October 17, 2014

October is bullying awareness prevention month and California made progress by enacting new legislation to educate employees about abusive conduct in the workplace.  Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 2053 into law, requiring employers to provide classroom or other interactive training to all supervisors and managers to prevent abusive conduct. 

Abusive conduct is commonly referred to as bullying and is defined by the legislation as “conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”  This conduct “may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”  By clarifying what constitutes abusive behaviors and educating employees about preventative measures, California’s new legislation provides targets and bystanders, as well as the university, the ability to better address individual and systemic concerns related to workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is sometimes referred to as a “silent epidemic.”  Many targets and bystanders of bullying choose not to tell anyone.  There are many reasons for the silence, including not knowing what constitutes bullying behavior, fearing retaliation, not having clear places to report, and not knowing what options or support resources are available.  From 2008–2014, the Staff Ombuds Office reported an increased frequency of concerns about workplace bullying. “Bullying is one of the most difficult issues we see and one of the most devastating for the individuals experiencing it.  We are hopeful that this legislation will bring a new level of awareness at the university about this important issue,” said Sara Thacker, Director of the Staff Ombuds Office.

More employers, including universities, are taking note of the impacts and the issues surrounding abusive conduct in the workplace. One group called the Consortium on Abrasive Conduct in Higher Education (CACHE) met for a second annual colloquium this summer and issued 32 suggested practices for addressing abrasive conduct in higher education including, adopting policy, creating better understanding about the roles of available resources, developing ways to assess abusive conduct and hold people accountable, as well as incorporating bystander training.  The Staff Ombuds Office also made similar recommendations in its 2008-2010 report, including providing comprehensive training about workplace bullying with experts from Human Resources, CARE Services, and the Staff Ombuds Office.  In addition, Central Human Resources is in the process of developing a new policy regarding workplace bullying that will incorporate the legislature’s new definition of abusive conduct. 

Currently, employees experiencing workplace bullying have several resources.  Employees who would like to discuss their situation in a strictly confidential manner can contact the Staff Ombuds Office to explore strategies, options, and resources to address workplace bullying.  The Staff Ombuds Office is not an office of notice or an office of record so employees can talk about their situation without fear of retaliation and maintain control of how they would like to proceed.  Employees interested in learning more about workplace bullying can also attend the Staff Ombuds Office’s 3-hour workshop entitled “Identifying and Addressing Workplace Bullying” offered March 3rd.   This course is open to any employee and participants can register through the UC Learning Center at https://blu.is.berkeley.edu.

As an informal conflict resolution resource, the Staff Ombuds Office does not handle investigations or formal complaints.  Employees who would like to make a formal complaint about workplace bullying should contact their HR Business Partner or the Central Human Resources Employee Relations Unit.  In addition, employees can make complaints through an online reporting mechanism hosted by the Office of the President athttps://ucsystems.ethicspointvp.com/custom/ucs_ccc/default.asp.

Employees who endure or witness workplace bullying are more likely to experience emotional and physical health challenges as well as a decrease in job motivation and effectiveness.  CARE Services is a free and confidential resource that can help employees formulate individualized self-care plans to navigate through these difficult circumstances.  “While preventing abusive conduct is always the goal, it is critically important for impacted individuals to seek professional support,” said Craig Mielcarski, Director of CARE Services for Faculty and Staff.