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.
We’ve encountered many people in this journey who don’t realize their personal power. We can spot them quickly because they see a problem or opportunity and instead of just doing, they say things like:
- “You should….”
- “This needs to be done….”
- “I don’t have time….”
- “I’m busy….”
We’re ALL busy, we all have the same amount of time in the day (it’s a matter of priority), and if we see an opportunity, it’s not someone else’s job to do it. It’s yours.
With these ideas in mind, here are tips to follow so we can all move forward together — with respect and dignity (since that’s what we ultimately aim to promote):
- Use the term “we,” not “you.” People like to use the term “you” when they don’t feel ownership. But changing the culture is everyone’s responsibility. We’re a team. Use the term “we” instead of “you” to show you want to move forward together and that you understand ending workplace bullying is as much your responsibility as anyone else’s.
- Pitch in. I’ve spent years blogging, posting, sign-holding, making connections, organizing meetings, building and updating a website, creating petitions, getting videos created, talking with reporters…. Yet some people ask me to do more. I always ask “can you do it?” That’s when the excuses begin. This movement can’t progress without everyone who’s healed pitching in. If you see a need, don’t ask for permission. Do what you think needs to be done (enlisting help if you need it, of course). It’s no one else’s job but yours (and no one owns this movement).
- If you don’t have a skill, go find it. We all have ideas we don’t have the skills to execute. But this movement is built on planting seeds and building our base. Have an idea? Go out and find someone who has the skills to execute it. Get them on our team.
- Educate yourself. Don’t know what we’re already doing but have an idea? It’s your responsibility to find out. Ask questions. Do your homework on our website and Facebook page. Understand what’s already happening and why before offering suggestions. It’s your responsibility. Never dictate with “you should.” A campaign to uphold dignity and respect gets built on dignity and respect.
- Make time. A lot of us have full-time jobs (including looking for a job, which is a full-time job), families, friends, groups we’re involved with, and plans. We are ALL stretched thin. Never use being busy as an excuse. What you’re really saying is “I have the same amount of time as you in the day, but it’s not a priority for me.” It’s not a fair approach. Granted some have more time than others, but most people have some time to do something (if you don’t, devote time to taking care of yourself or your other priorities instead of getting involved). Always offer what you’re doing rather than what others can do out of respect for them.
- Let go of the fear. Fear is likely at the root of holding you back. Some of it’s perfectly valid (like being in a job with a bully and not wanting to get retaliated against for working on this bill). But most fear is rooted in thinking you can’t do. We’re here to tell you you can. Your bully boss lied to you about what you’re capable of because he or she was intimidated by your competence. Don’t tolerate it, but take it as a compliment that you’re more than capable. Don’t believe the lies. Need proof? Start doing. Start taking action on this bill. You’ll see how fast your confidence comes back.
Let’s move forward together and build momentum that’s already rapidly increasing — with respect and dignity. You have that power.
“It’s common knowledge that politics in America are quite polarized. No longer do politicians pretend to want to solve social problems with social policy. Interactions between politicians are characterized by ad hominem attacks. Politicians seem to mimic the personalized nature of bullying,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) in its 2014 instant poll. No truer are these words than with the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
Some oppose WBI’s comparisons, asserting that WBI should stick to workplace bullying and stay out of politics. But is politics really a different field of employment? When NFL player Jonathan Martin called his professional football team an “abusive work environment,” was the NFL exempt from responsibility for employee harm, even though the NFL itself defined its locker room as a workplace where discrimination laws apply?
When the WBI asked 307 bullied targets and witnesses if bullying by politicians of politicians or citizens is as harmful as workplace bullying, 87 percent of respondents said yes, always. In other words, “the community of bullied targets does not grant exemptions easily…. Bullying and abuse are the same regardless of venue,” says the WBI, even though some say that “politics is a special type of workplace, immune from social codes and restrictions that apply to everyone else.“
The world changed on November 9. Regardless of how you voted, we can likely all agree on a few takeaways from the election that will help us further anti-workplace bullying legislation:
- The ideas of dignity and respect now have the nation’s attention. The election put bullying in the national spotlight and made bullying tactics crystal clear — during the debates, in speeches, and on social media.
- So does narcissism. We saw what narcissism, the root of workplace bullying, looks like: lack of accountability, belittling, and lack of empathy. Yet empathy is vital in addressing differences and collaborating.
- People are ready to act now more than ever. Those against the election results realize they need to act to preserve social progress and demand the culture we fought to live in. A friend said “don’t give up. Never give up. Be kind to each other, look out for one another, for those struggling. Don’t tolerate hate in your community. Now more than ever. Become a more active supporter of causes important to you. Sign petitions, donate money, volunteer time, contact representatives. As Patti Smith said, people have the power.”
What we can do to keep the dignity and respect conversation going
- Use #empathyalwayswins in all of your election postings. Let people know you demand empathy, not narcissism, in our culture.
- Hold signs. No matter where you live, buy some posterboard and a marker and hold signs in your area against workplace bullying. People are paying attention to the dialogue right now.
- Demand that all conversations about the election be respectful and promoting dignity. Keep conversations focused on dignity and what happens without it.
- Call (more than email) your legislators about workplace bullying and other issues important to you. We have insight that legislators get inundated with emails. But they ignore a phone call.
We can pass anti-workplace bullying legislation. And we will.