“Status-blind harassment”—more commonly known as workplace bullying—is a growing concern to employers and their employment practices liability insurers. But while the costs of having bullies in the workplace are clear, appropriate steps to recognize and rein in the problem aren’t always obvious.

Experts use the term “status-blind” or “equal-opportunity harassment” to distinguish workplace bullying from harassment targeted at classes of workers protected under federal and state statutes, such as Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin.

“It’s the boss who abuses his or her power not because someone is a woman over the age of 40 or Hispanic, but rather because the boss wants to bully and is a bully—and anyone who gets in the way is going to be a victim of that bullying, says Gerald Maatman Jr., a partner of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

Seymour Adler, senior vice president with Aon Hewitt in the Talent & Rewards Practice in New York, notes that in many ways bullying is worse than class-based harassment in terms of its long-term impact on the victims. “At least the message [in harassment] is that you’re part of this whole class of people…Bullying is singling you out as an individual.”

While there are currently no statutes outlawing bullying, lawyers and EPLI experts note that at least 10 states are considering legislative proposals to do just that. Even in the absence of anti-bullying statutes, however, the experts say there are other consequences to consider, such as employee turnover and sick days.

“From a HR standpoint, you don’t want to advise your employer to just stay within the bounds of the law. Employers also care about morale,” says Irving Geslewitz, a principal with the firm of Much Shelist in Chicago.

Highlighting serious ramifications, Adeola Adele, EPLI product leader for Marsh’s FINPRO group in New York, says, “Workplace violence starts with bullying.” She cites a case where an individual shot his co-workers. “The back-story was that he was bullied at work and no one listened.”

Aon Hewitt’s Adler says training managers “to be good at mitigating the risk of bullying does not just involve focusing on the bully’s behavior, but really [means] carefully gauging the emotional state of all their employees to get a sense of whether they are victims.”

More generally, he explains that risk mitigation in this area really involves two components: pre-hire assessment and performance management.

“There are things that can be done to assess perspective employees for the tendency to express anger, to be aggressive, to show excitability—all factors that can lead to bullying,” he says, noting that quick tempers and deep-seated aggressions can be revealed through well-validated personality inventories.

These personality tests can either be administered during the interview process or through online surveys, he says, noting that employers should ask how a potential hire would handle certain situations. For example, prospects might be directed to imagine a situation where they are in power (or to recall past positions of authority) and asked how they would treat somebody who doesn’t have power or has a weakness or shortcoming.

Kathleen Long, CEO and Co-Founder of Mountain View, Calif.-based Montage Analytics, also recommends behavioral interviewing and notes that there are two root causes to workplace bullying.

“One is that person who is hired is a bully already.” The other is an environment that makes someone who might not normally bully fall prey to that kind of behavior. “Certain kinds of stresses put them in a situation where that comes up,” she says, noting that economic stresses, highly competitive environments, or organizations that evidence unfair treatment or favoritism may nurture bullies and victims.

What if bullying tendencies are revealed on such personality surveys and interviews?  

“It would be perfectly legitimate in my view not to hire somebody who poses a reasonable risk,” Adler says, noting that he speaks from the perspective of an organizational psychologist, not a lawyer. “Bullying can result in lawsuits, loss of talent, creating a hostile environment for employees that would cause them to leave,” he says. “Bullying behavior becomes relevant to job performance, so there would be a business necessity to exclude people who are likely to bully.”

What do you do if somebody is a reasonable risk and they’re already on board, or because of their talents you want to hire them?

“Then it’s a matter of moving to the multilayered performance management part of the equation,” Adler says, identifying two key components:

• First, companies need to have clear policy statements, conveying clear expectations that such behavior is not tolerated and there will be consequences.

• Second, managers need to be trained to recognize signs of bullying and to be responsive in taking action so they’re not contributing inadvertently to creating a hostile work environment.

Recognizing behaviors related to bullying has two sides to it—recognizing the behavior of the bully, and paying attention to the emotional states and behaviors of potential or actual victims, Adler says. He cites findings of a Canadian research study published last year in a leading psychology journal showing that bullying is more likely to impact a victim’s work performance than sexual harassment.

“The research shows that it’s even more likely to affect performance when you’re the target of insulting remarks or rumors being spread maliciously,” he says, citing some markers of non-violent bullying. He admits it is not always easy to distinguish bullying behavior from a strict managerial style. How do you tell the difference? “If I’m being yelled at to the point where it’s affecting me emotionally or someone is saying hurtful things to me in particular that are demotivating,” he says.

Another indicator might be a label that a manager puts on a worker that stigmatizes him or her within the work group. “I’m the one my boss keeps calling the stupid one, or I’m the one who my co-worker keeps pointing out in front of others as the stubborn one. To me that’s bullying,” he says.

Should the next step be firing? Counseling?

“In the extreme, of course violations [of a workplace bullying policy] could lead to firing, but unless it is something extreme that probably would not be the first thing that you did,” Adler says.

The bottom line, he says, is that the same type of “consciousness-raising” that has occurred over the past 20 years to identify sexual harassment needs to happen with bullying.

David Carlson, Midwest Zone Leader of Marsh Risk Consulting’s Workforce Strategies Practice, agrees there needs to be an awareness and education around workplace bullying—“in particular, at the supervisory level.” Right now, he says, only “the progressive companies are going to go out and have bullying policies and training.”

“For the less progressive ones, where it may be more pervasive, it’s a command-and-control issue. They’re going to wait until they’re told by state and local authorities and regulators that they have to do this,” he says.

Carlson says that suspected occurrences of bullying need to be fully and carefully investigated, and like Adler, believes that once it is identified, “progressive disciplinary is typical for most organizations.” But depending on the severity of the activity, “it could be grounds for immediate termination,” he adds.

“That has to come down to the policies and culture of the workplace. Companies need to have a zero-tolerance policy for anything like workplace violence, workplace bullying or sexual harassment,” he says. “There needs to be swift and immediate action.”

For companies looking for quick reference guides on handling the problem, Carlson says there are particularly good websites emerging from places like the European Union, Australia and Canada, where social accountability and responsibility in the workplace have already been addressed.