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June 22, 2022

Standing up takes courage. Bullying does not

Five ways to empower employees to stand against bullying and improve the workspace for all.

Although bullying can happen to anyone, protected groups experience bullying most frequently. According to a recent UCLA study, 38% of LGBTQ+ workers reported experiencing harassment at their workplaces in the past year.

This alarming statistic is a reality check for any organization that values a diverse and just workplace. Persistent harassment can become bullying, leading to a negative impact on an individual’s physical and mental health. Workplace bullying is a serious misuse of power and position.

During Pride Month, and every day, it’s important for everyone to recognize bullying behavior when they see it and—whether you are managing employees or supporting co-workers—take steps to address it. 

A workplace where everyone can thrive

The actions people take to create an environment where every employee can thrive and feel safe and included is a direct reflection of their company’s values. With these five steps, anyone can help empower employees to stand against bullying and improve the workspace.

1)  Build trust. A high level of trust can help create a sense of security and psychological safety. Each of us should foster an environment where employees feel free to be their authentic selves and act in a manner that is consistent with the company’s values. Senior leaders should communicate to employees that they care, and follow it up with actions that affirm their empathy. Such actions include:

  • Join resource groups. Participation in a resource group conveys support to the communities represented. Work to ensure team meetings do not conflict with major events.

  • Ensure team members feel included in conversation by enabling individuals to share their different experiences and backgrounds.

  • Include pronouns on your emails and in meetings with new individuals. Doing so signals your openness and respect for others to share how they identify and want to be addressed.

2)  Sensitize the workforce. Senior leaders need to acknowledge that employees come from different backgrounds and experiences that have shaped their exposure, sensitivity to, awareness of, and empathy for those who are different from themselves. Here are a few ways to elevate the awareness of employees:

  • Invite resource group members to a regular team meeting to share their unique experiences and perspectives on ways to be more sensitive and inclusive.

  • Take advantage of corporate trainings that can help you recognize and address bullying behavior.

  • Ensure your teams know how to leverage the channels available to address suspected bullying, including reporting suspected bullying or other possible unethical behaviors through your company’s ethics and compliance channels.

  • Share articles that showcase positive and negative behaviors and openly discuss these issues with your team.

  • Critically, when incidents arise, act without delay to engage the appropriate organizational resources and processes to review and address them. Acknowledge receipt of and follow through on any reported allegations.

3) Encourage and show allyship. An ally is a person from a social identity group(s) who stands up in support for another group(s). Having allies can promote dialog that leads to cultural change.

Becoming an ally is a journey that begins at a different place for everyone, and that journey never really ends. We can improve our own awareness and that of our teams by practicing active and vocal allyship in several ways:

  • Bring a voice to the underrepresented. Allies help amplify the voice of those who may be struggling to be heard. Encourage the underrepresented to share their ideas and knowledge. Be sure your acknowledgments are equitable and inclusive of the work and contributions of the underrepresented.

  • Be an upstander instead of a bystander when you witness bullying or inappropriate behavior. Combat offensive comments or jokes about others, even if the target of the comment or joke did not hear it. If you witness bullying behavior, intervene and follow up with the person who was being bullied to see how they are, as well as with the aggressor to underscore the importance of kindness and inclusivity. If necessary, work through the appropriate organizational resources and processes.

  • Be vocal. Share your stance on inappropriate behavior and educate your teams on the plight of marginalized populations.

4) Encourage the use of employee assistance programs. Leverage employee assistance programs, which are designed to address a range of topics, including bullying. These programs can promote employees’ mental wellbeing. Raising awareness of these important services during difficult times can meaningfully demonstrate how much the organization values its workforce.

5) Live the organizational values. An organization’s values define its culture. We need to practice on a daily basis the standards of behavior necessary to reinforce our desired culture—one that is free of any conduct that could be perceived as bullying.

Employees are the heart of an organization. Their diverse and unique perspectives, thoughts and ideas are crucial to delivering innovative solutions. Businesses have a moral responsibility to provide a supportive workplace that enables all people to thrive. As senior leaders and colleagues, we need to recognize this and collectively move forward in our journey toward an inclusive and equitable world.

John Kim
EVP & General Counsel
Headshot of Digitally Cognizant author John Kim

John Kim is Cognizant’s Exec VP & General Counsel. He leads the company’s legal, compliance, corporate affairs and company secretary functions. Prior to this, he oversaw client negotiations and designed global commercial legal strategies.

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