What counts as blocking the policy? Blocking a good policy means one or more of several things:
- blocking the adoption of any anti-bullying policy,
- blocking the adoption of a good policy that does not undermine its purpose,
- blocking the communication of the policy, and
- blocking the fair implementation of the policy.
Many private and public entities have no anti-bullying policy at all. Some have policies with holes in them; some of the language undermines the policies’ stated purposes. (The Tennessee Executive Branch abusive conduct policy, revised 01/10/20, does this.) Some have respectable policies, but many employees and supervisors do not know about the policies. (HHS and some VA hospitals had good policies, but employees and managers did not know about them.) Some entities have decent policies, and they simply ignore them or do not fairly enforce them. It seems there are many in this group.
I told my staff in OSHA that work had to be done right and it had to look right. Otherwise, people will not trust you. This applies to implementation of an anti-bullying policy. When management above your office hires an outside investigator to evaluate your complaint against your manager, you are likely to be suspicious. People told me they did not trust such an arrangement in their office at a world-famous federal agency. It would look better to have an investigator from or hired by an administrative office.
Where to look
To find who is blocking the bullying policy, I find it useful to start here: “Bullying is not a management style; it is abuse. It is about anger and aggressiveness.”
Randi C. Wood, LCSW, DCSW, the former Director of the Colorado State Employee Assistance Program, wrote this in her article, “Psychological Abuse at Home and Work” (2004) for the State EAP magazine .
Ms. Wood spoke particularly about management behavior. Certainly, not all bullying is from managers and supervisors. Still, many surveys find that managers and supervisors are the source of about 3/4 of workplace bullying. That is a clue to who obstructs the adoption and implementation of anti-bullying policies. It is not the whole story.
There are many obstacles to: adopting anti-bullying policies, making them good policies, communicating them, and implementing them in a fair manner. I will set out here some problems I have seen in my research and direct experience.
Managers: Managers obstruct the adoption of anti-bullying policies, at least in part, due to their anxiety that such a policy would limit their actions. In this, they are both right and wrong. A good anti-bullying policy should limit managers from abusing employees. A good anti-bullying policy will NOT limit managers from criticizing, directing, guiding, and assigning work to employees, so long as management’s words, guidance, and assignments are done for the legitimate interests of the employer. Your policy should spell this out.
Words, guidance, and assignments done for the purpose of humiliating, degrading, or undermining an employee are NOT in the interests of the employer. Such conduct is for the personal gratification of the aggressive, bullying manager. Such actions, including malicious inactions, hurt the bully’s company or agency.
Human Resources: Some HR offices resist adopting and implementing anti-bullying policies because they are accustomed to protecting managers from complaints. This seems especially true of the labor-management-relations (LMR) staff. It seems to occur in Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) offices as well. (I know it is hard for companies and agencies to acknowledge managers’ EEO violations, but these violations hurt morale.)
The LMR and EEO staffs’ urge to defend managers from complaints undermines growth of healthy work environments. The employee complaints I handled under these offices at U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) were almost always a violation of the anti-bullying provisions of the USDOL workplace violence program . That is separate from federal laws which prohibit discrimination and harassment in employment (eeoc.gov/harassment). But LMR and EEO missed that, and frankly so did I.
Of course, many people in HR do support anti-bullying policies. The deputy director of HR for a major city told me in 2020 that he was pleased with their policy. They had to reprimand a few managers and supervisors, and he thought it helped the work environment. The employees seem to have noticed.
Corporate and agency counsel: In past articles and talks, I overlooked the role of private and public sector counsel in obstructing and undermining anti-bullying policies. I have friends who are attorneys in both sectors. I know that attorneys have a duty to represent their clients zealously, but they are also supposed to counsel/advise their clients. Sometimes they fight the wrong battles.
One case I handled of harassment based on “protected characteristics” at USDOL involved an open slur by a white man against a white woman in his office. The woman rebuked the man, who then complained to the supervisor who sided with the man (his friend) and gave a written reprimand to the woman!
The abusive words in this case (and most others) violated the Department’s policy against “psychological intimidation and harassment” which is the core of the USDOL anti-bullying policy. HR and the Solicitor’s office fought such complaints of EEO related harassment. The HR/attorney teams often won because it can be difficult for employees to prove that the abusive behavior was related to their membership in a protected class.
Whether an employee can prevail on a Title VII claim of harassment or not, it is in every employer’s interests to stop abusive behavior. Holding the offending manager to the employer’s anti-bullying policy is necessary if you want employees to take your anti-bullying policy seriously.
Corporate/Organizational Leaders: There are still top leaders who just do not get it. Perhaps, professionals in HR, public relations, and/or their attorneys could enlighten them. They need to be reminded of the time and cost to recruit and train employees. When the “talent” leaves, they take their knowledge with them.
Further, poorly treated workers can and do criticize organizations on Glassdoor or other social media. Consequently, some good people will never even apply for a job at such companies. The best people can skip your company for a better work environment.
“Nose-blindness” to skunks: Almost all adults in the USA know what a skunk looks like. Perhaps not all know what skunk spray smells like. People who know will acknowledge the presence of a skunk. Similarly, people who know what bullying is should acknowledge bullying when they see it or hear of it. Unfortunately, some managers, HR officials, and corporate/agency attorneys close their eyes, noses, and ears to the skunk of bullying.
Where managers, HR, and attorneys failed
One serial bully, a male supervisor, in one federal agency provoked three women to file three separate federal EEO cases. The Solicitor’s Office settled the first case before trial, lost the second case in federal court, and settled the third. That one man cost his agency almost $2 million in awards to plaintiffs, so far.
The women involved were lawyers, employed to analyze problems and provide advice to their agency. (They were not classified as “attorneys”—the only “attorneys” are in the Solicitor’s Office.) They were doing well until the new male supervisor showed up. One plaintiff told me that he verbally abused her and physically intimidated her. Such behavior is clearly prohibited by the USDOL Workplace Violence Program.
The bullying supervisor’s Office Director knew of the complaints and did not get the women away from him or otherwise intervene. Upper management, i.e., Senior Executives and above, knew and did not resolve the situation. HR defended the supervisor every step of the way, and the Solicitor’s Office got involved when the cases went to the EEOC and/or the Courts.
While the HR and the attorneys fought the EEO complaints, they disregarded the physical and psychological harassment and intimidation. Note that harassment and intimidation under the Workplace Violence Program does NOT depend on membership in protected classes under EEO. Upper management, HR, and the attorneys did not know or did not care about the workplace violence policy.
In contrast, I knew Senior Executives who were heads of “Administrative Programs” for several other agencies. They managed HR, budget, planning, and more. When they knew about cases like the ones above, they facilitated the move of victims to other offices or even to other agencies. They were very smart and decent. They did not have cases like this go to court. I remember them with great respect.
One piece of policy that would help
Mayor Megan Barry Executive Order Number 39 (October 12, 2017) is the Workplace Conduct Policy for The Metropolitan Government of Nashville And Davidson County. It says: “Supervisory personnel who allow abusive conduct to continue or fail to take appropriate action upon learning of such conduct will also be subject to corrective and/or disciplinary action.”
When people with responsibility know they will be held accountable, they should be more likely to carry out their responsibilities under an anti-bullying policy or a workplace violence policy that covers bullying. Too many anti-bullying policies do not hold managers and others responsible when they hide their eyes from bullying.
If you do not have a workplace bullying policy, who is holding it up? If you have one with holes in it, how did it happen? If employees do not know about your policy, what good is it? If you are not fairly implementing your policy, who are you fooling? (It is not the employees.)
If you want to attract and keep talent, you must protect employees from psychological violence.