Combating the Varieties of Violence at Work

September 1, 2011
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Effective strategies that address on-the-job aggression are rooted in respectful, service-oriented, and safe organizational cultures.

Acts of workplace violence can happen anywhere, as in the death of 24-year-old Yale pharmacology graduate student Annie Le, who was strangled by a coworker and stuffed inside a wall.

While Le's case is an extreme example of workplace violence, people experience many types of negative behavior at work. The unwelcome behaviors range from disrespect to harassment, mobbing, discrimination, incivility, bullying, horizontal and lateral violence, and emotional abuse. Some of these behaviors have been described as psycho-terrorism or psychological harassment.

Bullying is a form of occupational stress that impacts people's mental and physical health. There is also recent evidence that workplace-related stress elevates the risk of alcohol and drug abuse, and even coronary heart disease (Arehart-Treichel, 2006).

According to the American Medical Association, many reports of extreme violence in school settings have been linked to bullying. The perpetrators, often former targets, turn violent and take revenge - delineating a tragic cycle in which a bully's physical intimidation leads to tragic consequences.

The Joint Commission reports that in healthcare settings, intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, as well as contribute to poor patient satisfaction and adverse outcomes. It can also increase the cost of care and cause qualified clinicians, administrators, and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments.

On-the-Job Bullying Isn't Easy to Identify

It is very difficult to specifically define workplace bullying unless the behavior is part of other legislatively protected areas, such as harassment or discrimination. Generally, workplace bullying involves incivility (or disrespectful behavior) that is pervasive and ongoing; a power difference; an absence of consent; an intent to harm or manipulate; and a workplace environment that tolerates it. Workplace bullying is not a solitary or occasional incident involving an angry outburst or inappropriate statement; a difference in personalities, style, or personal taste; or guidance or direction from management or other authority figures.

Bullying behaviors present through a variety of communication channels. These include verbal and nonverbal behaviors, body language, written communication and the manner and style in which we use the words we choose. While some of these behaviors involve face-to-face interactions, others take place electronically. Some even involve things we should do but intentionally avoid so we can cause harm.

Not surprisingly, there is tremendous disagreement among experts on a specific definition of workplace bullying. They do indicate - and their research supports - agreement in three major areas:

  • Some employees have sought protection from bullying and have been successful when they could clearly demonstrate that discrimination or harassment was also involved. Others have sought protection from bullying by invoking general safety clauses within existing laws when they can demonstrate that the behavior has caused serious psychological harm.
  • Workplace bullying can result in low employee morale and attrition, which can lead to lower productivity and decreased revenue.
  • Because some employees don't know that their behavior could be considered disrespectful or threatening, employees at all levels benefit from interactive, skill-based training. This kind of training helps to build and maintain workplace cultures that foster respectful interactions and are both physically and emotionally safe.

It should be noted that physical violence isn't necessarily an inevitable result of bullying. However, it is always a possibility, especially with individuals having a predisposition to violence.

The Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) and other organizations assert that bullying is violence. Incivility, harassment, intimidation, and all forms of verbal and physical aggression are components of the overall continuum of workplace bullying and violence.

Targets May Have Minimal Legal Protections

At present, there are few clear federal or state laws in the United States that make workplace bullying illegal unless it is a component of other protected employee practices or classes, such as harassment or discrimination. Senate Resolution 106 in Hawaii urges employers to voluntarily adopt anti-bullying policies. Since 2003, 13 states have introduced workplace bullying prevention legislation, but as of this writing, none have passed.

The Joint Commission has adopted a new leadership standard that addresses disruptive and inappropriate behaviors in two of its elements of performance for healthcare facilities. These went into effect Jan. 1, 2009 for all hospital accreditation programs and involve a required code of conduct that defines acceptable behaviors as well as those that are disruptive and inappropriate. They also clarify that leaders should create and implement a process for managing disruptive and inappropriate behaviors in accredited settings.

Although the United States has been slow to adopt laws barring bullying on the job, other countries, particularly Canada and several European nations, have been more proactive. Regulations, standards, laws, guidelines, policies, and precedents mandating respect are bold, revolutionary, and proactive. They have been adopted for good reason, often as a result of tragic circumstances. They represent just some of the compelling reasons why campuses should foster respectful, service-oriented, and safe workplace practices.

Unfortunately, these laws have not been successful in eliminating discrimination, harassment, intimidation and many other problematic workplace behaviors.

11 Steps You Can Adopt to Tackle the Problem

Fortunately, there are things a campus can do to address workplace aggression. Although the Joint Commission guidelines listed here are designed for healthcare facilities, schools and universities can also apply these strategies. The recommendations include:

  • Educate all team members on appropriate behavior as defined by the organization's code of conduct. The code and the education should emphasize respect.
  • Hold all team members accountable for modeling desirable behaviors, and enforce the code consistently and equitably.
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures appropriate for the organization.
  • Develop an organizational process for addressing intimidating and disruptive behaviors. The process should solicit and integrate substantial input from an inter-professional team, including representation of medical and nursing staff, administrators, and other employees.
  • Provide skills-based training and coaching for all leaders and managers in relationship-building and collaborative practice, including skills for giving feedback on unprofessional behavior and conflict resolution.
  • Develop and implement a system for assessing staff perceptions of the seriousness and extent of unprofessional behaviors and the risk of harm to patients.
  • Develop and implement a reporting/surveillance system for detecting unprofessional behavior.
  • Support surveillance with tiered, non-confrontational intervention strategies, starting with informal conversations directly addressing the problem. If patterns persist, move toward detailed action plans and progressive discipline.
  • Conduct all interventions within the context of an organizational commitment to the health and well-being of all staff.
  • Encourage inter-professional dialogues across a variety of forums as a proactive way to address ongoing conflicts, overcoming them, and moving forward through improved collaboration and communication.
  • Document all attempts to address intimidating and disruptive behaviors.

There are no easy answers to this devastating workplace problem. Campus organizations that are proactive, however, embrace respectful, service-oriented, and safe workplace practices.

Their commitment to best practices is evident through management's attention to and employee involvement at all levels in combating workplace aggression. Additionally, awareness training and skill building are essential for all employees in translating policies and procedures into everyday workplace behavior.

How Canada Is Addressing On-the-Job Aggression

Workplace violence prevention regulations recently went into effect in Canada on a federal level. Now employers under federal jurisdiction must develop workplace violence prevention policies that identify all factors contributing to workplace violence, including bullying, teasing, and other harmful behavior.

Some Canadian provinces have also passed legislation dealing with this problem. In 2004, Quebec amended its Labour Standards Act to deal with psychological harassment in the workplace. Saskatchewan made workplace bullying illegal in 2007 by passing the Occupational Health and Safety Harassment Prevention Amendment Act. The act broadened the definition of harassment to include psychological harassment.

In Ontario, Bill 29 was introduced in 2007 and would amend the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. Bill 29 proposes to protect workers from harassment and violence in the workplace and includes protection from psychological abuse and bullying behaviors in the workplace. Similarly, Bill 168 would amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act and address harassment and violence at work.

In Canadian courts, significant precedent has been set that has caused employers to seriously consider formally addressing many types of workplace harassment, including bullying. In one example, the province of Newfoundland was ordered to pay $875,000 in damages to a disabled government worker whose employment was terminated after a campaign of harassment by his coworkers. The verdict showed there are serious consequences for allowing the continuation of workplace bullying (Canada Safety Council, 2004).

The United States is also making progress in this area. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court substantially enhanced legal protection against retaliation for employees who complain about discrimination or harassment on the job. The decision adopted a broadly worded and employee-friendly definition of the type of retaliation that is prohibited by the basic federal law against discrimination in employment (Greenhouse, 2006).

Examples of Workplace Bullying

  • Regularly withholding essential information (e.g. someone involved in a project is not given information and then is held accountable for it)
  • Repeatedly and intentionally failing to invite someone to an essential meeting
  • Ignoring a coworker every time he or she disagrees with you or because you don't like them. Bullying isn't only doing something. It could be not doing something
  • Engaging in ongoing passive-aggressive behavior
  • Verbal threats (these may be illegal in most North American jurisdictions)
  • Constantly interrupting a specific person or group so they can't provide input
  • Condescending or disrespectful gestures (some forms may be considered an assault and possibly illegal)
  • Displaying degrading pictures
  • Sending out an E-mail that is disrespectful
  • Gossip

Reprinted from November/December 2009 Issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

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