Friday, October 7, 2011

Suggestions for Employers: Part 1 (of 2)

Because so many men and women have experienced some form of bullying throughout their school experiences, and in their workplaces as well, it is important to recognize how deeply rooted their emotional scars are likely to be.  Therefore, it is critical not only to respond quickly and fairly when an incident occurs, but also that pro-active measures be taken to keep employees safe from bullying whether from their managers, from their co-workers, from customers, vendors, contract workers, and others with whom they come in contact in fulfilling their work responsibilities. 

What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying may be best understood along a continuum from one end characterized by occasional inappropriate behaviors to the other end where employees are subjected to repeated abusive altercations. Examples of relatively mild behavior include working for a manager who sometimes displays a bad temper but is otherwise pleasant to subordinates. Or it might be having to share space with a co-worker who sometimes uses crude language.

But workplace bullying as discussed here refers to repeated, hostile, threatening behaviors where there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim(s).  Sometimes employees fear that the threatening behavior might become physical.  At this end of the continuum, most would agree that the behavior is intolerable and must be stopped.

Keep in mind that the victim(s) of these behaviors also range a great deal in their responses to inappropriate conduct depending on their personal history. The interpretation of what constitutes bullying, particularly at the relatively mild end, often depends on individual perceptions, on non-verbal behavior, on context, on credibility, on past relationships, and on the organization’s culture.  This is why complaints made to the authorities sometimes begin and end with the victim's word against the bully’s. 

In any case, regardless of the level of workplace bullying, it is incumbent upon employers to recognize the physical, psychological, and professional costs for victims, the potential liability for managers, and the bottom line costs for their own organization; these costs are literally incalculable.

1. Acknowledge the Magnitude of the Issue

Many social observers believe that workplace bullying is so pervasive that calling it an epidemic is an understatement.  In fact, the incidence of bullying should be considered "pandemic"--an all-over, everywhere phenomenon.  As with sexual harassment and rape, authorities are convinced that only a tiny fraction of incidents are reported to the authorities despite the fact that up to 60% of employees say they have been bullied or have witnessed bullying in their workplace.  The result is that employers may not always be aware of the magnitude of bullying in their organization. Therefore, due diligence is required.

One of the most frequent reasons given for failure to report bullying is fear of retaliation which every victim knows can take many forms, from the subtle but steady erosion of workplace relationships to being fired for "cause."  Regardless of its form, however, retaliation is one of the major reasons victims tolerate all sorts of abuse, even when the bullying escalates along the continuum.  And, of course, there is the economy.  All victims know that finding another job could take many months, even years.  For bullies, nirvana has arrived.

2. Count the Cost

While victims may pay a substantial price in terms of their personal and professional future, their costs are also likely to include psychological and even physical problems.  Perhaps most damaging is the loss of self-esteem reported by victims.  They may suffer from anxiety attacks, and a whole host of emotional illnesses, including PTSD. Sometimes their psychological state is  manifested in physical infirmities such as gastrointestinal disorders, nausea, insomnia, heart palpitations, hypertension, headaches and more.  These symptoms will, of course, impact their ability to perform well at work. 

Further, if, as is not uncommon, they do find the courage to bring charges against the bully, they are faced with the fact that bullies are often protected by the organization they serve. There are numerous reports of the following: the organization does nothing to stop the bully and, instead, the bully is actually promoted. Why is this?  Reports state that the bully, who has been with the organization for many years, is a rainmaker, a friend of the president’s, a golf partner of a senior vice president and is thought to be doing a good job.  Meanwhile, victims may be moved to another department, may find their evaluations steadily declining, or they may be fired.

3. Be Pro-Active

Being pro-active requires  recognizing that bullying is a form of violence and that some form of bullying exists in the organization.  It is difficult to imagine otherwise since a) there is ample documentation that some kind of bullying have been a lifelong, if sporadic, experience for many  employees and b) that this is a society considered to be the most violent of all the world’s industrialized nations. It is hard to conceive that such violence has been lost on bullies.

Therefore, it makes sense for employers to announce (if they have not already done so) that theirs is a workplace unwilling to tolerate any degree of bullying. Their Policies and Procedures should have a special segment addressing bullying behavior attesting to their Zero Tolerance for any sort of bullying.

Furthermore, when an employer discovers that someone has been a victim of bullying, not only should the incident(s) be investigated expeditiously and fairly, but there should also be a caring and  appropriate  response to the trauma sustained by the victim.  Bullies must also receive counseling, especially if is determined that they will remain with the organization.  Counseling should be made available for bystanders and others who may have sustained some degree of trauma as a result of the incident(s.)

4. Beware of Physiological Blindness

Physiological blindness refers to the human tendency to literally fail to see or hear aspects of ones own culture because these aspects are so familiar as to be rendered virtually invisible to members of that culture.  For example, employees may have become so accustomed to Good-Old-Harry-the-Hugger that few employees consider his actions inappropriate.

The place where physiological blindness is most likely to be problematic is at the mild end of the aforementioned continuum, the blurry place where people sometimes express confusion about whether or not a particular behavior is objectionable.

On the other hand, suppose new employees, not yet physiologically blind to Harry’s behavior, join the team. They might find his behavior obnoxious and one of them might become incensed when touched by Harry.  What should the employer do when Harry is reported to someone in authority by the one person who considers him to be a bully?

5. Be Prepared for Resistance

Unless an organization has already educated its employees about the complex issue of workplace bullying, they can expect some degree of resistance when new behavioral guidelines are introduced.  Part of the employees' reaction will stem from a natural resistance to change itself.  Much of the resistance will be prompted by confusion and annoyance.  It is not uncommon for some employees to believe that the organization's "fun" culture will disappear only to be replaced by unreasonably rigid rules.  And it is not uncommon for some to view this intervention as likely to create more--rather than less--bullying. 

But by far, the greatest factor creating resistance is that until relatively recently bullying was not exactly front-page news; and when it became news, it was all about children when it ought to be about adults as well. Bullying has been an everyday fact of life for countless generations of all ages. It was simply the way things were.  After all, boys will be boys; girls will be girls. And later, men will be men and women will be women.  And that’s just the story of the human condition.  At least that’s the way its been. But now it’s not the past any more. It’s Century 21. And it’s time to turn the clock forward.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of this Blog.

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