I studied workplace bullying policies in federal, state, and some municipal governments. Then it occurred to me that big universities are big employers. They have thousands of employees. Universities with medical schools and hospitals can have tens of thousands of employees.

Another reason to look at universities is that they have the in-house talent they could use on the issues. Every university has a psychology department. Perhaps most have business schools and social work schools. Professors in these departments know about organizational behavior.

If your business requires more skill than laborers off the street, it costs money to find and train the right employees. To keep the talent you have found and developed, you must maintain a civil workplace. Bullies chase away talent.

Philly to Richmond

To keep this article manageable, it considers universities from Philadelphia to Richmond. I did look at three outside this geographic range, thinking they would have good policies to show you. (I got two out of three.) We will look at well-known private and state schools.

Some universities refused to respond to multiple emails and calls to officials. Others had wisps of policies, several have respectable workplace bullying policies, and a few have great policies. The respectable and the great polices can help you make your policies better.

No answers

George Washington University, The Catholic University of America, the University of the District of Columbia, and the University of Maryland did not respond to repeated emails and calls—over several months. It is doubtful they have any policies on workplace bullying.

No policy or barebones policies

I went outside my geographic range to check on Cornell because they have a famous School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). They courteously emailed, “Cornell does not have a bullying policy at this time. The document you located was a draft which was never formalized.” They had a good draft, but then they froze. 

American U’s workplace violence policy mentions “threatening, harassing, abusive or intimidating behavior” in a list of acts and threats of physical violence. It puts these behaviors into the context of physical violence. It does not clearly deal with psychological bullying. Therefore, it is not a bullying policy.

U. of Pennsylvania, Villanova U., Georgetown U., Virginia Commonwealth U., and Virginia Tech have barebones policies. They have a sentence or two that sound sincere. They have no meaningful guidance for the employees or managers.

Temple University attempts to address bullying in “Work Rules.” Under “Unprofessional or Inappropriate Conduct” they list:

a) Failing to conduct oneself in a professional manner while performing duties during work hours or while on Temple property.

b) Failing to maintain a courteous and professional demeanor when dealing with students, co-workers, faculty, patients, visitors and other customers.

These two lines do not detail what is expected and what is unacceptable. The targets of bullying need to be able to point to specific violations of the policy. However, pay attention to the second part of section (b); the policy covers more than the employees.  

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) had an appealing policy on its website in early 2021. I captured text and URLs. By May, the links redirected to a contractor that collects complaints but does NOT show or know the policy. As of this writing, no policy could be seen.

Respectable policies

Howard University, George Mason University (GMU), and University of Virginia (UVA) have meaningful, detailed workplace bullying policies. Here is a little of each and their URLs.

Howard University addresses workplace bullying in its employee handbook () as follows:

10.06 Bullying

Howard University will not tolerate bullying behavior by any employees, including supervisors, managers, and executives. Employees found in violation of this policy will be disciplined, up to and including termination. The University defines bullying as repeated inappropriate behavior, either direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment. Such behavior violates the University’s Code of Ethical Conduct, which clearly states that the University and all members of the community should conduct themselves with integrity, honesty, dignity, and respect. {emphasis added}

10.07 Examples of Bullying

Bullying may be intentional or unintentional. … The University considers the following types of behavior examples of bullying:

  • Verbal bullying: Slandering, ridiculing, or maligning a person or his or her family; making deliberately false statements about a person or his or her family; persistent name calling or comments that are hurtful, insulting, humiliating, or embarrassing; using a person as butt of jokes; abusive and offensive remarks; threats of physical violence; harassment which is prohibited by criminal law; shouting or raising one’s voice at a person in public or private. {emphasis added}
  • Physical bullying: Pushing, shoving, kicking, poking, tripping, assault or threat of physical assault, damage to a person’s work area or property; nonverbal threatening gestures.

George Mason University (GMU) deals with bullying in subtle, detailed policies. They recognize improper conduct that others often overlook. Regarding their Threat Assessment Team (TAT), they say:

“Report any behavior that appears to be a precursor to violence to TAT. Behaviors that might indicate future violence or harm to oneself include” among other things: Engaging in hostile, aggressive, abusive, intimidating, stalking, bullying, or harassing behaviors towards others; Abusive conduct in that an objectively reasonable person would find hostile; [and] Behavior that creates a reasonable fear of injury or substantial emotional stress…” (I skipped acts of physical violence).

The GMU Violence Prevention Policy says that “Acts of Violence” include:

“Other abusive conduct in that an objectively reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to the University’s legitimate interests, which causes substantial emotional distress (e.g., bullying)…”

Please note the phrase “unrelated to the University’s legitimate interests.” That is a key concept.

GMU also points to Virginia policy on Civility in the Workplace. Under “Non-Discriminatory Workplace Harassment [Harassment not Based on Protected Classes]”, it says:

“Any targeted or directed unwelcome verbal, written, social, or physical conduct that either denigrates or shows hostility or aversion towards a person not predicated on the person’s protected class.”

University of Virginia (UVA) has good details in their “Examples of Disrespectful behavior.” Go beyond the “disrespectful behavior” section to see the entire structure. For example, they give guidance both to the victims and to the accused!

Still, UVA has missed some good ideas set out by Tennessee and Minnesota. UVA does not state that legitimate criticism of employees by management is NOT bullying, and that the same applies to assignments, etc. This is in the Model Plan developed by the staff of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Regulations (TACIR).

UVA and others could borrow from the Minnesota State Respectful Workplace policy, which states:

“For example, disrespectful and/or unprofessional behavior does not include any of the following:

The normal exercise of administrative, supervisory, or managerial responsibilities, including, but not limited to, performance reviews, work direction, performance management, and disciplinary action, provided they are conducted in a professional and respectful manner.

Disagreements, misunderstandings, miscommunication, or conflict situations where the behavior remains professional and respectful.”

See: Subpart B context.

Excellent policies

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) are also out of my geographic range but have great policies. Also, I knew that Prof. Jackie Gilbert, a consultant to TACIR on the Model Plan, was at MTSU.

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) has an excellent policy that covers a broad range of issues and addressing concerns that most policies overlook. It appears that they picked up the “Model Plan” developed by the staff of TACIR pursuant to the Tennessee Healthy Workplace Act.

The MTSU policy covers: “acts and omissions…”; “Verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature”; and “The sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance…” Many policies miss these subtleties.

Further, the policy addresses what abusive conduct is not, in particular: “The non-abusive exercise of managerial prerogative.”  III. Policy, J. Healthy Workplace.

For example: It is a managerial prerogative to assign training. It is abusive to assign a gifted writer to a remedial writing class.

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) addresses workplace bullying as abusive behavior in the workplace. It has too many good ideas to cover here. Be sure to see it.

So, what is the strategy?

Some big schools, like many companies and government agencies, have little or nothing for anti-bullying policies.

HU, GMU, UVA, UCLA, and MTSU have many good insights for a workplace bullying policy. Their ideas should work in any public or private sector environment. Pick and choose from their ideas the elements that are right for your workplace.

Then, add a good idea from Executive Order Number 39 (11/12/2017), the Workplace Conduct Policy for The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. It is:

“Supervisory personnel who allow abusive conduct to continue or fail to take appropriate action upon learning of such conduct will also be subject to corrective and/or disciplinary action.”

This says, “We are serious.”

Related content

Edward Stern recently wrote a letter to the editor in The Washington Post discussing workplace bullying policies. Read his letter here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/letters-to-the-editor/there-are-policies-to-protect-employees-from-a-hostile-workplace/2021/08/01/cad534b4-efda-11eb-81b2-9b7061a582d8_story.html

The article he is referring to can be read here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/07/24/black-women-office-work-home/