US universities need better anti-bullying policies

Higher education institutions in the United States should change their faculty codes of conduct to define bullying as a distinctive form of harassment, according to a new paper published in the National Communication Association’s journal First Amendment Studies. Such codes also need to provide faculty and staff with clearer communications regarding bullying, and offer guidance for both targets and bystanders.

Murray State University scholars Frances Smith and Crystal Rae Coel analysed 276 faculty codes of conduct from a variety of universities and colleges across the United States, and found that only 8 contained specific references to bullying.

Most of the codes mentioned their organisation’s aversion to harassment – particularly on the basis of race, religion, sex or other factors prohibited by law – but failed to reflect the fact that bullying and harassment are not the same, and that bullying is not restricted to people in legally-protected categories.

The codes also placed emphasis on ‘employee engagement’, whereby staff were encouraged to create a positive, collegial atmosphere. However, any specific instruction to refrain from bullying or acting as bystanders in bullying situations was missing.

If codes lack a policy delineating intolerance toward workplace bullying and fail to make a clear distinction between harassment and bullying, victims have little recourse once offensive language or behavior is deemed non-discriminatory and not within constitutional protections, the authors note.

An argument can be made that suppressing bullying speech may violate the First Amendment, so effective policies against bullying must also balance First Amendment rights to free expression with the right of all employees to be free from a hostile work environment.

The authors show that policies against workplace bullying can be crafted that are consistent with existing case law governing the scope of public employees’ rights to free expression in the workplace. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that First Amendment protections are available for workplace speech of public employees if it covers matters of public concern without disrupting office operations.“Through this research, we hope to add to the conversation about workplace bullying. Policies can be incorporated into Faculty Codes of Conduct to provide resources for targets and bystanders without compromising First Amendment rights. We hope to encourage positive steps in reducing bullying within higher education institutions.”

The faculty codes of conduct examined in this study do not adequately indicate what bullying behaviour is, what to do if you are a target or bystander, or how the organisation chooses to proceed when offenses have been made, the authors conclude. They suggest that codes be amended to explicitly cover workplace bullying, and to provide clear guarantees of non-retaliation for employees who file complaints.

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