Poor organizational culture part three: four ways to mitigate the contextual factors allowing bullying

In my last two posts, I talked about how bullying can occur and how we usually deal with it: as though it is an aberration in the workplace culture and, once we’ve found and eliminated the bully, the problem has been solved. But we know bullying occurs because of conditions which allow it to occur.

In Bullying in the 21st Century Global Organization: An Ethical Perspective, the authors describe the sources of bullying in global organizations as a combination of “nature” — the innate characteristics of the bully — and “nurture” — how the organization allows the bullying behavior to occur. They describe four prominent contextual factors which can stimulate or elicit bullying behavior: (1) Deficiencies in work design: lack or improper supervision or the conditions in which individuals are required to work (e.g., isolated areas or absence of supervision); (2) Deficiencies in leadership behavior: inadequate supervision or lack of training of supervisors/managers on how to addresses bullying behavior, or what actually constitutes appropriate interactions between peers and subordinates and the consequences of bullying behavior in the workplace; (3) A socially exposed position of the victim: e.g., obvious weaknesses of the victim such as an undocumented worker who fears to complain or an individual who is the sole source of income for the family and fears being let go; and (4) Low morale standards in the department: meaning a workplace culture which has, over time, learned to accept substandard treatment so bullying is not only tolerated but expected.

This article was discussing bullying in the global business context, and so used the example of undocumented workers to illustrate the socially exposed position of the victim. A person who has a lot to lose by drawing attention to themselves is a prime target for someone to bully or abuse. There are domestic versions of this as well, including the single parent who is afraid to lose his or her job by complaining; the passive personality who is something like “prey” to the bully; a person who represents the only person in his or her class (the only gay person, the only woman, the only Asian American, and so on).

Let’s go back to the previous post where the employees engaged in the mobbing of Z. Each of the “nurture” contextual factors were present. (1) Because of the nature of working in a prison away from supervisors, Z was often isolated from supervisors and in the presence of his bullies; (2) When supervisors were present, they were passive in the face of behavior which should have been addressed immediately either because they were unaware of what bullying was or because they were not empowered to take action; (3) Z was a new employee at the prison, quiet and easily isolated by his bullies and therefore socially exposed; and (4) The workplace in general was described as one in which employees feared to complain because they had no faith their complaints would be addressed.

Let’s face it: organizations which allow this kind of behavior do so because they turn a blind eye. Sometimes, the person behaving this way is an important person in the organization or brings in money or clients or has a positive public face. But there are typically markers of the behavior which are evident if only people will notice them. But they often don’t.

What are the hallmarks of a healthy organization? An obvious first step is to take the four “nurture factors” and turn them on their head:

  1. Proper and appropriate supervision: when it is difficult to supervise employees because of isolated work areas it is important to check in on them and cultivate a relationship so they know the organization is looking out for them;
  2. Training supervisors on what bullying is, what the consequences of bullying are, how to address bullying and what an appropriate peer to peer and supervisor to subordinate relationship looks like;
  3. With respect to socially exposed victims, there should be a clear and articulated commitment to corporate ethics and everyone should understand what the expectations are. There are still going to be employees who are more socially exposed, but if they understand what the expectations are and that everyone is held to them, they will hopefully come forward more quickly; and
  4. High standards and expectations for treatment of employees with demonstrable results. This means not only does the employer says what it will do — it actually does it.

    Some states are requiring this kind of training and attention to the issue already, as this article in workforce.com explains. Finally, don’t forget that bullying based on protected class is legally prohibited everywhere if it meets the definition of illegal harassment.