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Alternative could be more legislation, litigation

Businesses: act now, address abusive workplace behavior

Your company has effective, ongoing programs to combat discrimination rooted in race, religion and gender. You take special care to ensure that your workplace does not become a hostile work environment due to sex. Therefore, when it comes to workplace behavior, you have nothing to worry about, right?


A recently completed survey by the Employment Law Alliance shows that “abusive behavior” in the workplace has the potential to become as serious a workplace issue as those described above.

Abusive behavior, as described in the survey, includes actions such as employees being rudely interrupted or taunted about job performance in front of co-workers. While at present, employment law does not specifically address this type of behavior, the survey shows support for prohibiting these actions.

Nearly 45% of U.S. workers surveyed say they have worked for an abusive boss. More significantly, almost two-thirds of those surveyed say bullied workers should be able to fight back in court. At present, approximately one-dozen state legislatures are considering laws specifically to prohibit workplace bullying.

In my 25-plus years as an attorney, I have seen employment law continually evolve. Both the legislative and judicial branches are not shy about becoming involved in this field. When there is a perceived problem, there always are those eager to provide a regulatory answer to that problem.

Unless managers would have government agencies regulating workplace manners, they should begin addressing these issues and get ahead of the problem. Here are some steps companies can take to address this issue:

• Communicate clearly the company’s commitment to having a workplace in which all participants — employees and supervisors alike, as well as customers and contractors — are treated fairly, ethically and with dignity. The simplest vehicles for communicating these expectations are the employer’s published values statement, human resources policies, employee handbook, new employee orientation and management training of supervisors.

• “Walk the Talk.” Senior management and policy makers should reflect the values and behaviors they seek to instill. Some lower-level supervisors who are bullies are often the product of a management culture that does not respect subordinates in the broadest sense by keeping managers informed, seeking their ideas and feedback and listening to their concerns. Verbal abuse, demeaning or condescending conduct and passive-aggressive behaviors should not be tolerated at any level of the organization.

• Provide safe and effective internal channels for employees, supervisors, and customers to bring forward concerns and complaints about perceived abusive behavior or mistreatment, and act on those complaints that are found to have merit. While the vast majority of bosses are genuinely dedicated leaders who care about their employees, some are not. If such supervisors are either incapable or unwilling to change their behaviors, they should be weeded out for the sake of the organization.

There is little chance government agencies or the courts will lose interest in what happens in the workplace. But, even without the threat of new regulations or litigation, these steps make good business sense. They promote improved morale and collaboration and support a corporate culture in which ethical behavior is the norm.


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