There is no doubt that in most cases of workplace bullying, there are actions all involved can take to help the situation. This includes the employer. Failure to act will have a huge impact on staff morale, performance, sick leave and staff turnover.
If that is not enough motivation for you to act, there is also the time and money lost on speaking to the individuals involved, staff taking stress leave, and a risk of someone lodging a claim for Workplace Harassment.
If you are reading this article, I am guessing you are willing to do your part to help. Here are some ideas on what workplaces can do:
- Find out what is happening: There are lots of ways you can do so. Many workplaces conduct annual, anonymous staff surveys where staff report how they believe they are being treated by management and co-workers, where bullying behaviour is coming from, who is being targeted, and how effectively it is being addressed. The results will also give you a baseline from which you can measure the effectiveness of your workplace harassment prevention programs.
You can also find out what is happening by conducting exit interviews with those staff who are leaving, ascertaining their reasons for doing so. Workplaces can also be alert for warning signs of possible workplace harassment – individuals taking a lot of sick leave and those at risk of being targeted (people with a disability, those new to a role, and individuals from a different ethnic background). Of course, there is the simple talking to staff, asking how they are going, and making it easy for staff to raise any concerns.
- Encourage a respectful workplace culture: Here the right values need to be promoted and practised by senior management. I suggest the values you need to promote relate to respect, inclusiveness, and working problems out. As you speak about these, it can help to give relevant examples for to your workplace.
Of course, the more people at work discuss and think about these values, the more engaged they are in supporting them. One way you can do so is to involve staff in developing the Workplace Harassment Policy or Code of Conduct. Such documents need to be clear about what workplace harassment is, what it is not, why it is not tolerated, and what people can do.
One workplace I know, as part of their overall campaign on respectful relationships, further engaged their staff with an Art Show where the staff completed works of art consistent with the values being promoted at their workplace. There were some very good entries which were judged over wine and cheese, of course. One business owner I know has an unusual way of encouraging a respectful workplace – he only pays his staff their monthly bonuses when he sees them treating each other respectfully and working out problems when they occur.
- Develop people’s skills: The vast majority of people who are accused of bullying are not intending to be hurtful or disrespectful. Often they are under a lot of pressure or highly stressed, taking shortcuts with how they speak to people, or they are simply doing the best they know how.
People who are accused of bullying can benefit from a good mentoring relationship if they can be teamed up with the right person and given a face-saving reason for participating in mentoring. Good professional development can also help these people become more aware as to how their behaviour is sometimes coming across, and, for those in management, how they can improve on their people management skills. The old command and control style of management is no longer a good fit for many people these days and tends to increase the likelihood of complaints about bullying.
People on the receiving end of hurtful or disrespectful behaviour may also need help in speaking to the person concerned before the matter becomes a major concern. Bystanders too can do their part in speaking up when they see unacceptable behaviour occurring in the workplace. My experience has been that most of us can benefit from training in both informal and formal ways of influencing change with their managers and co-workers. But where do you find a good speaker on this topic I hear you ask? (Ahem)
- Put in place work systems supportive of a respectful culture: One of the best things that employers put in place are regular two-way discussions where both team members and those in leadership roles feel free to give each other open and honest feedback. Of course this needs to be done respectfully, balanced with positive feedback as well, people need to learn how to respond non-defensively, and adjust themselves for the individuals with whom they have to work. One workplace I know has a ‘No Surprises’ policy where staff are meant to know about concerns about their behaviour sooner, not just at their performance appraisal.
Some workplaces appoint a contact person for support or advice for those concerned about or accused of workplace harassment. This person could be someone appointed to the role of Workplace Harassment Officer, a person from your HR department or Employee Assistance Program, or an outside professional. Whoever they are, they need to have expertise in supporting and coaching people around these matters.Workplaces can also address factors that may be contributing to complaints about workplace bullying – high workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and role conflicts.
If these stressors can be reduced in some way, people tend to be more tolerant and others move away from extremes of their own behaviour. Of course, as with any approaches, backup plans also need to be put in place. Apart from informal ways of influencing change, there also needs to be clear steps about how to lodge a complaint, how investigations are to proceed, and what the possible outcomes may be. Proactive workplaces also monitor, over time, the effectiveness of their anti-bullying programs.
Turning tough workplace cultures around can be done, but it takes concerted actions over time, particularly from leaders who need to set the example. Consider also whether it would be helpful to establish an Workplace Culture committee at your workplace that has the support of senior leaders, through which you can share responsibility for taking action to address the factors above. People need education and they also need support, but they also need action from leaders.