Employees take on bullying

Some say U leaders need to lead a culture change that includes stronger anti-bullying policies.

Meghan Holden

Bullying isn’t just a problem in middle schools.

University of Minnesota officials are addressing bullying in the workplace, but some say the issue stems from the top and the institution’s leaders need to set a better example.

The Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action commonly reviews cases in which University employees report harassment or discrimination against their supervisors, office director Kim Hewitt said.

The office held a workplace bullying workshop Tuesday at the McNamara Alumni Center to provide resources and discuss the issue with faculty and staff. Some employees said creating a friendlier work environment should begin with supervisors and administrators showing their subordinates respect.

“The culture change needs to start from the top,” said an office supervisor at the event who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.

University administrators need to make anti-bullying efforts a priority, she said.

“I’m not sure that an email from President [Eric] Kaler talking about being respectful in the workplace is really going to do it for me,” the employee said.

To start fixing some of these issues, Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and Affirmitive Action officials advised supervisors to think about the tone they use while speaking to employees and to focus on finding solutions to problems instead of pointing fingers.

Problems with the policy

Some workshop attendees said part of the bullying problem stems from a lack of clear-cut discipline policies for occasions when employees are mistreated.

Hewitt said her office gets a lot of reports of mistreatment by colleagues or supervisors that don’t necessarily violate University policy, so it’s hard for the office to push disciplinary action.

College deans and department supervisors can also pursue disciplinary action, she said.

According to University policy, bullying reports become an Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and Affirmitive Action issue when the reported person’s behavior is related to a protected class or identity, like race or gender. 

People report mistreatment at the University, ranging from discrimination to sexual harassment, through a confidential website. Hewitt said most of the reported incidents come from faculty and staff.

About one-fifth of reports in 2013 were concerns of discrimination, harassment, equal opportunity issues, sexual harassment or retaliation for reporting a problem.

The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and Affirmative Action investigates whether these concerns violate University policy or state or federal law. Many of them don’t violate the policies, Hewitt said, and are more problems within work environments.

She said statewide discussions about bullying also play a role in the University’s increased interest in the problem.

Currently, there are no state laws against bullying in the workplace, though some legislators have tried to address the issue in the past.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, introduced a bill in 2011 that would prohibit an abusive work environment, and he is planning to reintroduce it next legislative session.

He said defining bullying in the workplace is especially difficult because adults are often expected to “suck it up” when managers treat them poorly.

“You’ve got a hierarchy in the workplace, and there are managers who rule by fear,” Latz said.

 The University office supervisor said the problem could be solved if leaders simply treated employees with the respect they deserve.

“You just have to create an environment regardless of classification, regardless of education, experience,” she said. “… That we just treat each other like humans.”