What to Put into an Anti-Bullying Policy

By: Edward Stern, Contributor

If your organization does not have a good anti-bullying policy and does not implement it fairly, over time, your organization will lose conscientious, talented workers. Of course, there are other adverse consequences to the organization and to the employees apart from the loss of talent. An abusive environment discourages people from asking questions and offering ideas.  (You need those ideas for workplace safety and productivity.)

A good anti-bullying policy does not have to be long and elaborate, but it should cover the elements set forth below. Most of the ideas presented here are drawn from federal, state and municipal government policies, and from university policies. A few ideas come from personal observations.

Items to Cover for a Respectable Bullying Policy

  • Open verbal abuse: This is usually obvious. It is obnoxious, demeaning, degrading and humiliating. It makes the target and witnesses cringe. This includes threats of harm; even vague words, like “I will get you for this.”
  • Hidden verbal abuse: This is unheard/unseen by the target. It includes backstabbing with gossip and innuendo, e.g., “don’t ask me about her” or “I won’t speak about her.” Some policies prohibit gossip and innuendo “that is false,” but gossip that is true about personal/private matters can be very hurtful. If your policy includes “that is false” regarding gossip, delete that phrase.
  • Non-verbal abuse: Cold, hard stares and sneers and eyerolls are non-verbal expressions of hostility and contempt. Experts have found that sneers are understood in all cultures.
  • Physical harassment and intimidation: This is more than a threat. It is in-your-face menacing gestures, or touching or hitting. It includes blocking the victim from leaving an office. Blocking could support a civil or criminal charge of holding someone against their will. (I know of a couple of cases of blocking.)
  • Omissions or deliberate inaction: Refusal to meet with or respond to an employee who can reasonably expect a response is bullying. Pressing circumstances that delay a response for a day or two may be reasonable. A long delay shows disrespect, contempt and evasion of duty. It is not good management; it is bullying.
  • Withholding needed information from or providing false/misleading information to a co-worker: This is sabotage of the target. This includes false criticism of someone’s work. Other acts or omissions could sabotage targets or their work.
  • What is Not Bullying?
    • Management rights: Factual, civil criticism is not bullying. Assignment of work or training for legitimate business reasons is not bullying. These are management rights.
    • Frank, civil disagreement: People do not always agree or even understand one another. Honest disagreement is not bullying, provided that the discussion is civil. Cursing, screaming and insulting someone are out.
  • What is Not a Management Right?
    • False, abusive or humiliating criticism: Even the best people can make mistakes, and they should apologize for them. If it happens more than once a year, it is a problem.
    • Assigning work or training with intention to humiliate a person is bullying: When a supervising professional assigns an experienced professional to a remedial English class, and the target’s credentials greatly outshine her supervisor’s, the assignment is to humiliate her. Humiliating staff is not a management right.
  • When to call the police instead of HR: Companies and universities have gotten into trouble for handling sexual and other assault cases when they should have called the police. Allegations of assault should be handled by police departments; tell HR later. Any improper touching should also go to the police. Employees should contact their supervisors or HR for non-physical violence, including sexual harassment.
  • Require periodic training of managers and supervisors on workplace bullying: Some states call bullying “abusive conduct” or “unprofessional conduct.” The State of California requires all businesses with more than 50 employees to train supervisors on abusive conduct every two years and new supervisors within six months. This is a sensible model.
  • Procedures for reporting complaints: Include clear guidance on how and to whom to report workplace bullying. (The State of Utah has a thoughtful complaint intake form at https://dhrm.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/Abusive-Conduct-Intake.pdf.)
  • Make clear you are serious: For example, say: “Supervisory personnel who allow abusive conduct to continue or fail to take appropriate action upon learning of such conduct will also be subject to corrective and/or disciplinary action.” (Nashville Executive Order 39.) Note: this useful reminder should have included all HR staff.

One Reason People Bully Others

I am a policy analyst, not a psychoanalyst. I cannot explain all bullying behavior. I can share insights from friends in the mental health professions. A small percentage of people are very narcissistic. They think they are “special” and more important than everyone else. They may be manipulative, dishonest and self-serving. Such people may resent co-workers or subordinates who are better educated, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more socially skilled or even better looking. The narcissists feel that the others are taking the spotlight or sunshine away from them. Narcissists bully others (often only one or two at a time) to drive them away. The victims suffer—and so do their employers.


Good anti-bullying policies protect legitimate business conduct, not abusive conduct. Get an anti-bullying policy and implement it. Do not lose good people and their knowledge. Do not lose your organization’s good name.

About the Author

Edward Stern began studying workplace bullying in 2002 when bullying drove away a talented co-worker he needed. A few years later, he began writing on bullying for a union magazine. Since he retired, he writes, speaks and advises on workplace issues for organizations and the public.

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