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Bullying not just for the schoolyard

6 steps to creating a healthy workplace, saving your bottom line

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A recent study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in conjunction with Zogby International indicated between 54 million and 71.5 million Americans are victimized by a bully at work. Bullies use ongoing negative, aggressive, unprofessional, inappropriate and hurtful tactics against subordinates, peers and even superiors; creating a power imbalance and inviting serious damaging consequences to targets, witnesses and organizations.

Targets experience distress, humiliation, anger, anxiety, discouragement, hopelessness, depression, burnout, reduced quality and quantity of work, lower levels of job satisfaction, increased absenteeism and turnover and in some cases even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In turn, American businesses spend more than $180 million annually in absenteeism and turnover (30 percent of the bullied will quit, and 20 percent of witnesses will follow), workers' compensation claims due to stress, reduced quality and quantity of work, lower levels of job satisfaction, communication breakdown and even a bad reputation within the community.

Bullying is not a simple case of a bad behaving employee. It is a systemic problem caused by many organizational factors, including the organization's culture, changes (e.g., downsizing) and bureaucratic management styles.

Identifying, fixing and preventing bullying can make the difference between a successful organization and one that fails. For example, companies that openly promote civility among employees earn 30 percent more revenue than competitors, are four times more likely to have highly engaged employees and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover, according to a study conducted by Watson Wyatt in 2003.

Here are six keys to successful implementation of a healthy, and bully-free, workplace.

1. Use internal communication strategically. Organizational success depends on a climate of fairness and supportiveness; where members are listening and being sensitive to one another's needs and aware of how comments might be perceived by others. Leaders and management can use language to deliver a healthy culture and encourage open discussions and employee empowerment. Developing rituals and employee reward systems that applaud interpersonal communication skills and compensate positive attitudes will solidify management's intentions.

2. Perform periodic audits of internal processes. Audits offer a comprehensive review of communication patterns that provide information about the structure of the organization, effectiveness of communication, and employee support for the organization, leaders, superiors and each other. This facilitates strategic planning and learning the success with which internal information is conveyed, and of course detects whether some employees feel others are bullies (or bottlenecks, buck-passers, know-it-alls, chronic complainers). Outside consultants are the most effective people to conduct the audit because organizational members often say things to external auditors that they would not say to internal auditors.

3. Roll out an anti-bully policy. An anti-workplace bully prevention policy must be implemented and include management's commitment to a healthy workplace, a definition of bullying, management and employee responsibilities for maintaining the policy, a training program schedule and a formal grievance procedure that includes investigation of complaints and appropriate disciplinary actions. The policy should also stress the importance of written documentation from all parties involved in any complaints; including target(s), bullies, witnesses and investigators. Of course, the policy is only as effective as management's commitment to it.

4. Conduct management and employee training. Establish training programs for all levels to occur during new hire training and at scheduled intervals thereafter. At the very least, training should remind employees and managers that they have a responsibility to contribute to achieving a healthy and civil work environment that does not tolerate bullying. Offering conflict management and leadership skills training will complement these trainings nicely.

5. Take grievances seriously and investigate them immediately. When a grievance is filed, the target should present written documentation and precise details of each incident of bullying. Human resources should follow appropriate disciplinary procedures as laid out in the policy, and is encouraged to continue to keep the situation under review.

6. Use 360-degree reviews. A 360-degree review provides every organizational member with reviews from everyone they work with, including peers, managers and subordinates. This provides an avenue for managers to learn from the people they direct, rather than only those who direct them. If done right, 360-degree reviews receive high employee involvement, have the strongest impact on behavior and performance, and greatly increase effective internal communication.

Bottom line

By addressing workplace bullying and developing techniques for sustainable change, you can increase employee retention and reduce turnover, reduce absenteeism and medical leaves, manage and leverage organizational brand, motivate, inspire and develop staff, minimize workplace politics, improve communication among staff and managers, protect your company's reputation, increase the quality and quantity of work product, improve community awareness, reduce workplace stress, and improve the health of employees and your organization.

On a final note, be weary of the anti-workplace bully law in our midst. David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University, wrote the Healthy Workplace Bill that has been under review in 15 states, including California in 2003. Only the government of Ireland (since as early as 1997), and the province of Quebec, Canada (since 2003), currently have specific laws against the act of bullying at work, but all that is soon to change.

Mattice is owner of NoWorkplaceBullies.com.

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