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Why Anti-Bullying Policies Should Be Leading Indicators

Jan. 9, 2020
To have a credible safety culture, management must be responsive to concerns of visible and hidden, verbal and non-verbal abusive conduct.

To earn credibility with employees, management must be responsive to a variety of workplace concerns.

One important worker concern is workplace bullying, or what Tennessee, California, and Utah laws refer to as “abusive conduct."

The December 2019 issue of EHS Today covered many topics, including leading indicators, workplace violence and safety culture.  Each of these is connected to an organization’s anti-bullying policies. 

Many organizations do not have such policies. Some have policies but do not communicate or enforce them.

Contributing Editor David Sparkman wrote “OSHA Embraces Leading Indicators” and gave as much detail as anyone could put on a single page in the magazine. As I read about this interesting new strategy, I wondered whether OSHA and employers recognized an anti-bullying policy as a leading indicator. 

The agency‘s policy states, “… workers may decide to discontinue reporting hazards if they feel that management is not being responsive to their concerns. This can affect morale, which could have broad implications for the workplace.”

The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services had a good policy in 2008, but when I checked in 2017 nobody in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration knew about it. I saw similar problems in a handful of VA hospitals in 2015; it was hard to find employees who knew about VA’s good policies.  

Organizations with anti-bullying policies that are comprehensive, communicated regularly to employees and implemented fairly will earn credibility from the employees. Workers’ willingness to report safety problems should increase because they will have seen for themselves, or heard from co-workers, that their employer takes bullying seriously. 

Workplace Violence Policies

The article “Top 10 Trends in EHS for 2019” was written by several people. The first item, workplace violence prevention, was written by Senior Editor Stefanie Valentic.  

Stefanie has a good quote from Al Shenouda, a former security protective advisor. He said, “The average worker does not snap overnight – that’s Hollywood.“ 

She also quotes Gino Soave, Niles Industrial Coatings’ corporate safety director, who said, “No threat is too small. Words always precede actions.” 

I saw this years ago when the foreman of one craft punched the bullying construction superintendent after many insults.  They threw several punches at each other, then they stopped and cooled off. Occasionally, people quit their jobs because they are about to smack their abusive supervisors. More often victims get depressed and sick. Very rarely, the bullied person comes back with a gun.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Interagency Security Committee (ISC) has a lot more to say about this in “2019 Edition - Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide for Prevention and Response”.

The ISC Guide says, “Most acts of Federal workplace violence occur as some form of verbal or non-verbal threat, bullying, harassment, intimidation, or non-fatal physical assault.” 

Further on, it explains: “The continuum of violent acts ranges from more common non-physical acts (such as incivility, bullying, gestures, expressions, and verbal threats) to less common physical acts (such as battery, aggravated assault, suicide, homicide, and acts of terrorism).”

The ISC guide is written for federal agencies, but it has insights and strategies that should be useful to the private sector.  It recognizes that 1. bullying/abusive conduct is a form a psychological violence (it affects victims’ health); and 2. ignoring it can lead to physical violence. Your workplace violence policy should address psychological violence—and act on it.

Safety Culture

The December 2019 Sincerely Stefanie article covered “Defining Safety Culture.”  I mention here only a little piece of her essay, do see the rest of it.

Stefanie recapped the presentation of Carletta Ooton, Amazon’s vice president of Health, Safety, Sustainability, Security and Compliance, at EHS Today’s Safety Leadership Conference. 

Stefanie spotlighted Carletta Ooton’s “in-house development of the Safety Leadership Index (SLI), a measurement of both Amazon leaders’ and associates’ perceptions of site leadership’s focus on creating a safe workplace.”  The SLI is based on an employee survey. 

One survey question caught my eye. It was: “Do you feel you work in a safe workplace?”  Nothing says this question is limited to OSHA regulated workplace hazards. The question also should apply to safety from physical and psychological abuse from supervisors, co-workers, customers, and visitors. 

To have a credible safety culture, management must be responsive to concerns of visible and hidden, verbal and non-verbal abusive conduct (this is a 2X2 framework).  If the company workplace violence policy doesn’t cover psychological violence, then some employees are not going to feel safe. More of this is covered in "The Dimensions of Workplace Bullying Behavior."

Overcoming Resistance to Anti-Bullying Policies

Many federal and state agencies do not have anti-bullying programs/policies.  This seems to be true for private sector employers as well.  

Note that California requires training of supervisors on abusive conduct in private companies with more than 50 employees, and Tennessee law offers some legal protection for private sector firms if they have abusive conduct policies as good as the Tennessee model plan.  

Some resistance to adopting anti-bullying policies is because of managers’ anxiety that such policies will interfere their roles as managers. Tennessee has a remedy for this. The state law on abusive conduct required the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Regulations (TACIR) to create a “model plan” for use under the law. The TACIR staff produced an excellent model—good for both government and private sector entities. The model plan carefully excludes legitimate managerial conduct from abusive conduct.   

The Tennessee model plan says: “Abusive conduct does not include

  • Disciplinary procedures in accordance with adopted policies of [Insert Entity Name]
  • Routine coaching and counseling, including feedback about and correction of work performance
  • Reasonable work assignments, including shift, post, and overtime assignments
  • Individual differences in styles of personal expression
  • Passionate, loud expression with no intent to harm others
  • Differences of opinion on work-related concerns
  • The non-abusive exercise of managerial prerogative.”

The TACIR model plan’s protection of management rights should go a long way toward overcoming managers’ opposition to a policy against workplace bullying or abusive conduct. 

If you are wondering what is an abusive exercise of managerial prerogative, see language from the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital policy on “Prevention of Workplace Harassment” (and bullying) of 2012. 

It says: “Bullying and psychological harassment are often characterized through insulting, hurtful, hostile, vindictive, cruel or malicious behaviors which undermine, disrupt or negatively impact another’s ability to do his or her job and results in a harmful work environment for the employee(s).”

I did see the TACIR model plan several years ago.  I wrote about it in EHS Today, but I did not appreciate the importance of the model plan’s protection of management’s rights. 

In the course of working on anti-bullying policies in several federal departments and studying state government policies, I saw how slowly they moved to adopt such policies. I finally saw that management anxiety was holding up those policies, and I realized that Tennessee had a good way to deal with it. 

About the Author

Edward Stern | Researcher and Expert Witness

Edward Stern served the U.S. Department of Labor for 40+ years as a senior economist and policy/program analyst. He developed regulations, analyzed enforcement strategies and innovated methods of compliance assistance. For the last 27 years, in OSHA, he examined health and safety risks and regulatory feasibility. He also led teams of scientists, IH’s, engineers, doctors, nurses, systems analysts and attorneys from the Department of Labor and the public sector to develop interactive, diagnostic “Expert Advisors” to answer which, whether and how OSHA rules applied to situations. DOL adopted this approach for many other labor law issues. He presented a study on bullying at the Labor and Employment Relations Association annual conference in 2007. He wrote the workplace bullying and psychological aggression chapter of “Halt the Violence” (e-book, Amazon). He is a researcher and advisor on workplace bullying to management and labor, and an accepted, expert witness on bullying in arbitration cases. As a retired fed, he represents AFGE Local 12 on the USDOL Workplace Violence Committee. He can be reached at [email protected].

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