Last week I wrote about why you should care about workplace bullying. (Click here for review, or if you missed that post.) Many employers believe either that it does not or will not happen by them or that even if it does, there is no way to predict or prevent it. That is not true. I am not saying that you can always guarantee that you
will never have a bully in your workplace. I am not saying that you can always guarantee that you will never have violence in your workplace. I am saying is that you can take proactive steps to greatly minimize the risk. You can look for indicators of problems and take steps to respond effectively. How might that work? Read for a few ideas…
Before I get into some of the possibilities, let me say that no, none of them are a magic bullet. None of them will be something that you can simply set in motion once and expect them to keep your workplace free of bullies or violence. If you have been following me for a while, you know I tend to favor a proactive, holistic approach. These ideas more or less follow that approach. Without further ado, here they are:
- Policies: You probably expected that. You might be saying, “We have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies, and so do many companies that have these problems”. Fair enough, I’ll respond to that point in a minute, so bear with me. You have to start somewhere, and that’s where the policies come into play. Clear, well-written policies communicate to your employees that you are committed to ensuring a safe, productive workplace, particularly if you make it known that people who violate your policies will be subject to discipline up to and including termination of employment. Your policies should clearly state how you define “bullying”, “harassment” and “violence”.
- Train your managers and employees: Help them learn what is and is not appropriate and what types of behaviors in potential bullies and victims might be indicative of a problem. Provide training — and not just once, but periodically, so that your employees also know what to do if they are confronted by a bully or by someone with a weapon.
- Implement a confidential reporting system: This should really be part of your policies. In any case, your employees need to feel that they can report concerns, that their concerns will be taken seriously, and that they need not fear retaliation for doing so.
- Respond and investigate promptly: In other words, take all complaints and concerns seriously. If you assume that a complaint is much ado about nothing, you may find that the matter escalates to a point where people are hurt, or worse, a situation that you might well have been able to avoid, had you taken the complaint seriously and investigated in the first place.
- Consult with local law enforcement and local employment counsel to determine how you will respond to a threat: Local law enforcement and legal counsel can also provide input as to what your policies and procedures should include. If you have a specific situation with an employee that concerns you, local law enforcement and legal counsel may well be able to help you formulate an appropriate, effective response.
- Allow for some flexibility with your policies and procedures: Many employers use the phrase zero-tolerance policy, and then apply a broad and rigid definition of “bullying”, or “violence”. Often employees who are either just joking, or who are themselves victims responding to a bully will get caught in that web. If that could describe your policies and procedures, you might actually be increasing the chances of the very situation you are trying to prevent. How? Employees could actually be afraid to report something, because they may get a co-worker — one who is not the intended target of those policies — into trouble. Once employees are afraid to report a problem, your workplace is an atmosphere of fear, which in turn is a potential breeding ground for bullies–because your employees will feel they have nowhere to turn. If your policies need tweaking, don’t be afraid to tweak them.
- Talk — and listen — to your employees: This might be the single most important and effective step you can take. If you are a manager or the owner, get out from behind your desk and spend some time with your employees. Ask them how things are going, ask them about their concerns, what could be done for them to feel safe and productive — and listen to what they have to say. Your employees generally know if there is someone among them that is bullying, or being bullied. Your employees will usually know if one of their co-workers is experiencing problems that could lead to him or her “snapping” and becoming violent. Employees who feel listened to are more likely to tell you if there is a problem. Very often the news stories about workplace violence reveal that co-workers saw earlier indicators that the perpetrator was troubled. The problem is either that no one asked, so they didn’t tell — or worse, they did tell but no one did anything (which gets back to my point #4 above).
- Document: You knew I’d say this, right? Whatever you do, document it. Just in case an employee or his/her family member files a lawsuit or makes allegations that you were negligent in ensuring a safe work environment, or that you violated some specific law, your documentation as to what happened and what you did could enable you to prevail in or maybe even avoid a lawsuit, or in some cases, even criminal liability.
As you can see, these ideas require ongoing action. They require you to stay connected with your employees. They also just might make your company a safer, more pleasant and more productive place to work. I hope these ideas at least provide a good starting point. Anyone else with ideas, or steps that have worked for them, please feel free to let us know! In the meantime, it’s time to sign off for now, so see you next week!
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
Are you a N.J. employer/business owner? Join the new LinkedIn group, New Jersey Business Litigation Forum, run by my friend and colleague, Gene Killian. Click here for more info.
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