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Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations

Acting on claims of workplace bullying promptly is part of maintaining a healthy and happy workplace.

Posted by Joe Gerard on July 19th, 2010

For many organizations, situations involving workplace bullying are a growing concern. Whether they involve peers or superiors, all complaints of physical or mental bullying should be investigated promptly. Like many forms of workplace harassment or discrimination, employers are responsible for protecting employees from workplace bullying.

In May, the Wall Street Journal published an article that discussed the signing of a bipartisan measure in the state of New York that would allow employees who have been abused in any form within the workplace, to place charges against their employer in a civil court. Following in the footsteps of the UK Bribery Act and US FCPA, the anti-bullying legislation proposed in New York states that employers may not be held liable in a workplace bullying case if they can provide sufficient evidence that a program is in place to prevent such incidents from occurring.

A number of other states in the US have developed legislation to help fight workplace bullying, however, according to the article “For Businesses, Bully Lawsuits May Pose New Threat ,” none have become law. If a bill such as this were to become law, there would be significant implications for employers. The number of complaints related to bullying situations would likely increase, resulting in an increase of the number of investigations conducted.

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Workplace bullying situations vary both in nature and the effect of the actions on each individual. By definition from the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” workplace bullying is:

“Repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
  • Verbal abuse.
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.
Bullying situations, if ignored, can lead to illegal workplace acts.
All incoming complaints should be treated with equal importance, subject to a pre-screening process before the decision is made to launch a full-out investigation. Upon receiving a complaint regarding workplace bullying, investigators must respond promptly. As previously discussed in this post, workplace bullying isn’t illegal. However, bullying situations, if ignored, can lead to illegal workplace acts, such as discrimination or harassment. In order to respond to and conduct an investigation in a timely manner, investigative units should consider implementing a case management software solution.

i-Sight Case Management Software assists investigators in managing cases through the use of workflow rules and automatic alerts. When a new case is entered into the system, an investigative manager can either assign the case to a member of the investigation team, or the case can be automatically routed to an investigator based on case information. To remain on task throughout the investigation, alerts are sent to bring attention back to overdue assignments to complete the investigation on time. The time it takes to complete an investigation is important. Should the case end up in court, employers can be held responsible for negligence if an investigation is completed improperly or takes too long.

Determining Credibility

Determining the credibility of the complaint is a key success factor in any internal investigation involving bullying. As mentioned above, incoming complaints should be put through a “pre-investigation” process before allocating the resources required for a complete investigation. Certain incidents can be resolved without an investigation, therefore, save some money and investigate when appropriate. Assessing the credibility of an initial bullying complaint is important, as mentioned in the Bloomberg Businessweek article “Employers Can’t Ignore Workplace Bullies,” everyone has a different interpretation of what bullying is:

“What is bullying to me might not be bullying to you. A manager may have to tell you something that hurts your feelings to help you do your job. If your boss screams at you for being late, for instance, you might think that’s horrible… Most commonly, bullying consists of repeated verbal harassment. If it becomes physical there are existing legal tools to deal with it, such as assault and battery. Bullying behavior typically comes from somebody in a position of authority at a company. A bully can be a co-worker, but it’s more commonly associated with a boss and particularly with an immediate boss, as opposed to someone running the company.”

Other areas where credibility must be determined include investigation interview statements. Once it has been decided that a complaint warrants an investigation, it will be important to determine the credibility of statements made by the complainant, subject (the accused) and any witnesses. During investigation interviews, investigators must take note of physical and vocal indicators, as well as any relationships between employees, in order to determine if any bias exists that could be influencing their statements. We cover this topic in greater detail in our post “Investigation Interview Questions to Determine Credibility.”

Joe Gerard
Joe Gerard

CEO, i-Sight

Spend my days showing off the i-Sight investigative case management software and finding ways to help clients improve their investigations. Usually working with corporate security, HR & employee relations, compliance and legal teams.

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