Workplace bullying and harassment are emerging issues to be addressed by employers. Add the potentially larger problem of increased stress, decreased morale and diminished productivity of those employees who remain after layoffs, who are expected to carry the same load with less people, less experiential knowledge and less resources. Factor in a still sluggish economy and high unemployment, and we have a workplace perfect storm and a cresting wave of workplace discontent.
I think employers need to be proactive and act ahead of the law. Ignoring this rising crisis may result in a layer of liability and non-compliance resulting from new laws. Their efforts to run a business may be stymied by a mobilized work force or they may have to close down because they failed to navigate this storm effectively. This storm will stay in the workplace and be also strengthened by the changes in the workplace brought by information technology and Generation Y. This is not your father’s work environment anymore.
Today’s stories of bullying, harassment and excessive demands upon employees is similar to the abuses that led to sweeping changes in the 19th century industrial and manufacturing-based workplace. Then the abuses were physical in nature – terrible working conditions in factories, slaughterhouses and manufacturing plants, coupled with excessive hours and demands, took their toll on the physical well-being of the American worker. The rise of unions, protecting the rights and the health of workers, and a wave of worker protection laws followed.
Today, the damage is to the workers’ mental state and stress levels. Today’s mistreatment is psychological harassment – verbal abuse, belittling, threatening behavior, intimidation, humiliation or setting employees up for failure by making unreasonable demands of them. Studies conducted over the last few years show similar results – approximately 25-40% of those surveyed experienced some kind of workplace mistreatment or abuse. Over 40% worked for an abusive supervisor or employer.
To date few if any laws are responsive to these conditions. While some efforts have been made in the United States, most of the anti-bullying laws that exist are overseas, in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden, Poland and Belgium. U.S. employees are protected from harassment only within the context of discrimination, such as sexual harassment (gender discrimination). Absent some discrimination, there is little if any statutory protection.
A Healthy Workplace Bill, designed to punish workplace bullies and employers who encourage or tolerate bullying, has been proposed by Professor David Yamada at Suffolk University School of Law in Boston, MA. It has been considered in many states, but to date, has yet to be passed anywhere. For now, the law is playing catch-up with the workplace situation, leaving it to employers to address these issues through policies and procedures.
Employers can get proactive a number of ways. Using neutral, independent and confidential ombudsmen is one of the best ways to diffuse a problem and make productive adjustments before the issue rises to the level of a lawsuit.
Other underused resources include business coaches and consultants who are trained in systems, organizations and/or psychology, and implementing internal dispute resolution programs. Utilizing lawyers early as trusted advisors who provide preventive counsel and help employers anticipate and address problems early and design and implement proactive policies is more valuable than waiting and bringing them in later, when they can only put out fires or fight an expensive fight.
There are several good reasons for putting preventive measures in place. The costs to both employers and employees in terms of lost productivity, high anxiety and stress, increased absenteeism and added costs of treatment and care for these employees are huge and continuing. Further, those who suffer stress from these workplace problems often leave the job. The resulting higher turnover rate adds to the costs of recruiting, interviewing, hiring and training new employees; with it comes lost productivity and inconsistency in service and production. Once laws are enacted and courts give workers precedents to rely upon, costs will be compounded by having to defend lawsuits and pay damages in settlements or adverse verdicts.
Besides the obvious loss of production, low morale, increased costs resulting from these problems and increasingly unhealthy work environment, there is damage to the company’s reputation. This impacts the decisions of consumers as to whether to buy a company’s products or services. But even more so, it impacts decisions of talented prospective employees on whether to work for an employer. In a savvier, independent, and agile workforce, combined with the ease of finding information about companies, the best employees choose employers known for the positive way they treat employees and their workplace environment.
Good magazine (Issue 021, Fall 2010) recently highlighted 30 companies that are more desirable to work for and why. This is a shorter list than the list of abusive, undesirable companies from which employees are quickly jumping ship, even in these tough economic times. But it is increasingly evident that employers would do well to be included on the short list these days, lest they soon find themselves on the list of companies that once thrived, but are no longer.