June 28th, 2012

Preventing Bullying in the Academic Workplace


Does your institution have a policy that addresses bullying? If it does not, there are some pretty compelling reasons to consider creating such a policy. In an interview with Academic Leader, Suzanne Milton, chair of the faculty bargaining unit at Eastern Washington University, talked about bullying and its consequences, and ways to address it to create a workplace more conducive to getting work done without a lot of problems.

Eastern Washington University’s bullying policy is relatively new. In 2009 the institution formed a taskforce that included administrators, classified staff, faculty, staff from the equal employment office, and the human resources director.

The taskforce looked at many definitions of bullying and eventually decided on the following:
“Bullying is behavior that is:

  • Intentional;
  • targeted at an individual or group;
  • repeated;
  • hostile or offensive; and,
  • creates an intimidating and/or threatening environment which produces a risk of psychological and/or physical harm.

“Bullying behavior may take many forms, including, but not limited to, physical, verbal, or written acts or behaviors. It may also manifest as excluding behavior such as ignoring or dismissing individuals or groups.

“Hostile behaviors include, but are not limited to, behaviors that are harmful or damaging to an individual and/or property. Behaviors that are intimidating, threatening, disruptive, humiliating, sarcastic, or vicious may also constitute hostile behavior.

“Offensive behaviors may include, but are not limited to, inappropriate behaviors such as abusive language, derogatory remarks, insults, or epithets. Other offensive behaviors may include the use of condescending, humiliating, or vulgar language, swearing, shouting or use of unsuitable language, use of obscene gestures, or mocking.”

When there are no policies in place that address these behaviors, those who feel that they are victims of bullying are uncomfortable addressing it. In addition, those on the tenure track may be more hesitant to speak up when there’s a problem.

“When you look at all the peer-reviewed literature in this country and others, what they’re finding is that when management is perceived as not addressing these kinds of issues, there’s an ethical ambivalence that sets in, and the ethical ambivalence isn’t just coming from the person who feels he or she has been targeted. They think the management is ambivalent and isn’t behaving ethically,” Milton says.

Allowing bullying behavior to occur can have some serious consequences, including lower productivity, increased turnover, lower morale, and increased use of sick time. “If you look at the literature on the cost of not addressing bullying in the workplace, you actually end up spending much more money when you don’t address it because you’re looking at a loss of talent. Every time you have turnover, you’re recruiting and spending a lot of money on the whole recruitment process. If you have someone who ends up having medical issues as a result of bullying going unaddressed you’re going to have absenteeism, and disability costs,” Milton says.

Milton provides training to faculty, staff, and administrators on preventing bullying. She sees this as a necessary step to educate people about what is acceptable behavior in the workplace. She recommends a training approach that is not just a top-down requirement but also a shared responsibility “because in order to change you have to create an environment that doesn’t tolerate bullying. Behavior will not change in an environment that supports it, ever. It’s only when the environment says we’re not going to tolerate it that an individual who is a bully will realize that either they have to change their behavior or they have to leave, rather than always having the target feel that they have to leave because there is no redress for being bullied. That’s one of the key things that if you look at all the lit in the field of psych you’ll find that behavior modification doesn’t occur unless the environment changes,” Milton says.

Having a bullying policy in place will reduce ethical ambiguity and give supervisors guidance on how to address these behaviors. Eastern Washington University has a clearly defined investigative process so that there is transparency and everybody knows what is going to happen and when. When a bullying complaint is filed, the investigative process requires that the accused be informed that an investigation will take place. Then the fact-finding process begins. This can include interviewing witnesses, scrutinizing emails, and looking at other sources of relevant information.

An important part of the investigative process is establishing clear protocols for reporting instances of bullying. In cases where a person feels targeted by his or her supervisor, there needs to be an alternate person to report this behavior to. To address this issue, the university has created a flow chart to guide bullying victims to the right person to file a complaint. “We spelled out all these things for people so that nobody was blindsided or said that they didn’t know what the process is. It’s a two-way street. It provides protections for the person being accused, and it provides protections for the person who feels that they’re a target,” Milton says.

In the event that bullying behavior has been substantiated, there are some progressive disciplinary measures that can occur. It could be that the perpetrator is required to go to counseling or attend training on how to communicate more effectively. “Some people aren’t even aware that they’re coming across as bullies. … There are a lot of different scenarios, and each one is going to be handled differently as far as the disciplinary part,” Milton says.

Having policies and procedures in place reduces ambiguity and gives leaders a way to address bullying. “When there aren’t any policies in place, I think it makes it very difficult for somebody in a management position to really be able to deal with [bullying] effectively. Administrators have said to me, ‘I was aware that there was bullying, but I didn’t know how to go about dealing with it, so I just kind of let it go.’ It was eye opening for me to hear that over and over. They were aware there was a problem, but they didn’t know how to deal with it. Having a policy and procedure in place is really important for administrators to grapple with it,” Milton says.

EWU’s bullying policy is available at cfweb.ewu.edu/policy/PolicyFiles/EWU_901_04.pdf.

Excerpted from Preventing Bullying in the Academic Workplace, Academic Leader, 27.5 (2011): 2,3.