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Risk in Context

Bullying, Verbal Abuse Considered ‘Workplace Violence,’ How to Prevent It

Posted by Joyce Long April 15, 2016

Each year, nearly two million American workers are victims of workplace violence, which can threaten the health and wellbeing of employees — and  employers’ operations and bottom lines. These incidents can take many shapes and forms, yet some employers continue to narrowly view what actually constitutes “workplace violence.” While some focus solely on physical attacks, the reality is that verbal abuse, psychological attack and bullying, are far more common than physical acts of violence and are also considered workplace violence by many experts.

On a recent The New Reality of Risk® webcast, we asked participants whether their organizations’ workplace violence prevention programs addressed all physical and verbal forms of violence, including bullying. Almost 250 risk professionals responded:

  • 52% said yes.
  • 11% said no.
  • 26% said not sure.
  • 11% said their organization does not have a workplace violence prevention program.

It’s encouraging that most respondents’ organizations include bullying and verbal abuse in their definitions of workplace violence. But there’s definitely room for improvement.

The Risks of Workplace Bullying

In a 2014 survey of American workers by corporate training and leadership company VitalSmarts, 96% of respondents said they had experienced workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as abusive conduct in the workplace, including, threats, humiliation, intimidation, work interference and sabotage, and verbal abuse. Over time, workplace bullying can have a profound impact on victims, including:

  • Physical effects, such as stress and stress-related health disorders.
  • Psychological and emotional injuries; in extreme cases, these effects can lead to suicide attempts.

For businesses, persistent bullying can affect morale and productivity of victims and non-victims alike. And bullying or other concerning behavior can escalate into physical violence, especially if a workplace culture permits or encourages abusive behavior.

Preventing Bullying and Abuse

Shutting down workplace bullying begins with an effective workplace conduct policy. Such a policy should apply to all employees and include:

  • A list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Prohibited behaviors should include shouting, screaming, vulgar language, hate/shaming speech, discussions about weapons, pushing and shoving, lying about coworkers, and practical jokes.
  • Specific guidance about social media postings, which has emerged as a new frontier for workplace bullies.
  • A reporting process that protects individuals reporting bullying and abuse and allows for investigation if necessary.
  • Consequences for unacceptable behavior via employee disciplinary procedures.

It’s essential that these policy standards are maintained and regularly reinforced by your leaders in meetings and through company communications. That’s especially true following any incidents that occur in your workplace. By building this policy and regularly maintaining it, your organization can live up to its responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

For more on this topic, listen to a replay of our The New Reality of Risk webcast or read Anatomy of Workplace Violence: Identification, Prevention, and Response.

Related to:  Marsh Risk Consulting

Joyce Long

Joyce Long is the leader of the Global Workforce Strategies Practice of Marsh Risk Consulting. In this role, Joyce oversees new product development, operations and service delivery, product strategy, and development of marketing and communications for a variety of work-related issues including ergonomics, loss control, fleet safety, behavioral safety, and occupational health.