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BULLIES AT WORK
Have you been bullied on the job - and chalked it up to "that's the way things are around here"?
Experts say we deny bullying all the time. J. Steve McBride emailed us his thoughts:
"Bullies of the production line and board rooms who yell, belittle, and tear down the efforts of the safety professional are bullying their employees by failing to provide a safe environment."
"It's more prevalent than anyone wants to hear or believe," says safety manager Ernie Huelke.
As an anti-bullying movement sweeps the country's schools after the Columbine shootings, ISHN's e-newsletter takes a new look at the age-old headache of bullies at work.
WHERE'S THE LINE?
"I didn't realize I was being bullied. . ." is the most common introduction by callers to the United Kingdom National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, according to the Web site Bully OnLine.
Everyone gets snubs, nasty looks, or called names. When does "tough management", "disciplined management" or a personality conflict go too far? When does it turn into bullying?
More often than you might think. In Europe, where workplace bullying is taken more seriously than here in the U.S., a European Union survey on working conditions showed that nine percent of workers reported being bullied in 2000.
Some estimates are higher. A survey of UK employees by Mercer Human Resource Consulting in 2002 found that one in five had been bullied once in the past 12 months.
It's confusing, this bullying business. One person gets screamed at and feels intimidated, embarrassed. Another vows not to let it get to her. It's not black and white. No universally accepted definition of workplace bullying exists.
Here's how the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work describes it:
"Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behavior directed towards an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety (to the mental or physical health of the employee)."
Bullies usually abuse power. Nine out of ten times, it is a boss, a manager, some person of authority, who intimidates or undermines a subordinate, according to an analysis of 6,195 cases by the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line.
"When I voiced concerns, the decision-makers discounted what was required in favor of their own interpretation," says a safety manager. "I was told, 'The decision has been made, we appreciate your input, now let's get on with the meeting. You're holding us up'."
SAFETY'S BIG BULLY?
What better authority figure to study bullying than. . . OSHA.
In the 1970s and 1980s the agency roared at its regulatory zenith. Federal inspections reached an all-time high in 1976 - 91,516 (versus 37,493 in fiscal 2002). Standards rolled off the assembly line. In 1978, rules came down for cotton dust, benzene, lead, arsenic, DBCP, and acrylonitrile. Baking in OSHA's oven: costly hearing conservation and hazard communication requirements.
Outraged employers were not in denial. A "Stop OSHA" campaign was launched in 1978 by the American Conservative Union. More than 5,000 employers angry over being fined by the agency funded the operation. More than 100 anti-OSHA bills were introduced in Congress. By 1979, more than one in every five federal penalty cases was being contested (21.7).
To its critics, OSHA boasted many traits of the serial bully: Arrogant and interfering inspectors and standards writers. Rigid know-it-alls consumed with trivial fault-finding. Hyper-critical and inconsistent in their judgments. Employers were "targets" set up for failure, operating in a climate of fear and uncertainty.
OSHA was loathed, of course, as bullies are. Executives ranked OSHA lower than almost every other reg agency in terms of effectiveness, in a 1980 Louis Harris poll.
Now the contest rate is down to eight percent. OSHA chief John Henshaw talks about selling value, not setting standards. What happened?
OSHA got a dose of Beltway bullying. The Republican Congress threatened budget cuts and reforms unless the agency eased up. After the ergonomics debacle, the Bush White House wanted cooperation, not confrontation.
"Henshaw cannot say what he thinks because of the administration," said Patrick Tyson, an OSHA chief during the Reagan years, in a recent interview with the New York Times.
Hiding incompetence is a prime motive behind bullying - which makes perfect sense to OSHA's critics. It also explains why some organizations bully the safety department. They don't get it - the benefits and need for safety and health.
Common bullying tactics: A boss intimidates and undermines safety by ignoring it. Safety pros are excluded from meetings, kept out of the loop. Programs are underfunded, undermanned, unappreciated. Projects are put off.
Another tactic: The boss dumps on safety. "You're the safety department, you fix it. And by the way, we're giving you security, fire protection, environmental, maintenance, drug testing and workers' comp." Responsibility but no authority.
"Most of these kinds of managers are afraid of the safety professional, and believe that you must be put in your place," says a safety manager. "It's highly territorial out there, and the best way to establish territory is to dump on the safety staff as often as possible."
When you go to a CEO or plant manager and talk about safety, you're threatening his stature, said consultant Peter Sandman in an interview in Safety at Work. "You're talking about something that the executive likes to think he or she is above."
Bullies are also excellent manipulators. Liars. Call it lip service. "Safety is more important to us than anything else." Behind the fine words - nothing.
"Of course management's commitment to safety was expressed at the highest levels during my interview, but it quickly faded when real safety issues were considered," says a safety pro.
Call it cultural bullying, organizational bullying, hierarchical bullying. Leaders in these cases are untrustworthy, say experts. Deceptive, controlling, secretive. Above the (OSHA) rules and more than willing to tempt fate (risk an inspection, ignore a recommendation).
Cultural bullying often springs out of ignorance, experts say. It's unwitting bullying. "I can never recall in 25 years of experience where any manager bullied safety simply because they wanted someone to get hurt," says consultant Dan Markiewicz.
They just don't get it.
"As I travel around the country the main complaint I hear from safety professionals is that they can't seem to get management to understand what it takes to prevent injuries and have an effective safety program," says consultant Gary Higbee. "Safety issues are almost invisible to the untrained eye."
"The more I was able to demonstrate safety's positive impact, the less bullying I received," says Markiewicz.
WHAT TO DO
That's one way to handle an unwitting bully.
What else can you if you're singled out, volunteered for jobs with unrealistic goals and deadlines? Overloaded. Denied information and access. Left feeling insecure, angry, depressed.
1) Find out all you can about bullying. Distinguish isolated cases of unwitting bullying (which is all of us at times) from a pattern of premeditated intimidation, undermining, sidelining, or criticism.
Some web resources for doing your homework:
2) Get help. Talk to someone you trust for an honest second opinion. Bullying can used by the so-called "victim" as an excuse for genuine poor performance, personality conflicts, personal problems, or poor fits in an organization.
3) Keep a log, journal, or diary. Document what's happening. Experts say it's not each incident that counts, but the number, regularity and most importantly the pattern that reveal bullying.
"After making the decision that you can't take it any more, you can call in OSHA," says Jeff Meddin, safety manager for RAILworks. "Just make sure you have your 'Pearl Harbor' diary at home. Document the unsafe conditions and injuries that occurred, and how you attempted to get them corrected. Document what management did to either ignore or punish you. You want to have the documentation necessary to file an 11(c) discrimination claim if your employer fires you."
4) Expect a habitual bully to deny everything. Says Tim Field, creator of Bully OnLine, "The person who asserts their right not to be bullied is often blowing the whistle on another's incompetence." Field says, yep, this can include breaches of health and safety.
5) If bullying hides incompetence endemic in an organization, expect fireworks, Field says. Expect coworkers to melt away. And the more you stand up for yourself, the worse things are likely to get.
6) Bullying that is unwitting, not malicious, can be handled differently. In this case, you've got a sales job on your hands, not a scandal.
"Prove safety's value to the bottom line," says Markiewicz. "If you can't, learn to accept sand being kicked in your face."
7) But if you are dealing with a pattern of bullying, get yourself a support network. Since bullies like to separate and isolate their targets, get advice from safety groups in your industry, or local chapters of national professional organizations such as the American Society of Safety Engineers, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the National Safety Council.
8) Take your evidence of bullying to an ally in management, a safety supporter, someone you trust, a mentor. But since most bullies are in the management ranks, expect those ranks to close. Often the bully's superiors will deny and disbelieve the inadequacies and neglect you bring to their attention.
"If you are willing to risk continuing to work with the bully, then you have to go over his or her head. The worst that can happen is you will be asked to leave, or you will quit anyhow," says Meddin.
"If employees are represented by organized labor, you might be able to elicit their assistance behind the scenes to contact the authorities, such as OSHA," says one safety manager.
9) If you confront overwhelming odds not of your choosing, not of your making, and over which you have no control, walk away, says Field.
"Three times when I had jobs where safety was not on equal footing with production, I began another job search within six months of being hired," says Huelke.
BULLY-FREE WORK ZONES
Say the bullying occurs in the trenches, not in the executive suite. Top management backs you. But supervisors and employees press coworkers to do it fast, not safe. Then what?
1) First, be realistic about the chore ahead and how long it will take for a culture change to occur, say experts.
2) Get all levels of the organization involved in your campaign to wipe out safety bullying. "Anyone who is against the idea of creating an anti-bullying ethos does not have the employer's interests at heart," explains Field. Like accidents, bullying wastes time, hurts productivity, and costs dollars in higher absenteeism and turnover.
3) Ask employees for their views on bullying with an anonymous perception survey. Collect hard data to support your need for a policy, and to measure improvement once a policy is implemented.
4) Document instances of bullying, though you might not get many reports. Denial, ignorance, and the code of silence are a bully's allies. Like accident and near-miss reporting, training and procedures are needed to encourage employees to speak up.
5) Get top management to commit to an overall policy against bullying. Show managers the facts, the surveys, the documents. The European Agency for Safety and Health offers these tips for a policy:
6) Make sure you know how to investigate complaints. Usually there's little concrete evidence and plenty of "he said/she said". Know the types of bullying (unwitting, organizational, serial, etc.) and traits of the bully.
7) Train all employees on bullying, what it is, how to recognize it, and how to deal with it. Most of all, don't ignore it.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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