Taming disruptive behavior

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John, a seasoned manager, is growing weary of receiving 2-3 daily email complaints from his employees, the employees of another manager, and occasionally a customer. They are not ordinary complaints. John is not a customer service manager and does not interact with customers. Frustrated and battle-weary, John has to deal with an employee who meets the expectations of the job but is described as “bullying,” “intimidating,” “inappropriate,” and even “terrorizing.”

The harsh reality is that workplace bullying is more common than many think. This should not be too surprising; remember when you were in elementary, middle or high school and the bullies terrified students and even teachers? If you were not a target, you knew somebody that was. Bullying does not disappear with age. People don’t grow out of bullying. Bullies, in fact, can be very intelligent, get good grades, and then get hired by companies based upon their knowledge and skills. They are often quite skilled in hiding any signs of bullying during the interview process and for as long as three months when they pass probation and then become a permanent member of the workplace. This is often the time in which the bully comes out of the closet seeking a victim, or pairs up with another bully at work and they both team up to seek victims.

Some facts about workplace bullying are as follows: 

  • According to a 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey, slightly more than one out of three (35%) of U.S. workers have been bullied at work.
  • Victims of workplace bullying suffer from psychological and physical symptoms resulting from bullying such as sleep disturbances and stress.
  • Victims of workplace bullying are more likely to skip work, decrease their performance and seek employment at a psychologically and physically safer place.
  • Victims of workplace bullying will file lawsuits against their employers and managers for discrimination under Title VII and violations of the Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA).

Can you afford, as a manager, to expose yourself or your company to increases in health care utilization at a time with double-digit health care premium increases? Can you fully achieve the strategies and goals of your company knowing that your employees are not fully focusing on their jobs but bullying? Can you allow your company to be exposed to preventable lawsuits and other legal actions? Can you permit, condone, allow, ignore, or minimize behavior that is harmful and hurtful toward any employee under your management and leadership? Clearly, the answer is no.

Thus, as a manager and steward of organizational assets, including your employees, you must do something. But what? As a manager, there are five concrete actions that you must take to prevent workplace bullying when it occurs.

1. Adopt a workplace bullying policy.

The purpose of a workplace bullying policy is to formally establish the “rules of the road” regarding inappropriate, and in some cases, appropriate behavior at work. Other HR policies such as harassment and safety policies do not usually address workplace bullying. As such, the contents of a workplace bullying policy should spell out which behaviors will not be tolerated (e.g. physical abuse, verbal abuse, email stalking, etc.) and then identify how incidents are to be reported and how they will be handled by the organization. It is critical that the workplace bullying policy align with existing policies so that workers are not confused or do not play one policy against the other. An attorney must review the policy before it is finalized to be sure that it comports with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Do not minimize the unnecessary legal, regulatory, and public relations risk of failing to attend to workplace bullying in a serious fashion.

2.  Communicate and educate the workforce about the policy.

It is crucial that the policy is effectively communicated. Once the workplace bullying policy is approved a communication plan must be developed, focusing upon the key messages, different audiences, and communication channels used to disseminate the policy; simply slapping the policy on an intranet site or website is not sufficient in terms of communicating the policy. Policies of this type should be presented in person with senior leaders, direct supervisors, and HR so that a discussion can be facilitated about the policy and to signal its importance. Beyond making people aware of the policy which is the aim of communication, the policy should be incorporated into all orientation sessions. Classes on “Preventing and Addressing Workplace Bullying” should be designed with the policy as the centerpiece to the training. Nothing beats face-to-face interactions, even in the age of the Internet. Effectiveness and efficiency are not the same.

3. Set expectations that the policy will be followed without exception.

A policy without consequences, whether positive or negative, is like a dog without teeth. You are familiar with the saying, “All bark and no bite.” Be sure to put “teeth” into the policy to create and sustain a bully-free workplace. Examples of such include aligning the bullying policy with the organizations’ progressive discipline policy and even having awards for the organization or certain departments if there are zero occurrences of workplace bullying in a specified time period – similar to safety awards for having no injuries or accidents.

4. Establish an anonymous hotline and investigation process to field complaints.

Do not make targets of workplace bullying a victim twice, first for being a victim of such behavior and second for reporting such behavior. It is important that employees are able to report incidents of workplace bullying to a neutral third party outside their chain of command to minimize retaliation and discomfort. Many organizations have a hotline or have a position such as an ombudsperson. Whatever mechanism you use for reporting, it must meet these three criteria:

  • Accessible 24/7 particularly if you are a 24-hour operation
  • Confidential
  • Trusted by both the individual making the claim and by those who are part of the claim

5. Record the results of the policy to keep it up-to-date.

Report on an annual basis the effectiveness of the policy, the enforcement of the policy, as well as the resolution of workplace bullying complaints. Do not disclose individual information but focus on organization-wide results.

These five concrete actions to prevent workplace bullying make good business sense. In this era of fiscal austerity, lean processes, and quests for higher productivity, there is no place at any organization to waste time, talent and resources by having to spend precious organizational and managerial resources on anything unrelated to achieving the mission and strategies of the organization. These steps also represent ways to make your workplace psychologically and physically safer for all employees. Beyond workplace safety, a work environment free of harassment, intimidation, threats, and harm is a workplace that allows workers to focus on work, rather than worrying about distractors.

Marty Martin, Ph.D., has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for more than 30 years. Currently, he is working on "Taming Disruptive Behavior," which was published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in late 2012. Martin is the director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago and practices at Aequus Wealth Management. For more information, visit http://www.drmartymartin.com.


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