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HR Handled Right

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So the bullies you avoided at school have grown up and gone to work. Chances are, some of them work for you. Now, what are you going to do about it? Unfortunately, you can’t send your problem child to the headmaster or make him stay in for detention. And, even if you could, it probably wouldn’t work. How many times did you see a teacher or principal get a bully to change his ways? Zero.

The good news is that as a human resource professional, you have the power to implement the necessary strategies to prevent and/or alleviate bullying in your workplace. In this article, we’ll look at how you can use policies, hiring, and top management support to create a bully-free workplace.

Have you ever looked back after ending a bad relationship and realized the problems that eventually ended it were there from the very beginning? The red flags were waving, but you chose to focus on her charisma or his blue eyes. The same is true at work. Clues to a future workplace bully are often present in the hiring interview, but are often overlooked in favor of a dazzling resume or impressive technical skills. Failing to assess interpersonal skills is the number one cause of disastrous hiring decisions, especially for technical positions. However, unless your employee is working in solitary confinement, s/he will have to get along with others no matter what technical position is being filled.

The first step in establishing an anti-bully corporate atmosphere is to keep them out of your company. For example, make interpersonal skills assessment a critical part of any interview. Use behavior-based interviewing strategies, i.e., ask questions that require a job candidate to relate past experiences that illustrate how s/he handled interpersonal situations similar to the ones s/he will be facing in your workplace. The benefit to these kinds of questions is that, unlike hypothetical situations, the answers don’t just tell you if a person understands how to handle an event; they tell you how the person has handled it – and is likely to handle it in the future. Here are five commands and questions that can get you started in screening out bullies:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an employee who failed to follow your directions. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the result? (Watch out for inappropriate discipline techniques and/or communication that focus on the person rather than his/her actions. Look for calm and effective communication, an explanation of the potential consequences for the employee’s lack of follow-through, and agreement to take follow-up action.).
  • Describe your management philosophy and give me an example of how you put it into practice on a daily basis. (Watch out for micromanaging, reluctance to delegate, a lack of clear instructions, and/or a lack of involvement. Look for listening, availability and regular interaction with employees, and joint problem solving)
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an employee who was having personal problems. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the result? (Watch out for a lack of empathy, over-involvement, a lack of awareness of the problem until it became a crisis, and/or failure to inquire. Look for early awareness of the problem, listening, empathy, joint problem-solving regarding ways to minimize the impact on work, involvement of human resources, (if appropriate) and an action plan).
  • Give me an example of a time when you got angry with a co-worker. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the result? (Watch out for denial, jumping to conclusions, revenge strategies, and/or a one-sided account of what happened. Look for listening, clarifying questions, the ability to see both sides, and effective communication/conflict resolution).
  • Tell me about a time when you felt like your supervisor favored another employee. What was the situation? What did you do? (Watch out for unresolved anger, hints at attempts to sabotage the co-worker, a lack of perceived responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation. Look for a sense of having put the experience into perspective and active attempts to make the most of a bad work situation).

‘You’ve got to sit on people to get the job done.’ ‘If you don’t boss people around, they don’t respect you.’ ‘We run a tough ship around here.’ How many times have these kinds of arguments been used to justify inappropriate management conduct? Worse yet, how many times has it been rewarded?

A study that looked at predictors of job satisfaction across cultures found that the quality of the employee/supervisor relationship was one of two consistent factors across twenty countries. Employees who feel supported, encouraged, and treated fairly by their direct supervisors develop a sense of organizational commitment. Yet, while at least fifty percent of all turnovers are due to poor management practices, the mythical link between inappropriate behavior and productivity still lingers. If your corporate environment seems to be stuck in survival-of-the-fittest mode, it may be time to work with senior management on assessing your corporate values and realigning them with the realities of today’s workplace.

There’s another way your corporate environment can unintentionally foster bullying – through job strain. One of the most common problems I encounter is the situational bully, i.e., the valuable manner who, because of an excessive workload or unrealistic deadline, becomes a domineering tyrant. If you observe an increase in inappropriate workplace behavior, do a little investigating to see what’s underneath and what you can do about it.

If your business is cyclical for example, consider partnering with an Employee Assistance Program before your busy season and offer self-development seminars on coping with stress, time management, and other helpful topics. If the behavior seems to occur primarily in new managers, re-evaluate your management development program to see where communication skills are lacking. Supervisors are often promoted because of their technical expertise and, if they lack the management skills to be effective leaders, can resort to bullying in an attempt to establish authority. And, while there are likely to be a few bad apples in every bunch, some inappropriate workplace behavior is a symptom of a deeper corporate problem – one worth finding and fixing.

Don’t forget to put it in writing. Workplace policies rarely work unless the behaviors they request are supported and modeled by senior management. When they are, they become a powerful communicator of your company’s values and priorities. Not only do they set clear expectations of what behavior is expected, they communicate a certain tone that tells employees how senior management views them.

A workplace conduct policy, when consistently enforced, can communicate the message that employees are as valuable as customers – and should be treated with the same respect. Given that there is a direct link between customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction, perhaps this message is consistent with reality. While an extensive discussion on policy development is beyond the scope of this article, here are six guidelines to help you get started crafting your workplace conduct policy:

  • Outline clear examples of what workplace conduct violates the policy;
  • Detail the disciplinary procedures for policy violation;
  • Provide a procedure for reporting and investigating concerns about workplace behavior;
  • Outline guidelines for multiple channels of reporting to individuals who feel the policy has been violated;
  • Assure complainants that the matters will be treated as confidentially as possible and that no one will be punished for reporting a workplace conduct violation;
  • Begin with a message from your CEO, who expresses employees’ rights to be treated with dignity and respect, and who links the policy to the bottom line and to company values.

Like it or not, it’s impossible for companies to take a neutral position regarding workplace bullying. To your employees, ignoring it is condoning it. And a policy is no substitute for people; the best anti-bullying policy will be viewed with skepticism if your corporate culture rewards bullying managers.

The good news is that you’re in a valuable position to beef up the company’s bottom line. Eliminating inappropriate workplace behavior will reduce turnover, increase job satisfaction, and help your organization get back some of the 18 million work days lost each year because of it. At a time when human resources is increasingly being asked to justify its existence, the opportunity to show the bottom line impact of your efforts is something worth shouting about.

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