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What are your rights as an employee if you’re bullied at work?

Not unexpectedly, the economic downturn has had an impact on the power dynamic between employees and employers. When jobs are scarce, many people feel they have no choice but to put up with the unwanted aspects of their situations — sometimes, even when that means putting up with employee rights violations such as sexual or racial harassment. But what about bullying?

A recent study by CareerBuilder found that 35 percent of the 3,800 workers surveyed feel they have been bullied at work — an increase from 27 percent last year. Some of these incidents represent illegal workplace harassment or retaliation, but in many cases it is not obvious at a glance whether they signify unlawful retaliation or behavior that is merely petty.

In any case, being bullied at work can have a serious impact on your career and life. In the survey, 17 percent of workers who reported having been bullied felt forced to quit their jobs in order to end it. 16 percent reported suffering health problems as a result of the bullying.

Forty-eight percent of the reported bullies were direct supervisors, and 26 percent were people higher in the hierarchy. 45 percent of the workplace bullies were co-workers and 31 percent were customers.

The most common types of bullying reported were:

  • Constant criticism or false accusations of mistakes
  • Applying harsher policies or standards to less-favored workers
  • Making belittling comments or even yelling at less-favored employees in front of others
  • Making belittling comments about workers’ personal attributes
  • Purposely ignoring less-favored employees or excluding them from meetings or projects
  • Stealing credit for others’ work

In individual cases, these may correspond to unlawful workplace behavior, or they may not. In either case, it is essential for employers to take action. Even if the bullying is not discriminatory or retaliatory, it still creates a toxic work environment that will tank company morale and drag down productivity.

If you are being bullied at work, take a moment to consider the situation and make a plan for how to respond. For example, you may intend to handle the situation on your own by confronting the bully. That may work (50 percent of those studied who confronted their bullies said it did), but you may need help — and if you do need help, you will need evidence. So, start keeping a record of what happened with times, dates, places and who was there.

If you’re planning to confront the bully, if you’re considering contacting your HR department, or if you’re hoping it will all go away, you should be prepared if you need to take additional action later.

Not all workplace bullying is illegal, but that does not mean you have to put up with it. Focus on the resolution, be reasonable, and work within your employer’s policies to solve the problem. If you’ve done all you can within the company to solve the problem and you’re still being bullied, it may be time to talk to a lawyer.

Source: Aol Jobs, “Survey: Bullies Are Overtaking The Workplace,” Debra Auerbach, Aug. 30, 2012

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