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Bullying at the workplace

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Workplace bullying affects many employees and includes various forms of psychological and physical violence. However, those affected by bullying can defend themselves legally – in accordance with employment law and criminal law.

Bullying at the workplace: Psychological terror instead of team spirit

It starts with hurtful remarks and can go as far as physical violence: Workplace bullying is a problem that affects a large proportion of the working population. In Switzerland, around 4.4% to 7.6% of employees are victims of bullying, harassment, and abuse at work (in German). What’s alarming is that almost one in five suicides is related to bullying.

Bullying usually happens repeatedly and over a long period of time. It can come from both individuals and entire groups and can take many different forms, for example:

  • Verbal harassment: This includes derogatory remarks and comments as well as insults, mockery, and derogatory jokes. Nicknames aimed at an employee's appearance or personality also fall into this category.
  • Social isolation: Deliberately excluding and ignoring employees is considered bullying. This can happen on a purely professional level, for example when individual colleagues are not invited to meetings. However, exclusion from social and extra-professional activities and conversations is also a form of bullying under certain circumstances.
  • Reputational damage: Anyone who deliberately spreads rumors or false information about others can permanently and irreparably damage their reputation. The untruths spread create massive social pressure on those affected. In the worst cases, superiors may even question the professional suitability of the victim on the basis of hearsay.
  • Sabotage: Competition is normal to a certain extent in the world of work. However, this can quickly reach an unhealthy level: When employees deliberately obstruct the work of their colleagues and prevent them from succeeding, this is also bullying.
  • Micromanagement: If managers excessively monitor, control, and criticize the work of their employees, this can constitute a form of bullying – especially if supervisors only behave this way towards certain employees.
  • Discrimination: Unfortunately, discrimination against people on the basis of gender, origin, religion, sexual orientation, or age is still part of everyday working life in many places. This ranges from prejudices and jokes without reflection (which are supposedly harmless from the bullies’ point of view) to malicious racist, sexist, or other forms of discriminatory hate comments.
  • Sexual harassment: Assault can manifest itself in sexualized comments, remarks, or innuendos. Unwanted and inappropriate touching is especially crossing the line. All of these actions have a humiliating, shameful, and intimidating effect – particularly as sexual harassment often goes hand in hand with an abuse of power or an exploited relationship of dependency.
  • Cyberbullying: Most companies today are relatively well digitized. Bullying can also occur in digital channels, for example when employees send harassing messages and emails or publish corresponding posts on the intranet.
  • Threats: Intimidation and threats go far beyond just using abusive language. Threats can be made verbally or in writing and vary in intensity. They always have a massive psychological impact on the victim of bullying.
  • Excessive work: Overtime and extra work are (unfortunately) common in the modern corporate world and many industries. Bullying in the workplace begins when superiors order individual employees to do mountains of excessive work or set them unrealistic deadlines. The deliberate overworking of certain people – in the worst case with the aim of forcing them into mental illness and out of their job – is considered an extreme case here.
  • Physical attacks: Mental violence can also turn into physical violence. This should not be considered “worse” or “less bad” than purely psychological harassment. Without question, however, a physical attack crosses a particular line.

Bullying in the workplace must not and should not be tolerated. First and foremost to protect those affected. According to research on bullying, around 43.9% of victims, i.e. almost half, remain ill for longer than six weeks (in German). And on top of this: A negative work atmosphere also affects entire teams or companies and can have far-reaching consequences – and not just when it comes to productivity.

Prevent bullying: What managers and employees can do

Prevention is the best way to prevent bullying in the workplace – and is a issue for the boss. It is the task of managers to promote a corporate culture in which there is zero tolerance for bullying. This can be done, for example, through clear anti-bullying policies and procedures. Employees can be made aware of the issue through training. An environment in which employees can express themselves confidentially also helps to build trust and security.

But employees can also prevent bullying:

  • The first and most important step is to be aware and sensitive themselves, to be considerate of colleagues’ feelings, and to ensure appropriate behavior.
  • Conflicts should be resolved constructively before they escalate.
  • Anyone who witnesses bullying should offer support to those affected and report incidents in an appropriate manner.

How victims of bullying can defend themselves legally

Bullying in the workplace is not only ethically unacceptable, it is also punishable under the Swiss Criminal Code. The legislator does not use the term bullying anywhere in the law. However, the guidelines to Ordinances 3 and 4 of the Employment Act contain information according to which bullying is to be punished in the same way as violations of the integrity of employees. The Federal Supreme Court defines bullying as systematic, hostile behavior that persists over a longer period of time and is intended to isolate, exclude, or even remove a person from their workplace.

In addition, the Employment Act (ArG) requires employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. This includes protection against bullying. Companies must therefore take appropriate measures to prevent and combat bullying.

Anyone who is the victim of bullying in the workplace can therefore also take legal action to defend themselves. Personal legal protection insurance can help with this. It provides advice on how to proceed, helps to find suitable legal counsel, and covers the costs of the necessary legal steps.  So können Betroffene auf ein Unterlassen des Mobbings hinwirken und möglicherweise das Arbeitsverhältnis unbelastet weiterführen. zum weiteren Vorgehen, hilft  bei der Suche eines passenden Rechtsbeistands und übernimmt die Kosten für die notwendigen rechtlichen Schritte.  In this way, those affected can work towards stopping the bullying and possibly continue the employment relationship unencumbered.

Personal legal protection insurance helps in these cases.

Workplace bullying is a complex issue. Personal legal protection insurance can provide support in various ways, for example:

  1. Unfair dismissal: It started with gossip behind their back. Then an employee was dismissed without warning and for questionable reasons – presumably as a result of damage to their reputation. Personal legal protection insurance provided support for their lawsuit against their former employer and obtained an appropriate settlement. 
  2. Sexual harassment: A supervisor repeatedly sexually harassed an employee and used the position of power to exert pressure. After the harassment continued to increase, the victim contacted their private legal protection insurance. As a result, a legal investigation was initiated and the victim was able to seek legal assistance for representation in the negotiations. 

Frequently asked questions about workplace bullying

What do I need to consider if I want to take legal action against bullying?

Even if it is not always easy: Report bullying to your employer and remind them of their obligation to protect employees (duty of care). You should also collect evidence or keep a diary in which you document incidents and attacks. This will enable you to provide a detailed account of the facts later on.

Who can support me in the event of bullying in addition to my legal protection insurance?

If your company has a staff or employee representative body or if you are a member of a trade union, you can seek additional support here.

What are the legal consequences for bullies?

Employees who engage in bullying can expect various sanctions. In addition to measures under employment law such as warnings, transfers, or dismissals, there may also be consequences under criminal law or the payment of compensation.  These usually take the form of fines. In particularly serious cases, however, there is also the threat of imprisonment.

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