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HR Handled Right

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Dear Employees,

At our company, we like to pretend that we have a zero tolerance for offensive behavior. This is to make our legal and HR department happy. In reality, we don’t care what you do as long as you’re getting your job done and making us a profit.

This is especially true of our managers. Look, your manager got promoted because she was better than you. As such, s/he gets special treatment and will not be held to the same behavior standard that you will. So don’t even think that, just because your manager gets away with it, you will.

And, another thing. Your manager was hired to make money. S/he does not like taking time out of his or her valuable day to listen to a bunch of whining about something someone else said or did. So don’t be surprised if he or she is annoyed when you make a complaint. And don’t be surprised if he or she isn’t quite as friendly afterward; after all, you’ve blown the whistle on somebody that you work with. That’s not part of the “good employee” code.

The Role of Managers in Offensive Employee Behavior

Any lawyer would go screaming into the street at the thought of his or her corporate client adopting this kind of offensive behavior policy. So would HR. And yet, this “policy” is communicated by the actions and attitudes of managers who either participate in, or turn a blind eye, to dishonest, ethical or illegal behavior.

Managers commit more fraud, steal more money, and does so in larger amounts than rank-and-file employees ever did, yet they often have exempt status when it comes to accountability for their behavior. In addition, their attitudes and practices establish the caliber of management oversight. When managers are perceived as uncaring or unconcerned about abusive behavior, the blind eye is perceived as an approving eye.

The Bottom Line

What management does is much more important than what management says. Managers who stand by, or participate, in offensive behavior significantly infleunce the level of management or subordinate tacit or direct involvemnet in abusive behavior, the legnth of time this behavior goes on, and why employees who have knowledge or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing do not expose it.

For each harassment complaint you’ve investigated, odds are you’ve dealt with ten times as many equal opportunity jerks. The boss who constantly criticizes, demeans, and undermines his employees. The supervisor who takes delight overworking and exploiting subordinates, or the employee who taunts and intimidates his coworkers. In short, the workplace bully.

Hypersensitive or Held Hostage?

With the continued escalation in harassment complaints, the last thing H.R. professionals need is another behavior problem to deal with. And, given the stressful work environment these days, it’s easy to think that rudeness or incivility is an inevitable part of people working together; after all, who hasn’t been snapped at by a stressed-out boss or coworker?

Bullying, though, is not the occasional sharp retort or sarcastic putdown. Nor is it a misguided attempt to get things done through tough management. Bullying is an ongoing and systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It tends to be an accumulation of many incidences over a long period of time; on its own, a single incident would not necessarily constitute grounds for disciplinary action. Taken together, these instances add up to persistent, abusive behavior designed to make the target feel upset, humiliated and threatened.

For example, according to the U.S. Hostile Workforce Survey 2000, the most popular bullying tactics include:

  • blaming others for errors
  • raising false concerns about or criticizing the work of others
  • making unreasonable demands
  • yelling and screaming
  • threats of job loss, insult, or put-downs
  • inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules
  • social exclusion
  • stealing credit for another’s work

Studies vary as to who is most likely to be a bully – some studies say that both men and women are equally likely to misbehave while other studies indicate that 70 percent of all bullies are men. There is little controversy, however, that the bully is most likely to be the boss and that, male or female, the victim is most likely to be female. There’s also consistent evidence that workplace bullying is common – and that it hurts the bottom line. In fact, a recent study suggests that simply being a witness to workplace bullying is linked to sleep problems and increased stress.

The Psychology of Bullying Versus Harassment

Unlike illegal forms of harassment and discrimination, bullying isn’t directed at a person because of his or her religion, gender, age, race or other demographic variable. S/he isn’t interested in obtaining sexual favors or dominating a vulnerable group. In fact, the target of bullying is most likely to be selected because of her popularity and competence, which is perceived as a direct threat to the bully.

Unlike a sexual harasser’s need to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position, bullying is an effort to control a threat (and prevent exposure of inadequacy). Unlike the power motive behind harassment and discrimination, envy and jealousy are the primary drivers of bullying behavior. And, unlike the racial slurs or sexual comments found in illegal forms of harassment, workplace bullying tends to appear as petty criticism, the withholding of critical information, and/or false allegations of underperformance.

Another difference between generic bullying and harassment is the available legal remedies. U.S. laws aren’t set up to deal with an incompetent or cruel supervisor bullying a subordinate unless it is linked to a protected demographic or is so outrageous that it causes diagnosable emotional distress.

However, bullies may not completely escape the long arm of the law. In the United States, I see more and more stress-related workman’s comp claims and intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits because of workplace bullying. For example, two employees in Texas were awarded $250,000 in damages after a supervisor continually yelled at them, put his head down and “charged at them like a bull,” and made at least one employee wear a sign that said “I quit.”

Is There a Bully in your Midst?

Having conducted numerous morale investigations for employers, it never ceases to amaze me how one person’s dysfunctional behavior can permeate the entire organization. Employers may not face the same legal consequences as they would for discriminatory behavior, but the lost productivity and turnover costs are enormous.

Because victims are often afraid to speak out about their experiences and witnesses reluctant to stick their heads out, it can be hard to know if a bully is poisoning your workplace. Here are three ways you can begin to assess how bully-tolerant your work environment currently is:

  1. Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, asking questions specifically about employee experiences of common bullying tactics.
  2. Conduct regular exit interviews and ask specifically about interpersonal problems that might have led to their resignation. It can be useful to follow up a few months after the employee has resigned; in my experience, they’re more likely to be candid after some time has elapsed.
  3. Keep track of turnover statistics by department, by manager, and by unit. If you spot an anomaly, consider hiring an outsider to conduct an independent morale investigation.

Of course, there’s only so much HR can do; bullies thrive where authority is weak. Until there’s a commitment from top management, a policy is only words on paper and an investigation is meaningless unless there’s some teeth behind it. Still, as an HR professional, you are in a uniquely powerful position to advocate for employees by showing the powers-that-be why – and how – bullying in the workplace impacts the bottom line.

Many of us have seen a manager yell at an employee or slam a door. We’ve witnessed an employee throw a temper tantrum after an idea was shot down or someone else had taken credit for his/her work. Just last night, I watched a customer at McDonald’s launch into a lengthy tirade just because the employee gave her barbecue sauce instead of ranch dressing.

Whether we’re overwhelmed by having too much to do and too few resources to do it with, or never learned the basics of emotional self-control, a short fuse at work doesn’t win anybody brownie points. In fact, if it happens often enough, it can be career suicide.

Why Anger Can be Addictive

This is not headlining news. Few short-fused employees would argue that their outbursts help them win friends and influence people. So why do they happen so often?

Because – in the short term – it feels good. Letting loose often gives us a short-lived “high;” it relieves stress and creates the momentary illusion that we’ve regained control. It’s this temporary release that many managers I coach have such a hard time letting go of. And, after a while, it becomes a habit

Then we hear the rationalizations. “That isn’t who I am.” (This is actually true; most people who blow up are calm and logical most of the time). “I didn’t mean to be mean.” And the BIG ONE: “I wouldn’t have to blow up if . . . John would get the job right the first time, Jessica wouldn’t interrupt me every time I open my mouth, I could get somebody to listen to me around here,” etc.

Here’s the Score: You Lose

Here’s what happens if we lose our temper at work, particularly if this happens on a regular basis. First of all, our reputation as a hothead takes on a life of its own. In fact, it only takes one dramatically disruptive behavior to quickly become a story that defines the norm.

Second, we lose credibility and respect. Sure, if we’re in a position of power, others might jump to do our bidding out of fear of being next in the line of fire. But here’s what they’re thinking:

“My manager has no self-control. He’s weak.”

“Heck, if he can’t even control himself, how can he manage others? What a loser!”

“I’d like to show her how it feels.”

Anger Management: Emergency Measures When Your Fuse is LitSo how do we interrupt the momentum once we’re already on the way to a meltdown? Just as our blood is about to boil over, we need very specific strategies that can bring us back from the brink.

Here are some tips for ways we can maintain our professionalism and handle emotions effectively:

1. Get your head on straight. When someone says something insulting, disagreeable or aimed at ticking you off, say nothing. Hold your tongue no matter how tempted. Under your breath, repeat after me: “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” If that doesn’t work, try this: Or, “I have a really good reason to be ticked off right now, but if I blow up, I’ll end up being the bad guy.”

3. Get out of there.
As soon as you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, remove yourself from the situation. Tell the other person you need to think through what the two of you are talking about before you respond. Fake a page or another call to extricate yourself from a non-productive telephone call so you can step outside to calm yourself. Whatever it takes; just give yourself time to cool down.2. Do something else. Stall for time by asking questions. Repeat what the other person just said to make sure you understand what was just said and give him/her a chance to clarify any misunderstanding. Take deep breaths and count to ten. Focusing on something else is a great way to derail the physical symptoms that build up steam.

The Bottom Line

Reigning in a short fuse is torture when you’re already feeling out of control, overwhelmed, misunderstood or frustrated. And, it’s true; exercising self-discipline under pressure doesn’t provide nearly the immediate release a good door slamming or ear chewing does. However, as American author Jim Rohn once said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”