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Bullying at work affects health, can have legal repercussions

Bullying at work affects health, can have legal repercussions

America’s workplace culture is a competitive, and sometimes combative one, as Debra Schroeder of St. Cloud’s Connect Initiative can attest.

Bully-like behaviors may be tolerated — even encouraged — in a culture where the ends sometimes justify the means in the drive to reach the top, say experts such as Schroeder, who coaches workplaces on conflict resolution.

And that’s a problem, one that especially stands out if the bullying comes to light in the public sector.

For public employers, added public scrutiny can heighten the tensions of already-difficult workplace conflict. The consequences of ineffective conflict resolution also can cost taxpayers money.

A recent conflict among city employees in Foley resulted in the hiring of an outside consultant to resolve the situation at a cost of $10,000. In the end, one employee parted ways with the city with a severance package and the consultant identified “significant conflict” in the city’s public works department, one that had spilled into other city operations.

The city is not alone — more than one-third of American adults reported that they have experienced bullying at work, and another 15 percent said they have witnessed someone being bullied, according to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Bullying can have legal and health repercussions for employees and employers. And when a public entity such as a city is involved, it can all be very, well, public.

Open meeting laws as well as the hiring and firing authority at the city council level can mean conflicts get hashed out at public meetings. All of this can add to the tension level.

‘A bully is a bully’

Through Connect Initiative, Schroeder helps facilitate sessions on positive, healthy working relationships in all types of workplaces, from churches and colleges to health care facilities and city government. Connect Initiative is a service of Anna Marie’s Alliance, known best in St. Cloud for its work on domestic violence issues.

Workplace bullying tactics look the same as you’d see on a school playground, Schroeder said.

“A bully is a bully no matter where they’re working,” she said.

The behaviors can take many forms and come from supervisors and co-workers.

Because of the amount of time spent at work, and the financial difficulty that can be involved with leaving, experts say workplace bullying has dynamics similar to domestic bullying and violence. The transgressors are familiar, sometimes friends, and sometimes have control over you and how you spend your time.

St. Cloud city staff went through the Connect Initiative training a few years ago. It covers communication and recognizing when someone might have issues other than at work.

“It’s really geared for creating a respectful workplace,” City Administrator Mike Williams said.

The city’s leadership team had a number of sessions, then brought those back to their departments. It was well received, he said.

“It was more of a reminder for people,” he said.

Working on civility

At the League of Minnesota Cities, Human Resources Director Laura Kushner and her staff advise cities on all sorts of personnel issues. They occasionally provide training on resolving conflict and promoting good communication.

“We definitely take a lot of calls about conflict in both council meetings and in the workplace,” she said. They don’t always use the word bullying, however.

“More often we’re dealing with general conflict and best practices … Civility is an issue we’re working hard on in general,” she said.

Kushner said it’s important to consider that elected officials have varied backgrounds and might not be familiar with human resources practices or hiring and firing.

“The eyes are on you a little bit more. (Public employees) are in the perfect position for every public employee to model this healthy, respectful behavior,” Kushner said.

The League has a model respectful workplace policy that cities can adopt. Still, there is subjectivity involved in deciding what crosses the line.

“Once you adopt (a policy), you pretty much have to follow it,” she said.

And enforce it, consistently. It doesn’t necessarily offer legal grounds for an employee to sue or take some other action if not enforced.

Sometimes the perceived power of a public position, like that of a mayor or city council member, may feed into a bully’s psyche, Schroeder said.

There’s also potential for bullying among council members.

In a fishbowl

The main thing that differs between public and private employers’ handling of bullying is the visibility, Kushner said.

“Government operates in a fishbowl. People can see what we’re doing. And it’s really easy to criticize what you can see,” she said.

Government also is highly unionized, which can be a factor in dealing with these situations. And government has more restraint on what it can spend money on.

There are instances where bullying crosses into an illegal activity, Kushner said. If employees are being bullied for their gender, the color of their skin or other protected status, that becomes a legal issue. Kushner said her department tends to work more on cases where it hasn’t yet crossed that legal line.

In the public sector, if bullying becomes a disciplinary issue, and some action is taken, at some point that action and the reasons for it becomes public, either through a data practices request or at a city council meeting. Or sometimes, that the bullying may have taken place in a public space.

Costs add up

“There are a lot of financial reasons, financial motivations to guard against … a disrespectful work environment … and incivility,” Kushner said.

Generally the response should be the same for a city with a small budget or a large one. However, the more resources a city has could change how arbitration and settlements are handled.

Costs from the fallout of a bad situation can add up and could include costly training sessions and increased insurance premiums.

“The productivity cost associated, if you have a really bad work environment, productivity definitely goes down,” she said. “When employees are distraught and upset, they tend to call in sick more,” she said. And there’s some evidence that workers’ compensation claims and injuries go up.


Kushner, who has experience in both the public and private sectors, said employers need to deal with issues early.

But Kushner said there are ways to prevent workplace conflict. Steps can include notifying managers of conflicts and preparing protocols for incidents before they happen.

Occasionally, if a city council is expecting a topic to be controversial, a mayor can outline how the topic will be handled and what will be tolerated. It’s a range, she said, all the way to having members of the police department available.

In smaller communities, neighbors, friends and family will know if a public employee has been disciplined. But that wide knowledge also can be a deterrent, keeping people on their best behavior, Kushner said.

“The smaller the city, the more likely the people involved are neighbors, relatives, friends. It can be a little more personal,” she said.

If there’s bullying at a council level, among council members, often they’re equals. She said the most a council could do is censure a person. They can’t force someone out of office or take legal action.

“You have to take into account, to try to define what bullying is, is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it’s so intense and so bad that (everyone) agrees. … Sometimes people see things differently.”


Targets of workplace bullies are often capable, dedicated and well-liked. The bully considers their capability a threat. Here are some signs of a workplace bully:

  • Persistent invalid criticism.
  • Ridiculing or interrupting the target during meetings or in public.
  • Withholding instructions, information or resources.
  • Exclusion from meetings or email communication.
  • Ignoring the target employee.
  • Minimizing contributions.
  • Taking away responsibilities without cause.
  • Sabotaging projects.
  • Denying benefits, such as use of leave.
  • Lying about the target.
  • Manufacturing evidence of incompetence or instigating complaints from others.

Sources: Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, Canada Safety Council


Debra Schroeder of St. Cloud’s Connect Initiative said the solution to workplace bullying starts with the hiring process. Generally, she follows the advice of a colorfully titled book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”

• “Basically, don’t hire these people in the first place,” she said. And if they’re already in your workplace, give them an opportunity to change. If they can’t or don’t want to, you need to show them the door, she said.


• “Seek first to understand and then to be understood … Listen first without trying to formulate arguments,” she said.

• If there’s a bully on hand, consider the level: Is it verbal? Is there a physical threat? Act accordingly.

• When it comes time to deal with a negative behavior, she recommends starting with a positive. Find something, as simple as “Thanks for coming in today.” Then state the facts, laying out what you’ve observed or has been brought up to you.

• Leave the “You phrases” and blaming in the back room and deal with facts and reason. “If you start bringing emotion, it’s going to get messy,” she said.

• Ask them to help you understand what’s going on. Then paraphrase (I hear you saying …). Then make a plan for change.

• Though a lot of managers have an open-door policy, it doesn’t work unless employees feel safe coming to you. And once they do, show that you’re taking action. Check back with the person who reported the problem.


• “It’s important to lay out the facts and leave emotion out of this,” she said.

It’s important for any employer or business owner to document complaints or incidents.

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