Mark Ward 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Putting an End to Workplace Bullying Students may not be the only ones feeling tormented at school. One employee said he felt “like a fly whose wings had been deliberately torn off.” Another described feeling like a child in a schoolyard with a “Kick Me” sign taped to her back. Others equated themselves to heartbroken lovers who had been torn away from jobs and coworkers. These darkly poignant comparisons were used by survey respondents to describe how they felt as targets of workplace bullying. In the study published in a 2006 issue of Management Communication Quarterly, even more unpleasant metaphors are revealed: Respondents called the experience “a nightmare they could not escape or understand” and “the constant drip of a water torture.” Such stories impart a personal dimension to the problem of workplace bullying, a phenomenon that has drawn increasing attention from human resources (HR) professionals. “Ten years ago,” affirms SNA human resources consultant Jean Geraghty, “the concept of ‘bullying’ on the job was new and didn’t have a name.” But as the spotlight has been turned on this behavior in the workplace, the scope of the problem has astounded researchers. Estimates suggest that more than one-third of all employees will experience workplace bullying. Studies from a variety of sources paint a grim picture: ■ 1 in 6 workers report current workplace mistreatment. ■ 1 in 8 employees are being bullied during any given 6- to 12-month period. ■ An estimated 30% of adults will experience on-the-job bullying at some point during their careers. ■ More than 80% of surveyed workers report they had witnessed bullying. By Any Other Name Addressing the problem of workplace bullying was hindered until recently by lack of an appropriate label. Only in the last 5-10 years has the HR field settled on the term “workplace bullying,” which provides a common terminology that recognizes similar behaviors in other settings. Agreement on a name has likewise allowed agreement on a definition. Founders Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) offer a widely accepted definition: “Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct and behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or work interference and sabotage that prevent work from getting done.” School nutrition directors and cafeteria managers can best put this definition into perspective by also understanding what bullying is not. “Bullying is different than harassment,” explains Geraghty. “Harassment is repeated, offensive, unwelcome conduct aimed at a person in a lawfully protected class—such as race, national origin, gender, disability or religion—and that seriously and adversely affects the individual’s conditions of employment.” In contrast, she continues, “Workplace bullying is not linked to any class of persons and, at present, there are no federal laws and few state guidelines against it.” WBI co-founder Ruth Namie learned that lesson firsthand. She attributes a 1995 encounter with a “boss from hell” as leading to the destruction of a promising career in clinical psychology. Not knowing “what to call the irrational thunderbolt that struck… without invitation or reason,” Namie followed her employer’s human resources policy and lodged a harassment complaint. But that led to the discovery that when the source of harassment is a person of the same gender or same race, such incidents don’t meet the standard for sexual harassment— and, according to Namie, don’t seem to be worthy of consideration by HR. Taking off the Blinders Fortunately, such institutional indifference and legal tolerance of workplace bullying is already becoming an attitude of the past. After all, there was a time when most people thought “boys will be boys” (refer to any episode of TV’s landmark drama, “Mad Men”) and there was no recourse for women—certainly no legal protections against sexual harassment. Similarly, people today might think workplace bullying is just a fact of life. But times are changing. Efforts by SHRM and other groups to disseminate best practices and promulgate model company policies are ongoing. And WBI reports that in the past decade, 21 state legislatures have considered anti-bullying bills; none so far have been enacted, but in 2012, a total of 19 bills were introduced in 13 states. Perhaps the furthest along is Massachusetts’ Healthy Workplace Bill, which in April was approved in committee and sent to the House floor for its third reading. The law would give workers a legal right to seek damages for harm caused by bullying, while reducing liability exposure for employers who take preventive and responsive measures. Similar bills were the subjects of public hearings last March in Vermont, Connecticut and Maryland. But while you may want to ensure that your district or organization is ahead of the curve should such legislation be passed, the main reason to stop workplace bullying is simply because it’s the right thing to do. Unique Challenges There is so much value in doing your part to ensure that you are fostering an emotionally healthy work environment. It is the key to productivity, as well as to engaged, motivated employees. One of the first steps is preventing or curtailing workplace bullying is to raise your awareness of the issue. Start by framing the causes, consequences and “corrections” of bullying by placing these within the specific context of what can happen in a school nutrition setting. Let’s start by examining the potential causes for workplace bullying in this business. “First, there’s a great deal of stress and pressure in any foodservice operation,” Geraghty points out. “Then you add more stress since school foodservice is under such scrutiny by parents, communities and the media.” Then, too, there’s the pressure of regulatory compliance, especially as rules change over time. Still another challenge is found in the inherent differences between cafeteria site managers and their kitchen and serving staffs. Managers often are career-track employees, while staff often are part-time employees. And since managers are sometimes promoted from within the ranks, they can end up supervising workers who were once their peers. Coping with such dynamics, not to mention the operational stresses of school nutrition programs, rarely comes naturally for site managers. If they are promoted primarily on the basis of seniority or their knowledge of foodservice operations, they may be well-suited to handle the cafeteria side of school nutrition management, but not necessarily the management side. The consequences of such workplace bullying on school nutrition operations can be devastating: employees shut down, morale nosedives, productivity plummets, teamwork declines, general squabbling increases, customer service drops and both absenteeism and turnover rise. And when employees get to the point of doing only the bare minimum, they might skip steps or opt for shortcuts. If this happens with food safety procedures, you could face disaster. Correcting workplace bullying in the cafeteria is complicated by two challenges: one found in all organizations and another unique to many school nutrition operations. First, cowed employees often keep silent about mistreatment because they are fearful of retaliation or—especially in a bad economy—losing their jobs. In addition, the administrative vagaries from one school system to another can hamper corrections regarding bullying. For example, in many communities, although the district director is responsible for school nutrition operations, hiring and other HR may be the purview of the school principal. In addition, geography and the number of school sites can be a factor, if the director or other supervisor is unable to visit each individual location on a regular basis. Thus, Geraghty believes that supervisors should focus on prevention. “Give your managers the management and leadership training they need to deal constructively with the stresses they face,” she counsels. If you are responsible for hiring personnel at the site level, be sure that supervisory skills are as an important a factor as skills in managing foodservices. Management of people should be a key aspect of any manager training program. Documentation is another key element in the prevention of bullying. “A respectful and collegial work environment can be made into an expectation, if you put it into your performance review procedures,” suggests Geraghty. “Make it a standard on which managers’ and employees’ performance is assessed and which becomes part of their record.” If problems arise, discuss them with the individual. Then, if necessary, you have the documentation on which to make promotion decisions, take disciplinary action or move toward termination. By the same token, a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace bullying, and a commitment to promptly respond, will reassure victims that they can step forward. This can discourage potential bullies and make them aware that there are consequences for their actions. “Just as you implement policies and practices that create a safety culture, you can do the same to create an emotionally healthy work environment,” says Geraghty. A Broader View For their part, researchers have looked into the causes of workplace bullying at multiple levels, including the situation, the individual and the organization. Studies suggest that situations that may prompt bullying reactions can include escalation of workplace disputes; scapegoating or taking out frustrations on subordinates who have less power; or exploiting opportunities to assert authority. These often are tied to organizational factors, including pressures to produce; power imbalances; and a win/lose culture that encourages the “blame game.” Individual factors that lead to workplace bullying are less clear cut in the current research. In a 2009 survey of the literature, the researchers conclude that “there appears to be no sex bias in being targeted” and, instead, that workers with the least power are most vulnerable. There is no agreement on whether men or women are more likely to be perpetrators. A national WBI survey in 2010 found that while 62% of bullies were men and 38% women, the majority of bullying is same-gender harassment, which is [not illegal] according to anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies. Although women comprised 58% of victims, female bullies targeted other females 80% of the time. In total, 34% of workplace bullying was male-on-male and 30% female-on-female, compared to 28% male-on-female and 8% female-on-male. Look for the Signs You might not realize your own risks of becoming a bully, since one’s own blind spots can be the hardest to see. Has your kitchen become a quarrelsome place to work? Are your employees shutting down and just doing the minimum? Is your team’s productivity down and absenteeism up? Don’t be afraid to do some soul-searching and take a look at the behaviors that you might be modeling. What you consider to be assertive leadership might be mistaken by others as overly controlling or aggressive actions. And if you find yourself the target of a workplace bully? Don’t take it lightly. Since 2000, more than 50 studies have linked bullying not only to psychological harms but to increased incidence of physiological conditions ranging from sleep disorders and cardiovascular dysfunction to muscle pain and Type 2 diabetes. SHRM suggests some strategies that may help you cope: ■ Don’t sweep it under the rug; raise the issue and attempt to resolve it with your manager or someone who is in a position to take action. ■ De-personalize the situation by remembering that a bully may be attacking your position, rather than you personally. ■ Document the interaction, witnesses and the results. ■ Focus on building and maintaining your own professionalism, so you are not easily discounted. ■ Join a professional organization like SNA. This can help counter feelings of isolation and allow you to meet others who understand your challenges. ■ Seek mentors and friends, both within and outside of the organization, for support. ■ As a last resort, be prepared to leave an unsalvageable situation. Remember, anyone can be a victim of workplace bullying, not just employees at the lowest level of the organization. Whether you are a part-time employee or a district director, you should never feel that bullying is an acceptable or deserved consequence of employment. Given the difficult power dynamics of workplace bullying, WBI found that only 22% of victims and/or witnesses filed a formal complaint or action; 37% attempted an informal resolution and 40% did nothing. Among victims, bullying only stopped as individuals quit their jobs (40%), were involuntarily terminated (24%) or were transferred elsewhere in the organization (13%). More than three-quarters (77%) of those who committed bullying or harassment were not disciplined. Stopping workplace bullying before it happens clearly remains the best strategy. Make it a priority to develop and implement anti-bullying policies and provide appropriate training. As part of the process, build awareness of the causes and consequences of workplace bullying among all employees; assess your organizational culture to identify areas that might lead to inappropriate behaviors; screen who is hired and who is promoted; establish prompt investigative procedures and victim supports; and be sure that all elements of your policies and plans are evaluated regularly and revised as necessary. Do your part to create a workplace culture where all are accorded dignity and respect. Mark Ward is a regular contributor to School Nutrition and an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Houston-Victoria, where he teaches organizational communication and leadership.
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