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Another View -- Karlyn Borysenko: Workplace bullying is a serious problem, governor

July 29. 2014 9:58PM

GOV. MAGGIE Hassan’s vetoing of the Healthy Workplace Bill is a disappointing turn of events. We could have had a landmark example of a government leader declaring that bullying in the workplace is simply unacceptable.

A 2014 national survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 27 percent of Americans have been a target of workplace bullying. Other studies put it as high as 96 percent. While the truth is likely someplace in the middle, the consequences are clear: workplace bullying is a far-reaching problem that affects millions.

The consequences for those targeted by workplace bullying span the range from professional (lower job satisfaction, loss of their job) to emotional (anxiety, depression, increased suicide risk) to physical (stress headaches and migraines, sleep disruption, increased smoking and drinking). The organizations in which bullying occurs also experience negative ramifications, including decreased performance and productivity, loss of creative potential, lower morale and organization commitment, increased health care costs, and an increase in turnover.

Given all of this, one would think that the leaders of organizations would act in their own best interest to prevent and stop bullying that occurs. However, the data simply do not back that up. Only 16 percent of organizations will take action to stop bullying when it is reported. Most will deny it’s happening or contend that it’s not a “serious” problem. Some will even defend it and rationalize it as a cost of doing business or necessary to maintain a competitive organization. In more than 80 percent of all cases, the organization will either take the side of the bully overtly, or do nothing to help the target; the bullying only stops when the target either quits his or her job, or gets fired. To make matters worse, the law supports this behavior. Without legislation like the Healthy Workplace Bill, 80 percent of workplace bullying that occurs is completely legal.

Gov. Hassan contends that that the “bill attempts to legislate politeness, manners and the interpersonal relationships of co-workers” and that the overly broad language would make the most routine interactions cause for lawsuits. Simply put, this is not true. There is more than 30 years of scholarly research on the topic of workplace bullying that clearly defines what it is and is not, and the language of the bill clearly aligns with that research.

Additionally, there are freely available tools, such as the Negative Acts Questionnaire, that allow one to assess if the person filing the complaint is really a target of bullying, or if it was just an interpersonal squabble. Workplace bullying is not someone having a bad day; it is consistent, ongoing, toxic behavior.Let’s apply Gov. Hassan’s logic to a schoolyard bully who repeatedly picks on other children day after day on the playground, calling them names and laughing at them with their friends. Or the group of “mean girls” in high school that spreads gossip and lies about the unpopular girl, causing her to be the target of ongoing torment by her classmates.

By Gov. Hassan’s stated reasoning, these incidents are purely subjective, are one person’s word against another, and would be too much of a bother for the government to intervene to help the students that are being targeted. This type of response is unacceptable when it comes to schoolchildren, and should be just as unacceptable when it comes to adults who are the target of similar types of harassment in the workplace. The consequences are too severe to continue to ignore the problem.

The system that’s in place for dealing with this problem is broken, and at least one in four people is baring the consequences of it in his or her professional and personal lives. This legislation would force state agencies to create a better path for resolution of these issues, thus protecting the vulnerable in a way that the current process for reporting harassment simply does not. The governor’s veto of it is nothing more than the highest executive in the state taking the side of the bullies and those who protect them. But, given the research, it’s not that surprising of an outcome. It’s right in line with the more than 80 percent of leaders and HR offices who do nothing to stop, and may actually encourage, workplace bullying in their own organizations.

Karlyn Borysenko of Merrimack is owner of the consulting business Zen Workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @KarlynMB.

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