Horseplay or Bullying? Where to Draw the Line


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Many people spend more time on the job than anywhere else – even more than with their families. As a result it makes sense that bonds of camaraderie and friendships would develop among groups of co-workers. It also makes sense that their interactions would sometimes take the form of good-natured teasing, horseplay or practical jokes. That’s usually a good thing. But teasing and horseplay can go too far, according to Natasha L. Wilson, vice chair of the Atlanta Labor and Employment practice of Greenberg Traurig – a global law firm.

“Because workers spend more time during their day working than on any other task, it is easy enough to understand why employees endeavor to make the workplace atmosphere an enjoyable one. An easy way to break tension in the workplace is to bring in humor, to engage in good-natured teasing. Humor can also be a way to release workplace stress. While humor and good-natured teasing are great ways to encourage strong relationships among employees, there is a limit. And when workplace humor and teasing become abusive conduct, the resulting behavior could be an instance of workplace bullying,” Wilson said.

Recognizing Bullying in the Workplace

In some workplaces, teasing and horseplay are prevalent, including elaborate practical jokes. Everyone is in on the fun, including the targets. However, bullying has a malicious nature. And while practical jokes or horseplay gone wrong can sometimes result in injury, workplace bullying is meant to inflict harm or pain to the victim(s), according to Wilson.

“Workplace bullying is often defined as abusive behavior that is repeated over time and designed to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate an employee or group of employees. It creates a psychological power imbalance, causing harm which can manifest itself in the targeted employees as, for example, stress, fear, and anxiety,” Wilson explained.

Employees who are targeted by workplace bullying may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation by the bullies. They may also be embarrassed or ashamed, or wish to avoid appearing to be whiners. Nonetheless, victims of workplace bullying frequently exhibit signs that indicate that they are not willing participants in activities that might otherwise look like teasing. In addition, unchecked bullying can have adverse on an employer’s bottom line or even create dangerous workplace conditions, according to Wilson.

“Workplace bullying results in employees suffering from significant physical and emotional problems, including anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, poor concentration, substance abuse and lowered self-esteem. Workplace bullying (also) results in costs to the employer including turnover, higher health care costs, low productivity, absenteeism, low morale and retaliation that may reach levels of aggressive and violent behavior, “Wilson explained.

Possible Consequences of Workplace Bullying

When bullying occurs on the job, it’s not only a problem for the victim – it’s a potential legal headache for the employer, especially if the victim is a member of a protected class, according to Wilson.

“While there is no specific federal or state anti-bullying legislation in the United States, that does not mean that employers may not be held liable for tolerating bullying in their workplaces. If the offending behavior is pervasive enough to be considered threatening, intimidating or creating an environment full of hostility, there is potential for a claim of constructive discharge, intentional infliction of emotional distress or relating the bullying to protected class discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and/or under state fair employment laws,” Wilson warned.

Eliminating and Preventing Workplace Bullying

Employers can minimize workplace bullying by implementing and maintaining policies that make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. Specifically, there are four strategies that employers should take to combat workplace bullying, according to Wilson.

  • Establish a policy that defines bullying is and states that it is unacceptable behavior.
  • Train managers and all other employees on the policy.
  • Establish processes for reporting, investigating and resolving bullying complaints.
  • Investigate and resolve complaints of bullying as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While there’s no need to take an overbearing position, employers must take a firm stand against workplace bullying, even if it means curtailing some of the fun of teasing, according to Wilson.

“Employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe workplace. Employers should confront and put an end to workplace bullying,” Wilson insisted.

Audrey Henderson
Latest posts by Audrey Henderson (see all)

Posted In: Legal, Management

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