likely face more serious and damaging consequences that erode the workplace’s culture.

Bullying is a form of harassment and has the potential to affect workplace morale and an employee’s sense of well being. It can lead to performance problems, attendance issues and affect an employee’s health. Interestingly, supervisors and managers may not know that employees are experiencing any concerns regarding bullying/incivility by another coworker, supervisor or manager until after damage to employees’ sense of well-being has already occurred. Consequently, experts advise supervisors and managers to act proactively and not wait for a formal grievance before addressing workplace bullying or workplace incivility ... and those preventable consequences, such as lower employee job satisfaction and performance.

How to prevent workplace bullying and incivility?

Most organizations have an anti-harassment policy. This policy should be in writing and posted. Most anti-harassment policies require that the affected employee first tell the offender that their behavior is offensive. Having been duly warned, the next incident should be reported following the company’s complaint procedure. The policy as well as the process for reporting abuse needs to be clearly communicated to all employees, supervisors and managers.

Training programs on preventing harassment in the workplace are highly advised for all levels of the staff. Additionally, the grievance process must be free from fear of reprisal and should include an investigation into the allegation. Management must clearly evidence that this behavior is not part of the workplace culture, will not be tolerated, complaints are taken seriously and corrective action will be levied against the offender if the allegation is found to be true. False claim should have an equally severe consequence.

These steps may help dissuade coworkers, supervisors and managers from bullying or committing acts of incivility toward others in the workplace or, at minimum, give employees a mechanism for redress when they are victims of abuse.

Post your thoughts in the comments section below. Send ethical scenarios for future columns to