What worked 20 years ago doesn’t work today.
By William Atkinson
William Atkinson is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues.
The industrial workplace has come a long way in the past couple of centuries, and in fact in many cases what was considered the norm all those decades ago would be considered illegal today. For example, sweatshop work conditions were considered acceptable in the 1800s, with children working 16-hour days. Women in the workplace were automatically considered second-class citizens. Men were routinely bullied by their bosses, and no one thought too much about it.
Society has come a long way since then, and in fact we are still evolving in the way we treat our employees. One of the more recent trends has been the decline, if not complete disappearance, of supervisory bullying. Indeed, fewer employees today will put up with this kind of intimidation, and the most productive and dependable employees – the ones you want to keep – are usually the least willing to put up with harassment by supervisors.
Supervisors who are in the habit of harassing or bullying employees can cause a number of problems:
- Turnover. As noted, more and more employees, especially the best ones, aren’t willing to put up with the mental and emotional abuse associated with supervisory bullying.
- Absenteeism. Those who do remain in the workplace are often absent more than usual. The result is that a disproportionate workload ends up falling on the other workers, who end up resenting the situation.
- Stress-related health care and disability claims. Targets of supervisory bullying tend to be over-users of health care and disability, often for stress-related diseases and illnesses.
- Productivity and morale. Most obviously, productivity and morale decrease when employees are victims of harassment or bullying by their supervisors.
- Lawsuits. Finally, employers who allow supervisors to bully or harass employees often find themselves in court trying to defend their employment practices – and usually losing.
Despite the fact that more employees are standing up for their rights and court cases are coming down in favor of employees, supervisory harassment and bullying seem to be increasing, according to Patricia S. Eyres, an attorney and president of Litigation Management & Training Services in Long Beach, Calif. “This seems surprising to a lot of people, because the U.S. Supreme Court and a number of state courts have broadened their requirements that employers provide training on harassment and how to avoid it, and have imposed additional penalties on employers if they don’t have policies that prohibit harassment,” she says.
However, it may actually be an increase in the reporting and not an actual increase in the amount of harassment. “I think there is more awareness among employees that they don’t have to put up with it,” says Eyres. “In addition, there is less fear in reporting it, because more employees are aware that the law is on their side when it comes to employers or supervisors trying to retaliate if the employees do report it.”
Types of harassment vary by industry. For example, it seems that supervisory sexual harassment, such as inappropriate comments, innuendos and touching, tends to be more common in industries where people have high-stress jobs and work very long hours, such as accounting firms and, believe it or not, law firms. The reason: “Often, executives feel that they have power, that they are ‘above the law,’ and that no one is going to challenge them,” explains Eyres.
In construction and manufacturing, and in other industries where workers may not have advanced education levels, the incidents of supervisory harassment tend to be more verbally antagonistic (bullying). “A lot of this harassment is also racial and ethnic in nature,” she adds.
According to Cecile J. Bereal, president and CEO of RMA Management Alliance in El Cajon, Calif., a management consulting and training organization, sexual harassment is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “General harassment, such as bullying, is also illegal if it is directed against someone protected by Title VII,” she adds.
A number of states are also looking at legislation that would compel employers to prevent and correct workplace bullying and harassment. “These states are considering legislation that would make workplace bullying illegal, regardless of whether it is directed against a protected class,” explains Bereal. For example, California is considering a law that would bring workplace bullying under the umbrella of illegal harassment.
Businesses desiring to eliminate supervisory harassment and bullying from the workplace can take several steps:
Create a new culture. While some supervisor bullies were that way before entering the workforce, the workplace culture may also encourage them to become bullies in order to look good and succeed. “In some companies, management often supports supervisory bullies, because, on the surface, they seem to be high performers,” notes Bereal. “However, they are ‘leaving bodies’ along the way.”
Create a policy. It is important to have a policy that defines harassment and bullying, and that they are not tolerated. An attorney can help with the wording of this policy.
Weed out undesirable applicants. It is possible to weed out undesirables during the job application process. However, many businesses look for ambitious and aggressive individuals for supervisory positions, and then check with the former employers.
A better approach is to check the turnover rate in the unit the applicant managed in his previous job and compare that with turnover in the company as a whole. Also try to find out how many complaints have been filed against that person in the past five years and, if possible, talk to the person’s co-workers and subordinates.
Provide training on harassment. In some cases, it makes sense to train supervisors and employees together. The benefit is that everyone will receive exactly the same training, and employees will be aware that supervisors have the training. The downside, though, is that supervisors may show their lack of knowledge during training or ask questions that could cause embarrassment to them in front of the employees. In addition, employees might be afraid to ask questions, especially related to previous harassment incidents that involved their supervisors who are in training with them.
Eyres is a strong advocate of training supervisors separately, at least on their responsibilities. “Then you can train supervisors and employees together on everything else,” she says. “For example, employees need to know what their rights are and what they can expect from their employers.”
Who should conduct the training? Someone in human resources or another department who understands employment law can conduct the training. There may be value in having an outside expert conduct the training, though, according to Eyres. “Employees sometimes take an outsider more seriously than someone from within the company,” she says. “It also eliminates the problem of someone from within the company discussing cases that involve employees in the company, which can end up being uncomfortable. An outside expert, on the other hand, will talk about cases in other companies.”
The training should cover what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to say and do to other people in the workplace. For example, part of the problem is what is said. Another part is how it is said, as well as the interpretation of what is said. The questions Bereal asks when training are:
- Is it appropriate workplace communication and behavior?
- Could you defend your comments and behavior if you
Monitor attendance and create written records of who attended, which may be important in any future lawsuits or other claims.
Take complaints seriously. It is important to realize that, while harassment may occur in the workplace, what really gets companies into trouble is how they respond to complaints of harassment from the employees. Problems occur if the employers either ignore the complaints or, worse, attempt to retaliate against the employees. In other words, take all complaints seriously and investigate thoroughly.
Enforce the policy. Consistently enforce the policies covered in the training. “What hurts employers the most in court cases is inconsistent enforcement,” says Eyres. For example, an employer may overlook bullying by a supervisor who is considered to be a top performer, but come down hard on another supervisor for the same action who is not considered to be a top performer.
Along the same lines, bullying supervisors may ingratiate themselves with management, so if the supervisor needs to be disciplined or terminated, senior management may not want to do that, because they have strong, positive, personal relationships with the supervisor.
“You need to let everyone in the organization know, from the top on down, that no one in the organization, regardless of how high up in the organization or how influential in the organization, is above the law or above the policy,” says Eyres.
In many cases, according to Bereal, when a company adopts and enforces a policy against general harassment, bullies realize they are going to lose their power, so they resign and look for work elsewhere. This, of course, is exactly what you want.
Employee respect in action
At Spillman Co. in Columbus, Ohio, part of management’s day-to-day expectations is that everyone treats each other with respect. This includes supervisor to associate (the company’s term for employee), associate to supervisor, and associate to associate. “This is something that executives at all levels in our company spend a significant portion of time on,” says Ted Coons, chairman and CEO of the company and president of NPCA’s Educational Foundation. “We can’t ignore associate issues, because they are key assets to our organization.”
To ensure that respect permeates the organization at all levels and in all departments, Spillman does a number of things. First, all senior and middle level managers are required to participate in at least five days a year of training to expand their management skills. Much of the training is through the American Management Association, either in Columbus or in Chicago.
“We also do training for supervisors on how to relate to associates, how to prevent problems and how to identify potential problems before they become serious,” he adds.
The company also schedules at least one event per month that is focused on camaraderie, such as picnics.
If associates do have concerns, the company has a formal complaint process in place. They can first go directly to the supervisor. If it is a situation where this isn’t appropriate, the associates can go to the HR person, who is also a vice president of the company. “They can also contact the president or me directly,” says Coons.
However, the company has found that it can eliminate a lot of the need for the use of the formal complaint process by actively engaging in an informal complaint process. “Managers and supervisors spend a lot of time walking through the work areas each day, talking to associates,” says Coons. “This gives them the opportunity to hear a lot of things they might not otherwise hear.”
To determine how effective the company’s programs are in these areas, Spillman conducts an associate satisfaction survey every 18 months or so. One element of this covers how much associates feel they are respected. While responding to the surveys is not mandatory, the company still receives a 45 percent to 50 percent response rate. Results: “Over time, the average score has continued to increase,” says Coons. “In addition, our turnover rates are getting lower, which also seem to point to greater associate satisfaction.”
Our society has come a long way in building cordial relationships in the workplace during the past two centuries, particularly in the past few decades. Sometimes these improved relationships have been helped along by mandating them through law. But whether these relationships are mandated or not, employees who work in an intimidation-free atmosphere are more productive and dependable.