Out of the blue, one of your employees comes into your office and tells you that a co-worker has been harassing them. You’re surprised because you haven’t observed this conduct, and the alleged bully doesn’t have a history of it. Your organization, and you as an employer, need to determine if the situation is workplace harassment from which your employees are protected – OR – if this is a personality conflict.
As soon as you hear the word “harassment” or “bullying”, you have the legal responsibility to get engaged immediately. If something happened to the alleged victim and you had done nothing to protect them, you and your organization would be at risk. Thus, you should launch an investigation including interviews, documentation, and reporting. This may lead to employee training, discipline or dismissal. Or it may lead to mediation between the fellow employees. Remember that as the employer, you cannot terminate the employee that is alleging harassment as a result of their allegations. The employee has a right to raise the matter ‘without reprisal’. You can still manage their performance and other fit factors, but you cannot discipline or terminate them for telling you of their problem with a possible bully.
While you cannot jump to the conclusion that this is the result of a personality conflict, it has been our experience that harassment is often one employee clashing with another. The clash may be overt and public – or it may be virtually invisible to others. That said, a personality clash may not be bullying but still needs to be addressed. Investigate and then decide.
Bullying is when there is an imbalance of power and the discord leads to the threat of harm, or strong verbal aggression (yelling, cursing, slamming a fist on the table, slamming a fist into palm, standing closely and over the other). Bullying is a behaviour that creates fear in another person. There is often an implicit or explicit threat, or aggression.
Conflict, on the other hand, is a difference of opinion between two people without verbal aggression or physical threat. Conflict can often be caused by gossip. Despite damaging the work culture, gossip is not harassment; gossip should be addressed as a performance / fit factor by management.