April 1st, 2009

Toxic Behavior

Bullying in the workplace can poison an otherwise smooth operation. A proactive approach is a superintendent’s best weapon against the problem.

By Kent R. Davies
Golf Course Management
April 2009

Although everyone is cognizant that workplace bullying exists, many superintendents may not know they have a serious problem until their employees — or even club members — complain or their team’s loyalty decreases and turnover rates soar for their most valuable workers.

When good employees head for the hills it’s too late to motivate them to stay in an atmosphere they perceive as toxic and affecting their ability to do their jobs, their health and their safety.

Bullies, when you think about it, indirectly target their superintendent’s right to lead. When employees follow a bully’s more threatening “leadership,” legitimate directives, by default, are quietly undermined. Workers come to fear a bully’s retribution over less-threatening formal authority.

When bullies attack, they’re attacking not just one person, but the entire organization. The organizational costs of bullying behaviors include high turnover, increased medical/disability claims for emotional stress, work efforts directed away from productive work toward unproductive coping activities, depression and even physical problems, plus the cost of investigations/litigations. Without question, employees in a threatening atmosphere cannot contribute their best work.

Bullying ‘because they can’

toxic behavior National workplace bullying expert Gary Namie, Ph.D., the president of Work Doctor Inc. (workdoctor.com) in Bellingham, Wash., finds that people bully “because they can.” The three factors Namie finds that enable bullying are:

Opportunity. “The employer creates the opportunity where people are pitted against one another in a zero-sum competition so the opportunity to go after someone to advance your career is possible,” Namie says.

A willingness and desire to further one’s career. “It only takes a few people who are relatively ambitious and career-focused and who are willing to exploit others to get ahead,” according to Namie. “You also need a pool of easily exploited targets who believe in a meritorious workplace, have a very strong work ethic and are apolitically focused on their work.”

Employer response. “Bullying is either stopped by the employer or rewarded by the employer when the bully is promoted,” Namie says. “Ignoring bullying is tacit approval that advances and sustains bullying. When employers promote bullies, the message to employees is real clear that that’s what it’s going to take to get ahead.

“Bullies test the water, and if a person does not push back, they set their claws in,” Namie says. Targets often are reluctant to report bullying for “fear of retaliation. It is deer-in-the-headlights paralysis because they do not believe that what is happening to them is actually happening.”

Bullied employees find it difficult to concentrate on their work. The performance standards that superintendents are expecting from their crews go unmet unless they identify bullying behaviors and appropriately address them. In fact, it’s not unheard of for supervisors to misdirect their attention on the targets of the bullying by giving them poor performance reviews instead of dealing with the bully who is the root cause of reduced performance.

Individuals or groups of employees are being bullied when, for example, they are being treated differently from the rest of the work group, being sworn at, being excluded or socially isolated, being shouted at or humiliated, being the brunt of unceasing practical jokes, facing unwarranted or invalid criticism, being blamed without justification or facing excessive performance monitoring. Bullying is different from aggression in that aggression can involve a single act, whereas bullying entails repeated attacks against a target or a group. Single harsh or egregious acts don’t automatically constitute bullying.

Bullies are less likely to engage in anti-social behaviors when everyone clearly understands that such behavior is unacceptable and that they will likely face punishment up to and including dismissal. Reporting of bullying incidents must be encouraged from every employee’s first day on the job. Otherwise, superintendents are severely handicapped in their attempts to create and maintain a bully-free productive atmosphere.

Taking it to the state house

A recent state court ruling, combined with increasing state legislative consideration assigning employer accountability for generic workplace bullying, goes beyond traditional state and federally protected classes in increasing potential liability. Current anti-bullying legislative attempts are very similar to current protected-class harassment laws.

Johan Lubbe, an attorney with the law firm of Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y., who conducts seminars on workplace bullying, says, “It is a refinement that addresses the same type of harassment behavior that is inappropriate and abusive. Bullying is a more general abusive behavior.” Lubbe foresees that “the next year or two will most likely see some movement in state legislation due to an increase in the number of states that are attempting to legislate bullying laws. Each time bullying laws are resubmitted, legislators become more sensitized to the issues. When one state passes legislation, it is going to make the argument all the stronger.”

Unfortunately, bullies today continue to operate with near impunity. According to Namie, “In 40 percent of cases, targets considered the employer’s investigation to be inadequate or unfair, with less than 2 percent of investigations described as fair and safe for the bullied person.” Unbelievably, given the damage they do, only 6.2 percent of alleged bullies faced punishment.

“The myth,” Namie says, “is that bullies are indispensable and great producers. Bullies undermine legitimate business interests. Bullying is all about interpersonal agendas getting accomplished, but not the business’ agenda.”

Workplace bullies, Namie points out, share one common goal: “Advancing their position within the company at others’ expense. Therefore, they target your best employees ‹ the very independent, more technically skilled, better liked, ethical and nonconfrontational workers you can least afford to lose.” Employees’ reluctance at reporting comes from fear of retribution or labeling as a snitch. And when superiors bully, subordinates justifiably fear termination.

Support from the top

To effectively deal with bullying tactics, superintendents require organization-wide backup, from enforceable anti-bullying policies to top management’s support of superintendents who discipline or dismiss disruptive bullies. Demonstrated top management declarations promoting a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy that identify all forms of harassment as unacceptable are central to implementing an effective anti-bullying policy. Awareness campaigns defining bullying and reporting procedures with a real open-door policy clearly identifying an independent reporting contact eases employee-reporting concerns. Management sensitivity from the top down is obligatory when identifying or responding to conflicts.

“Employers should incorporate the various conducts that encompass bullying into their regular harassment/workplace violence training. When employees are hired, let them know upfront that bullying behavior faces discipline up to and including discharge,” advises attorney E. Jewele Johnson, a partner at Fisher and Phillips Law Firm in Atlanta.

“Reinforce this throughout the workforce just as you would your regular no-harassment policies that apply to people in protected categories. A lot of it is disseminating the information and letting people know that bullying is not going to be tolerated, if you complain you will not be retaliated against, and if there is a problem we will jump in and correct it.”

Johnson recommends to her clients “that they incorporate broader language into their existing harassment policy, language supporting good behavior at work.” Incorporate statements into your harassment policy clearly defining bullying behavior with concrete examples and penalties. Hard-driving bosses, for instance, are not necessarily bullies.

  • Johnson finds the most common mistakes employers make when investigating complaints are: Not promptly investigating or taking complaints seriously
  • Not taking corrective action
  • Not adequately documenting what the complaint was and the actions taken.

“Employers can ask an employee making a complaint about bullying to put it in writing, but they should not require it before they launch an investigation,” Johnson stresses. “They should investigate it whether it is oral, anonymous or in writing. There is nothing wrong with the person taking the complaint to go ahead and put it in writing and take it back to the complainant for them to sign at the bottom that the written statement is correct.”

It is incumbent on management to help their team members report bullying behaviors by creating a system so that individuals, who are too often fearful to be the only one to stand up against a bully, feel safe making a report. “You do not want to have the target have to solve their problem,” Namie recommends.

Making the system work

When confronted with bullying situations, all levels of management must “first get beyond denial about bullying existing and they must declare bullying as unacceptable. If this is not done,” Namie emphasizes, “all other steps are undermined.”

It is imperative to approach bullying impersonally. “Instead of requiring an executive to personally confront a bully, the best thing to do is to approach bullying with a system. Go at the bullying, not the bully,” Namie advises. Do not make it a witch-hunt. It is important to take a systemic approach with “your policy doing the work for you.”

When crafting an anti-bullying policy, Namie recommends incorporating the following components: Start with a clear definition of what unacceptable bullying is, and what it is not. Bullying, Namie clarifies, “is not conflict, not routine exercise of management prerogative.”

The policy must introduce management responsibility to report peers.

The bullies themselves must not be allowed to misuse the policy against people who are not bullies or to harass somebody.

Guarantees must exist that there is no retaliation for merely filing a complaint. In practice, all bullies want to retaliate for being exposed. They rely on the silence of the target and everyone ignoring the bullying.

Put policy and enforcement procedures in place on how complaints are handled and who your internal investigators are going to be. It’s important to build in a quick response time to clear the matter up quickly because bullies like to drag it out.

Consider innovative and informal remedies like apologies — they can go really far. “The goal,” Namie says, “is not to fire anybody, but to constrain bullying behavior.”

Finally, Namie says, “apply your policy to all employees at all levels.”

Management must proactively encourage and personally demonstrate appropriate personal and team anti-bullying behaviors. “Employers are well served not to ignore workplace bullying. This is not just a theoretical debate,” Lubbe warns, “as employers will have to deal with this more sooner than later.”


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 1st, 2009 at 10:18 am and is filed under Media About Bullying, WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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