Help! Our workplace is becoming populated by a group of bullies. People are becoming more aggressive—to the point of being abusive—in their language and communication style.
We’ve received a number of complaints that include rudeness, yelling, cursing, and even threats of violence. Employees complain their work environment has become intimidating, threatening, and hostile, even to the point that they feel like throwing up when coming to work and are consumed by anxiety the entire workday! And we just had our first employee actually quit over all this, citing intolerable interactions with co-workers.
These troubling changes began a few months ago when we hired a new director. Almost immediately, he made it clear that bullying was integral to his management style. As just one example, when trying to improve performance of a struggling employee, he told her: “You’d better clean up your act because I know you just had a new baby and you need this job—and I don’t give a f*@k if you end up on the street.”
We talked to this manager about correcting his behavior, with little success. He’s on his way out, but this “style” of communication has now infected our nonprofit’s culture. We now need to deal with the employees that emulate this soon-to-be former supervisor and get things back to normal.
Please give us some ideas! How we can restore the kind of workplace culture our employees deserve?
No employer should ever indulge or even tolerate any abusive, hostile, aggressive, or bullying conduct toward anyone. As you have experienced, this conduct can be demoralizing, create a fearful and unproductive workforce, and lead to costly turnover and an increase in workers compensation claims. A workplace simply cannot function if employees wake up each morning with a sense of dread that they will have to face “another day” of this abuse, when all they want is to do their job.
Bullying takes many forms, some more subtle than others. This behavior is typically associated with supervisors or managers who abuse their power, but non-supervisory staff are just as capable of it and should be dealt with accordingly. Bullying can affect an employee’s ability to do their job even without being accompanied by swearing, yelling, and overt hostility. Sometimes intimidation is more successful with a whisper than a scream.
Changing A Bullying Culture
In your current situation, you must take all efforts to discipline the bullies. While termination may not be required in every case, remember that more moderate discipline such as final warnings or a performance improvement plan may not stop this behavior. Zero tolerance and “one more chance” are often not compatible or successful. Fixing an employee’s poor performance in doing their job is much easier than trying to change a person’s personality or psychology that leads to this abusive way of interacting with others.
Discipline should be imposed with courage and without concern of the bully’s pushback. Remember, as the “Me Too” movement has demonstrated, no one is too important to an organization to be immune from personal accountability. That concept applies equally to dealing with bullies.
If you do not terminate a bully, set clear requirements and expectations for their behavior along with consequences for failing to meet those expectations. In addition, you should require the bully to submit to proper workplace behavior training as a condition to continued employment.
In summary, when dealing with this kind of behavior in the workplace, and especially in a situation where the workplace culture is permeated by such behavior, using the model of sexual harassment is helpful, if not essential. Many of the concepts and tools for properly handling the sexual harassment complaint will be of great value in reaching the goal of rehabilitating the culture of the workplace infected by bullying.
As in many workplace situations, the effort to remedy bullying starts with having a clear and effective policy that expresses zero tolerance for this behavior.
To create and implement policies that target the bully, use the strict zero tolerance policies that address sexual harassment in the workplace as your inspiration and model. These policies offer a helpful framework for assuring employees that they have a right and a place to complain, that such complaints are taken seriously, and that you will take effective action to investigate and remedy violations of the policy. Just because the law does not currently require a policy about bullying, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create one.
Implement this policy along with training for all employees and make it explicitly clear that violations will result in disciplinary action.
As in efforts to prevent sexual harassment, this message should come from the top of the organization, ideally a board member, to make it clear that your workplace will not tolerate this behavior. This is also an opportunity for all employees to honestly evaluate their own conduct. If you have not been the perfect role model of a “non-bully,” this is the best time to start becoming one.
Is It Illegal Or Just Inappropriate?
While several states and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) say bullying is inappropriate in the modern workplace and needs to be eliminated, currently, there is no Federal or State law that prohibits “bad behavior” in the workplace. In fact, many courts say that the anti-discrimination and harassment laws—such as those aimed at preventing sexual harassment—were never intended to provide a “general code of workplace civility.” While this conduct can be used as evidence to prove discrimination or prohibit harassment, there is no direct basis of liability for bullying or abusive conduct committed in the workplace. Despite not having enacted clear laws on the subject, many states have recently imposed training requirements to prevent and deter abusive and bullying behavior.
Because there is no real legal support for efforts to prevent and remedy this conduct, it’s important to handle these issues aggressively and proactively within the workplace. To paraphrase what EEOC has said about sexual harassment:
We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves.
Creating A Professional Culture From Day One
If you haven’t already, you should begin communicating your nonprofit’s workplace culture philosophy from the beginning of employment. In addition to the policies we have discussed here, consider having every job description contain the following “essential job function:”
This and every position in this organization requires the employee to treat everyone, including, but not limited to, every other employee, with dignity and respect. Every employee will, at all times, conduct themselves in a cooperative, collaborative, and professional fashion.
Laying out this expectation before every employee even begins their job, in addition to reiterating it in your employee manual, not only clarifies the kind of workplace culture to which you are committed, but it will also provide a clear signal to your employees that they won’t have to deal with bullies or inappropriate behavior.
They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, but that’s not always true. With a bit of planning and the development of helpful, documented policies, you can move from desperate to intentional; from abusive to thriving. The best practices outlined here may sound a bit daunting given your current struggles, but I promise you the end result is well worth it. After all, nonprofits are committed to social justice, and if we don’t walk the walk, who will?
This article does not provide legal representation or legal advice. Nothing provided in this column should be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel.
Mike Bishop is a member of the State Bar of California and has been admitted to practice in a number of Federal District Courts in both California and Ohio. During his legal career, he worked for 32 years with a Sacramento law firm where he focused on employment litigation in both State and Federal courts. During that time, he defended employers in litigation. In 2016, he began his work as an Employment Risk Manager for the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance, assisting nonprofits in evaluating employment risks.