If they're in your workplace, they're hurting other employees, and the company's bottom line.
By Barbara Bowes
SPRING has finally arrived and gardeners are out in full force. Growth and a sense of "newness" are taking over.
Unfortunately though, this sense of excitement about cultivating a healthy surrounding doesn't always extend to the workplace. In fact, statistics are beginning to show that some workplaces are becoming quite toxic and that mental-health issues are becoming a significantly increasing problem.
For an optimist such as myself, this is discouraging news. But judging from the e-mails I receive, it does indeed seem to be a problem. So what is going on? What can we do about it?
According to a leading human resource journal, the most insidious and destructive problem creating unhealthy workplaces today is the issue of bullying. In fact, studies from the United States and the United Kingdom estimate that one in five workers are regularly abused through workplace bullying.
This has certainly shattered any illusions of organizational harmony that I've had. It almost seems that those young sandbox bullies (male and female) grow up, trade in their cute little shorts for fancy business suits and a slick hairdo and continue to apply aggression to ensure their career success. And up until now, it seems to have worked!
Dr. Ruth Namie, a psychotherapist and leading researcher in the field, describes workplace bullying as the deliberate, repeated and hurtful mistreatment of one person by another. Still others refer to it as harassment, emotional abuse, targeted aggression or abuse of power that undermines self-confidence and causes stress. Because workplace bullying doesn't leave physical evidence, it is not well documented, and since it rarely erupts into open confrontation, it is also the most tolerated of all workplace behaviour.
What does bullying behaviour look like? Typically, it comes from a boss to a subordinate in the form of verbal or emotional abuse. It includes yelling, swearing or ridiculing, continual and trivial fault-finding, chronic unjustified criticism, berating, intimidation, public humiliation or sabotaging of achievements.
But the workplace bully can also be the silent snake in the grass who cruelly bullies through manipulation, isolation, exclusion and gossip. Or they set an employee up to fail by overloading them with work, inconsistently and unjustifiably changing work responsibilities and even canceling holiday schedules.
But workplace bullying is not limited to bosses. It can also come from peers, especially those who are jealous or are threatened by their colleague's abilities and/or success. Finally, workplace bullies aren't differentiated by gender. Women can be equally as vicious as men in spite of using more verbal techniques.
But why is this a problem for the workplace? Surely it's just a situation of people being too sensitive. Or perhaps it's just a matter of personality conflicts or poor interpersonal relationships.
No! It's a problem because it's the responsibility of every company to provide a workplace that is a safe and healthy place to be. It's a problem because it affects your bottom line, both today and tomorrow. It's a problem because your company's reputation in the community is important. Do the arithmetic: Add up the costs from absenteeism, non-productivity, employee sabotage and medical leaves. You'll be surprised.
But what can be done about this? First and foremost, employers aren't amateur psychologists and shouldn't be expected to "fix" people's psyche. But there is a responsibility to deal with the exhibiting behaviour and how it affects employees and the work environment.
First, learn to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace, and second, take decisive action to deal with any bullying issues that are identified and then put policies and procedures in place to manage any future situations.
Once you are aware of workplace bullying, recognizing the symptoms of a toxic workplace is easy.
Watch for signs of frustration and a general sense of disgruntlement. Constantly check your turnover rates. Have a third party conduct exit interviews -- find out why people are leaving. Ask employees to describe your culture. If you are living by the old-fashioned macho image, I can bet that bullying is present.
Look at your processes and systems -- are they rigid and controlling? Are you a micromanager? Are employees trusted? Control issues often lead to bulling behaviour.
What about your employee relationships? Are there frequent arguments, yelling and general signs of disrespect? Or are people working in fearful silence?
Finally, who is the role model? Look at yourself and your management team: Does your behaviour match your words? If not, then bullying is probably in your midst.
But recognizing a toxic workplace is one thing; fixing it is another. Begin with an intervention strategy that enables you to thoroughly identify the problem. Retain the services of an external facilitator to conduct an assessment.
Use face-to-face interviews and focus groups to get to the bottom of the issues. If one individual is indeed isolated and confirmed as a bully, then deal with it immediately. Physically move them or terminate if this is the last resort. But don't delay -- your business can't afford it.
Once urgent issues have been dealt with, develop both an overall short- and long-term plan. Reach out for what are called the "quick wins", problems that are fairly easy to resolve, have a high profile and will help to quickly build the confidence of the organization. Increase communication with employees through frequent progress reports so they are confident you are indeed doing something about the issues they have raised.
Then begin to build a strong prevention program. This has several different but integrated strategies that include developing a culture of support, implementing extensive management and employee training and designing and implementing appropriate policies and procedures.
Eradicating a toxic environment and cultivating and growing a healthy, high-performing workplace is going to take considerable time and patience. But, no matter what, once you begin don't stop. Your business and reputation are at stake.
Sources: Lurking in the Shadows, by R.M. Yandrick, in HR Magazine 1999; Bullies in the Workplace, by Jo Goecke; Women at Work: Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC
Barbara Bowes is President of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.