I recently participated in a webcast discussing current workplace issues, including bullying and abusive conduct. So far, such behavior, however defined or named, has not been recognized as illegal at the state or federal level. Generally, these and other programs I have participated in mostly consider whether workplace bullying is an imminent or remote litigation risk. No doubt that's a matter to be concerned about.
However, to me here’s the more critical question: Why are organizations spending so much time discussing what might happen in the future as opposed to addressing the organizational damage abusive behaviors are causing them right now? Wouldn’t it be a strange business world if leaders waited to maximize the profitability of their manufacturing and sales processes until some legislature passed a law compelling them to do so? But that’s just what they are doing when it comes to bullying conduct.
While this may seem illogical, it occurs, in part, because managing existing compliance requirements and legal risk is, at times, overwhelming. There are so many rules governing so many actions and workplace behaviors that there is a tendency to delay addressing other problems until absolutely necessary or “when things calm down and there’s more time.” If the past is any prologue to the future, the former is too late and the latter will never come.
This is a dangerous, high-risk approach that ignores ongoing hazards that can mortally wound an organization if not undermine its culture and the credibility of its leaders. In health care, abusive behavior can disrupt focus and team work. It can lead to botched surgeries, complications, fatalities and overall declines in innovation, safety and quality. In academia, similar conduct in terms of what senior faculty do in their treatment of junior faculty can stifle creativity, new ideas, research and approaches. In business, abusive behavior can lead to unwanted turnover, brand damage, decline in teamwork and the assumption of high levels of risk caused when people fail to speak up and report dangers for fear of how they will be treated. This is what happened in many of the situations involving recent financial disasters.
To address the issue of bullying and stop the harmful consequences it causes, whether or not it is ever illegal, these are the key steps:
- Senior leaders must appreciate that behavior can have broad, systemic operational consequences irrespective of whether the conduct is illegal.
- Organizational values, which typically include terms like respect, inclusion, fairness and civility, need to be given behavioral meaning. If organizations won’t do that, such values are empty in meaning.
- When values are violated by improper behaviors, there has to be accountability.
Will addressing bullying behaviors before there is legislation involve some cost and effort?
Absolutely. However, by doing that, organizations will not only obtain improved business results but also lessen the chance that legislatures will step in and create years of costly, disruptive litigation. That’s the hardnosed, business reason to stop bullying now.