Thought Leadership


Is workplace bullying a threat to worker safety? And if so what can be done about it?

June 27, 2012
The case of 68-year bus monitor, Karen Klein being bullied at the hands of four seventh graders has set off an international outrage against bullying. This issue has touched an even deeper nerve among safety professionals because Karen Klein, as a bus monitor, is a safety professional. The case raises some interesting issues about workplace bullying and the appropriate response to cases of workplace threats, harassment, and intimidation.

Is workplace bullying a threat to worker safety? Certainly in the broadest, emotional sense, one cannot be truly safe while being bullied at work. But is workplace bullying really a threat to worker safety in the sense that bullying will increase the probability that injuries will occur? I’ve written virtual reams on the inevitability of mistakes. And even while we cannot ever complete prevent mistakes, it’s possible—even easy—to cause people to make more mistake simply by increasing the elements that impede peak performance. Distractions, fatigue, drug use, noise, interruptions, lack of capability, rushing, and most notably stress significantly increase the probability that workers will make mistakes and in many of these cases these mistakes will result in worker injuries.

Beyond the increased probability of mistake-related injuries, workplace bullying can directly lead to workplace violence, and while this may fall within the purview of other functions, it is appropriate that safety professionals be mindful of workplace bullying and manage it as they would other safety hazards.

It’s important to understand the nature of bullying. Bullying is a pattern of, typically escalating, aggressive behavior. Aggressive behavior is a natural part of the formation of teams. As individuals form teams experts have identified distinct stages: forming, storming, norming, conforming, and performing. The storming phase is characterized by power struggles often punctuated by aggressive, even dysfunctional behavior. Bullying, however, goes far beyond this normal aggression and morphs into something uglier and potentially more violent.

As with any threat to safety the key dealing with workplace bullying is preventing it before it happens. To do that:

Deal with the Environment. As with other forms of harassment, bullying tends to thrive in, and depend on, an environment that either tacitly or actively supports it. To protect against bullying, organizations should guard against environments where teasing, horseplay, and practical jokes are tolerated or even encouraged.

Act Early. Bullying, left unaddressed, tends to escalate until the problem is unavoidable and difficult to manage. Many managers tend to ignore the bullying in hopes that it will go away which acerbates the problem. Organizations that take clear and decisive action at the first sign of bullying are far more likely to be successful in avoiding escalating issues.

Don’t Reward Bullying. Those who engage in bullying behavior generally equate those behaviors with success. Most bullying is perpetrated by individuals who have been rewarded for inappropriate behavior for years—or even decades—and expecting them to abandoned behaviors that have served them well for years is foolish. In some cases, leaders—valuing the technical skills of a worker engaged in bullying—will actually enable the bullying behavior by protecting the offending worker from the logical consequences of his or her actions.

Recognize that Bullying Is a Behavior, Not a Person. Given the right antecedents and environment virtually anyone can engage in behavior that—if seen in a different light—could be perceived as bullying. While media attention or office gossip make it easy to vilify those engaged in bullying coaching an individual on the inappropriateness of a behavior is often enough to prevent aggressive behavior before it reaches the level of bullying. Avoid describing individuals—even those that engage in the most egregious behavior—as “bullies” and focus on the inappropriate behaviors instead.

Be Mindful that Bullying Can Be Difficult to Spot. Some of the most aggressive workers can and will use company policies to engage in bullying behaviors. Often these individuals will use Human Resources policies or anonymous whistleblowing employee assistance lines to make false accusations against their victims. Sometimes the victim may be mistaken for the aggressor.

Treat Bullying Just as You Would Any Other Workplace Hazard. Bullying is a significant influencer of a worker’s performance: bullied workers make more mistakes, worse decisions, and generally are prevented from performing at peak performance levels. In short, bullying is a significant contributor to an increase in risk of injuries. As with any hazard, the organization should record the behavior, contain it, permanently correct it, and fix the system error that allowed it to develop.

Train Supervisors To Spot the Warning Signs Of Workplace Bullying. An organization’s best defense against workplace bullying is to train supervisors in how to spot early warning signs of workplace bullying:

Excessive horseplay or teasing. As mentioned above, horseplay, teasing, or name-calling is a good indication that bullying may develop.

 Scape-Goating. Often, bullying develops when a specific individual or group singled out for punishment by the larger workforce. Often bullying develops simply because the victim is slow (or refuses) to adopt the group norm. Aggressive individuals will often justify the bullying because, in their minds, the victim “brought it on himself” or “asked” for it.

Tit-for-Tat Disputes. There are often workplace disputes where two parties will engage in a vicious pattern of aggression followed by retaliation. These seemingly innoculuous disputes can begin as pranks or practical jokes that escalate into real violence.

Don’t Blame The Victim. Many people expect the bullied individual to “stand up for him/herself”. While that may have been good advice for kids on a 1950’s playground (and I question that) it is a bit trickier between adults in a workplace. Predatory behavior is less likely to be a problem if a would-be victim assertively addresses the problem and essentially stops exhibiting “prey” nonverbal, but no one should have to tolerate being bullied by a coworker; it is the organization’s responsibility to act.

Don’t Take Sides. This may seem a bit obvious, but it is imperative that leaders avoid getting sucked into petty disputes between co-workers. This is not to say the supervisor shouldn’t act on an employee’s complaint of workplace harassment. On the contrary, in incidence of an employee complaint the supervisor should address the behavior with both workers present and make it clear that both are expected to engage in professional behavior at all times.

Adopt, and Enforce, a Zero-Tolerance for Harassment Policy. Workplace bullying is a serious problem and one that needs to be quickly, consistently, and convincingly addressed. No one should believe that they can bully a coworker, peer, or subordinate and not face severe career consequences.

Cross posted at philladuke.wordpress.com

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