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Talking Power, Safety and Bullying

Here's a quick recommendation. Virtually every organization includes “respect,” stated one way or the other, as a core value.

August 22, 2012

I was a panelist last week on the topic of workplace bullying.

The Atlanta Diversity Management Advocacy Group sponsored the session at Georgia Power, Atlanta's local utility and a longtime client. Conrado Marion-Landais, who represented our host, welcomed the audience and then, before saying a word about our topic, gave us a quick safety talk. He explained what to do if there were a fire or other emergency, directed us to the exits, told us who to call and where to gather outside the building. This took about a minute.

I've seen this before at Georgia Power. Every meeting starts this way including one I recently attended with six people. It's a pattern, habit and routine. Safety at Georgia Power is cultural, not a slogan. In our workplaces, preventing bullying needs to be handled the same way and for the same reason. Both ultimately relate to team member and operational safety.

Here's the point: bullying is a form of abusive and demeaning workplace conduct. It can consist of a pattern of derogatory words, dismissive tones of voice or body language, a failure to listen or welcome issues. In my view, it's best seen as part of a continuum of uncivil behavior that can lead to illegal conduct and even workplace violence.

Co-workers can bully one another. Leaders can be bullied by those who report to them, though the typical pattern is just the opposite. All along the spectrum, behavior leading up to bullying affects productivity, morale, teamwork, efficiency, problem solving, and, ultimately, safety in terms of employees and the public. In health care, bullying conduct has been found to lead to botched procedures, prescription errors and a shocking incidence of complications and fatalities.

There is a national state-by-state movement to make bullying illegal. So far, no initiative has passed. If it does, it will lead to years of litigation and a bounty of wealth for plaintiffs' and defendants' lawyers. In the process, as legal and factual standards emerge, organizations will face increased risk and uncertainty as to where to mark the boundary between firm, proper, and harmless conduct versus that which crosses into illegal territory. The result will be cost, disruption and inefficiency. Those burdens are not what any employer or workforce needs in our challenged economy.

Here's a quick recommendation. Virtually every organization includes "respect," stated one way or the other, as a core value. If it's important enough to be a guiding principle, then treat it as Georgia Power does its commitment to safety.

Make sure it's talked about in plain terms all the time, briefly, clearly and routinely. As to what needs to be said, how about something as basic, as words like these regularly made part of routine meetings.

We're a team and we need to work together. We'll get better results. We'll find out about problems, we'll be more efficient and safer. Let's not interrupt one another and let's avoid calling each other names. Let's remember that our tone of voice and body language communicate as much as the words we say.

When others talk let's pay attention. If you have a problem or disagree, speak up. We'll listen. We may not agree but we'll hear what you say and we won't ignore or punish you. Let's do this all the time—not just in meetings but whenever we connect—live, via phone messages and online. That's how we can show that respect is important to us.

If organizations regularly communicated messages like these in business conversations and held leaders and teams accountable to working by them, we'd have safer, more efficient workplaces. And the cost would surely be less than dealing with the ongoing hazards of bullying and incivility including, potentially, claims and lawsuits in the future.