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California’s Abusive Conduct Training and the Age of Social Media

The impact of abusive conduct by supervisors or managers reaches much further than the employee who is being abused. In the age of social media and viral videos, there are great benefits to employers of fostering an ethical work environment.

This year, California is requiring employers with 50 or more employees to train supervisors on preventing abusive conduct. Recent legislation added this requirement to an existing law that required training of supervisors regarding sexual harassment. 

To see how the new provisions work, it is best to start with the original section of the government code: 

12950.1. (a) An employer having 50 or more employees shall provide at least two hours of classroom or other effective interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees in California within six months of their assumption of a supervisory position. An employer covered by this section shall provide sexual harassment training and education to each supervisory employee in California once every two years. 

Now, let us look at the new provision:

12950.1. (b) An employer shall also include prevention of abusive conduct as a component of the training and education specified in subdivision (a).

We also need to look at the law’s definition of “abusive conduct:"

12950.1. (g) (2) For purposes of this section, “abusive conduct” means conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

Enforcement appears in paragraph (e): “If an employer violates this section, the department may seek an order requiring the employer to comply with these requirements.” (The text of the law is from the California legislative web site.)

Altogether, the new provisions of the law should impose little training burden. The law does not raise the minimum of two hours for training every two years.  That is an average of one hour of training per supervisor per year.  However, the employers who comply may well have surprising, beneficial outcomes. 

To see the possible outcomes, we look first at the impacts of abusive conduct, then at the benefits of having an ethical work environment and finally at how these can affect companies by way of social media.

A Look at the Impacts of Abusive Environments

The effects of abusive conduct in the workplace are well stated in “Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace: International Perspectives in Research and Practice” (Taylor and Francis, London, 2003). The book’s Table 2.3, “Some effects of workplace abuse and harassment on targets,” lists impacts such as: anger, anxiety, depression, ill health, lower concentration, lower morale, lower productivity, lower customer service, higher turnover and higher absenteeism. These impacts are documented by many studies in peer-reviewed, professional journals.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) points to these impacts of psychological harassment: increased costs for employee assistance programs (EAPs), recruitment, etc.; increased risk for accidents/incidents; decreased productivity and motivation; reduced corporate image and customer confidence; and poorer customer service. Keep the last three in mind.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) web page on workplace stress states: "Studies show that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness and intentions by workers to quit their jobs – all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line."  NIOSH also reports: “Health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress” (citing the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine).  

This is an overview of the impacts of abusive conduct as reported in scholarly research. It goes with what you know from experience or expect by common sense. 

The Impacts of an Ethical, Non-Abusive Workplace

Now, let us consider the impact of an ethical, professional work environments – one without obnoxious, abusive, harassing behavior.  (They are great places to work.)  Even in the best environments, there still will be criticism.  Factual, civil, professional criticism is not bullying or abusive conduct, according to the National Institutes of Health “CIVIL” office, which states that in its new brochure on workplace violence. This brochure is the best one I have seen so far in the federal government that addresses workplace violence. The anti-bullying statement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says the same thing, but that policy is not on HUD’s public web site.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is the most powerful small business lobby in the country. The April 22, 2005 NFIB E-News included an article titled “Promoting and Maintaining Ethical Values Within a Small Business.” It claimed that promoting and maintaining ethical values within a small business can produce: 

  • Increased employee loyalty and motivation. 
  • Greater trust and respect between employees and managers. 
  • Respect among employees for the company's vision and mission statement. 
  • Reduced employee turnover. 
  • Increased productivity and a greater sense of teamwork 
  • Less stress in the workplace. 
  • Higher quality production, both in services and manufactured goods. 
  • Fewer fines and lawsuits from customers, suppliers and employees.

This is clear and straightforward, and still true 10 years later. From personal experience in several very large companies and government agencies, I have seen ethical values lead to good outcomes in big organizations as well as the small ones served by NFIB.

Abusive Conduct in the Age of Digital/Social Media

Abusive conduct in the workplace has the opposite effect of ethical and moral behavior in the workplace. Now, it has become clear that abusive and ethical behavior in workplaces affect organizations outside the workplace, because these behaviors show up in social media and can have favorable or unfavorable affects.

Social media sites publish positive and negative reviews for products, restaurants, movies, hotels, foreign tours and employers, etc.  You and I use them to make decisions. A part-owner of a New York hotel told me she reads reviews of her hotel and calls the manager when she sees a bad review.

In “Digital Marketing: Integrating Strategy and Tactics with Values” (Routledge, 2014, New York and London), Ira Kaufman, PhD, and Chris Horton wrote that: “Social media offers the perfect conduit to disseminate both positive and negative customer experiences at lightning speed.”

They give as one example the “United Breaks Guitars” video that went viral after it was uploaded to YouTube in 2009. It is a video of a passenger singing a song he wrote after his guitar allegedly was destroyed by the airline’s baggage handlers and the company refused to reimburse him.  As of 2014, the video had over 14 million hits. It pushed the company to change its ways, according to Kaufman.

“Employees are often the most passionate and knowledgeable boosters of an organization’s product or service,” wrote Kaufman and Horton. However, they will not be passionate boosters of their companies if they feel abused.  This is demonstrated in in one of my favorite studies, the Zellars, Tepper and Duffy paper, “Abusive Supervision and Subordinates’ Organizational Citizenship Behavior.”

Today, employees can and do comment on their workplaces in social media (e.g., I spoke to one job seeker who read those reviews. She was thinking of moving to a company until she read online reports of its abusive work atmosphere. She ruled the company out, and they lost a chance at having an intelligent, knowledgeable techie.

California’s new requirement will nudge, at least, some employers to improve their work environments. Those who do will have an advantage over those who do not.

A non-abusive, ethical workplace has more engaged and more loyal employees. Those employees will provide better customer service and talk up the company. And their employers will have an advantage in recruiting because of their good reputation.  This is a win for those companies, their employees and for California.

Abusive conduct is not good for workers or business in the age of social media.

About the Author: 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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