If you think workplace bullying is a bigger issue than managers often suspect, you’re right. Research supports that workplace bullying simply often goes unreported but it’s still happening. In their Employee Rights and Employee Policy Journal article, Researchers Loraleigh Keashly and Joel H. Neuman said a study of the VA healthcare system, the VA Project, showed a gap between those who experienced workplace bullying and those who reported it their experience to a supervisor. “Of the people identified as being exposed to bullying behavior (36 percent of the total sample), 53 reported their experience to a supervisor. An even smaller proportion (15 percent) filed a formal grievance.”
Possible reasons for not reporting bulling behavior at work:
- Lack of awareness of what one is experiencing
- Feeling each bullying incident is minor in isolation
- Fear of being deemed “overly sensitive” or unable to adapt to the work culture
- Feeling the organization isn’t supportive of employee concerns
- Seeing others have been ignored for reporting bullying or had their complaints minimized and chalked up to a personality conflict, blamed, or retaliated against
- The organization promotes a climate of fear
What organizations can do to address workplace bullying
So if workplace bullying is likely more prevalent in your workplace than data supports, what can your management team do? Keashly and Neuman point to a five-step plan that’s been proven to work:
- Collect data on the culture to know where to focus attention.
- Involve active participation at every level of the organization.
- Change the conversation in the organization in terms of content and process.
- Create a supportive atmosphere.
- Continuously monitor, evaluate, and adjust with every new implementation and new data collection.
A case study: the VA Project
Keashly and Neuman go back to the VA Project as an example of changing a work culture to reduce the number of workplace bullying incidents. The organization first gathered a group of employees — employees, leaders, union officials, and researchers — to inquire about the focal issues of stress and aggression. (They did not use expert consultants or programs.) This group used an “action-research cycle” in which they addressed actions as they occurred to understand context rather than evaluate after the fact.
This phase required two crucial elements:
- Data to drive the process.
- Active participation from key stakeholders.
At each facility, management created joint management-labor groups, comprised of those who demonstrated leaderships skills, had credibility with employees, those who acted on ideas, and those who committed to learning — from various levels of the organizational hierarchy. These groups created their own action items.
Made up of academic partners and organizational personnel (management, union leadership, and employees), a core project team guided the overall project. This team gathered data on processes and practices, performance measures, and changes in these variables over time through employee surveys and HR data. The project team then trained the action teams on how to collect and interpret data. Action teams implemented a Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire. The goal: to track aggressive behaviors and determine their root causes — all in a timely manner.
Action teams shared both organizational-wide and facility-specific data with employees to analyze root cause. Then they tested root cause hypotheses through additional data collection. The result: action items to fix root cause, with zero guidance from the core project team.
When it comes to changing thoughts and behaviors to create a culture of fair treatment, respect, and valuing employees, the process is as important as the result. “Within the VA project, the ‘fix’ that we were looking for turned out to be the process that we were using to find the fix,” said Keashly and Neuman. In other words, the implementation phase helped move the culture to one of support, encouragement, action, and reflection.
Within the VA project, the “fix” that we were looking for turned out to be the process that we were using to find the fix.
During the process, team members asked their fellow team members to back up assumptions with data. Specifically, team members:
- Encouraged each other to question hostile attributions when an unexpected or unpleasant situation occurred. Stopping to question motives without data on others’ motives encouraged employees to manage their aggression.
- Used a “left-hand-column” exercise to document what another employee actually said vs. how they felt or what they thought based on what the employee said. The result: people shared their honest feelings on a more regular basis. Honest communication supports a culture of valuing, respect, and fairness.
- Implemented a “stop-reflect-and-dialogue” approach. Periodically, team members stopped to reflect in silence about activities and their effectiveness during meetings. Then using a “talking stick,” each member shared their reflections without interruption, resulting in more carefully thought out comments and more active listening without trying to formulate a rebuttal or finding an opportunity to jump into the conversation.
Data from surveying supported that the culture improved:
- Less aggression. Hostile behaviors (swearing, gestures, yelling, kicking, hitting, threatening, and pushing, for example) improved.
- Continued engagement and application. After three years of the project, all eleven remained engaged, with fewer disciplinary actions and more frequent application of skills to solve work-related problems and improve meeting quality.
- Continued excitement. “If this were not enough, the success of the project — and the excitement of the people involved — is spreading within the VA,” said Keashly and Neuman.
Researchers concluded that reducing workplace bullying involves a Collaborative Social Space (CSS) — a safe space for engaging in open and honest inquiry that fosters trust, security, and quality interaction. Higher trust means less conflict and aggression. Ultimately, the atmosphere becomes one where trust and fair treatment are the norm, and bullying is inappropriate.
Reducing workplace bullying involves a Collaborative Social Space (CSS) — a safe space for engaging in open and honest inquiry that fosters trust, security, and quality interaction.
Keashly and Neuman look to organizational justice theory to explain how to sustain a CSS:
- Distributive justice means what people invest has an equal ratio to the outcome. Outlining inputs and outcomes from the getgo creates a mutual understanding and reduces the likelihood of injustice and disappointment.
- Procedural justice means fairness in the process. A process should involve suppressed bias, consistent allocations, accurate information, correctable steps, and inclusion of all recipient concerns and should be based on “the prevailing moral and ethical standards.” Procedural justice involves both procedures (inclusion in decision-making, for example) and interactional (sensitivity, politeness, and consideration).
“We believe that the VA Project is an example of an innovative, data-driven, and collaborative approach for reducing aggression at work,” said Keashly and Neuman.
Workplace bullying is an injustice. When a competent target poses a threat to a deeply insecure aggressor, “the disconnect between deservedness and the deep misery experienced is at the heart of the injustice. Years after targets are out of harm’s way, they still feel lingering pangs of unfairness, inequity, injustice,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Without a law making workplace bullying illegal, targets are left with finding justice in other ways.
In a 2012 poll, WBI found that 54 percent of targets never found a sense of justice. However, 46 percent of respondents said they found at least some sense of justice by (in order of popularity):
- Exposing the bullying to senior management
- Prioritizing their health and career over that particular job
- Becoming an advocate for the cause to end workplace bullying
- Hiring an attorney and mounting a legal response
- Telling their stories to the media