Bullying behavior has often been excused as simply a “personality conflict” or an aggressive “management style.” Employers typically do not see bullying as behavior that rises to the level of “unlawful” harassment. Consequently, bullying often goes uninvestigated and it is often condoned. However, if neglected, a bully-rich environment can be just as toxic as other types of harassment and expose a company to substantial liability.
A purposeful anti-bullying campaign, if implemented constructively, can help employers and supervisory employees to effect change, revise policies, and create a positive, more productive workplace culture. The following may help employers proactively manage bullying in the workplace:
1. Create a culture of respect for all employees: It is crucial that this message comes “from the top down.” Top management must set and enforce the tone.
2. Establish the culture and set the right tone (for everyone) from the very beginning. Have a policy (separate from an unlawful harassment policy) that outlines the company’s expectation that employees will be treated with respect and dignity, and that the company does not tolerate disrespectful behavior. Employers that do not set the expectation leave it to chance to get the desired result. Clearly defining what bullying and respectful behavior means within the company will enable all employees to know what is expected.
3. Send a clear message of respect, tolerance and professionalism: Deliver “respect-based” messaging in your training of supervisory and nonsupervisory employees, separate from and in addition to an anti-harassment mandate. Anti-bullying is not about protected classes; it is about treating everyone with respect so that corrosive environments are less likely to arise or persist. Some employees may have come to think of bullying behavior as normal or acceptable—perhaps it was learned from past bosses, from home situations, or in social settings. Regardless of the origin of this belief, make it clear that, at the workplace, professionalism and respect are the order of the day.
4. Include “effective leadership” as part of the company’s basic supervisor/manager training: Tie the company’s anti-bullying/respect-based workplace message to “effective leadership” skills. Create managers’ buy-in with performance-backed expectations. Such training should include the skills a manager can use to hold employees accountable and improve the employees’ performance without the manager relying on his or her own bullying behavior. “Management-by-bullying” is simply not good leadership. Employees (and employers) want leaders who are respectful, consistent and motivating.
5. Hold all employees accountable for bullying and disrespectful behavior: Training, by itself, is not the complete solution. Employers must hold employees accountable with appropriate discipline and remedial measures.
6. Set expectations in performance: This includes the expectation that all employees treat others with respect, dignity and civility. Make “getting along with others” a performance measurement.
7. Teach empathy: On both sides of a contentious dynamic, the ability of an individual to step back and engage in a sincere, empathic response (e.g., “I understand you’re frustrated. Help me understand what we could do to improve the situation...”) rather than a retort that escalates the situation, can be a game-changer at resolving the issue at hand.
8. Promptly and appropriately investigate: If a complaint of bullying is registered, investigate with the same vigilance that would attach to a complaint of harassment. Thoroughly investigate the complaint and then take appropriate remedial action that stops the bullying behavior.
Mark Jodon, a shareholder in Littler Mendelson’s Houston office, is board-certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and he frequently conducts EEOC and other HR training for companies. Mark serves as the chapter attorney for the ABC Gulf Coast Chapter. He can be reached at (713) 652-4739.
Littler Mendelson, P.C. is part of the international legal practice Littler Global, which operates worldwide through a number of separate legal entities. Please visit www.littler.com for more information.