September 29th, 2015
Consistency vs. Case-by-Case Approaches to Solving Workplace Bullying Problems
By Gary Namie, PhD
One of the major complaints from bullied workers is the unfairness and inequity inherent in their employer’s approach to bullying complaints. As a group, bullied individuals are very sensitive to perceived injustices.
It is key to remember that if it is an American employer, there is no legal risk-avoidance reason to compel them to take complaints about bullying and abusive conduct seriously. If they treat complaints as legitimate and serious at all, it is because they choose to do so voluntarily.
When a sympathetic, well-intentioned employer does allow bullying complaints to be lodged, that openness is often followed by resolution attempts on a case-by-case basis (CBCB). Adopting CBCB sounds good but is plagued by unintentional consequences.
To employers, CBCB affords flexibility. It allows the investigator and decision maker to take into account mitigating circumstances. For instance, offenders can be forgiven if their misconduct is found to be based on following orders from a higher ranking manager. It also makes sense to be lenient in delivering negative consequences for first-time offenders. How could this be unfair?
From the perspective of rank-in-file employees the CBCB method is perceived much differently. From that view, in the first instance the given orders were unseen. Only the absence of punishment or changes was noticed. Therefore, the decision smacks of favoritism. And if the offender was a department head or director, then it appears the employer is protecting managers. Bullying is met with impunity.Leniency, too, looks like the employer decided to grant the bully wide latitude.
In both cases, employer flexibility feels like employer betrayal to workers.
This is a preventable error.
At WBI, we suggest dropping the CBCB approach. CBCB is the only alternative when no systematic policy-driven solution exists. Create the alternative. If employers truly want to hold accountable destructive workers, then create a policy or code of conduct in which you state unequivocally that abusive conduct is unacceptable.
More important, you must design enforcement procedures to make the policy a living document.
The procedures you create spell out exactly how complaints alleging violations of the policy or code will be handled. Employer responsiveness is key. Regarding the topic of this column — accountability for violations — your enforcement procedures must clearly dictate consistency. This is done by explicitly stating that all procedural steps — investigations, interviews, timelines, notifications of outcomes, and remedies — apply to ALL employees at ALL levels. The antithesis of CBCB is a consistent application of the rules.
If you, the employer, want engaged loyal employees, then substitute a policy and faithful enforcement procedures (governing rules) for old CBCB, make-it-up-on-the-fly, methods of dealing with bullying. Your reputation with your employees depends on it.
Gary Namie, originator of the specialty consulting field for workplace bullying, is co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) and Senior Consultant for WBI Services for Employers.
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