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Here’s How Employee Listening Can Address Bullying and Incivility

How Employee Listening Can Address Bullying and Incivility

Workplace bullying — the tendency of individuals to intentionally use aggressive or unreasonable behavior or comments to hurt or isolate an employee — has become a major issue in recent years, with the number of reported cases on the rise. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 31% of workers were bullied in 2020, up from 19% in 2017. This increase is likely due to a number of factors, including the rise of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. That same study found that men made up the majority of bullies (67%) and directed 58% of their bullying at men; women were 33% of bullies and directed 65% of their bullying at women.

More granular dives into the bullying problem support this worrisome trend. A January 2020 study from The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that 10% of workers reported being bullied by email or social media. The London-based boutique employment law firm Fox & Partners experienced a 44% increase in bullying cases heard from March 2021 to March 2022. Our own research on healthcare violence from May 2022 found that 92% of healthcare workers had experienced or witnessed workplace violence from a patient or patient’s caregiver in the preceding month.  And most recently, a March 2023 survey of 2,179 people from Irwin Mitchell demonstrated that “banter-based” bullying — i.e., bullying masquerading as simple office chatter about everyday life — was widespread across various industries, with this form of bullying most prevalent in the accounting and finance sector (38%), hospitality (39%) and retail (38%).

Workplace Bullying Defined

Workplace bullying can include such tactics as verbal, non-verbal, psychological, and physical abuse as well as humiliation and degradation. Other terms used to describe bullying could include psychological violence, psychological harassment, personal harassment, “piling on,” or “mobbing,” and emotional abuse. Bullying can run the gamut from yelling at someone to gossiping about them, and can also occur when someone uses an aggressive or standoffish tone of voice in an email or chat. Managers and colleagues can also mistreat employees simply by ignoring them, and failing to support, develop, or even communicate with them. 

Often, euphemisms such as “incivility,” “negative conduct,” and “disrespect” are used to describe bullying, but these politer terms may mask its true physical and emotional impactBullying can have a devastating effect on victims, both at work and in their personal lives. Victims may experience anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. They may also have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and enjoying their work. Bullying can even lead to job loss, as victims may be forced to leave their jobs to escape the abuse.

Who Are the Bullies?

Recent research published in the Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal  (Buriro et al.) that was conducted in the private and public hospitals of Hyderabad and Karachi Sindh, Pakistan, found that supervisors were more involved in bullying than colleagues — and the bullying has far more negative outcomes in terms of retention and organizational support when it occurs top-down (vertical workplace bullying) as opposed to happening among equals (horizontal workplace bullying). This is consistent with a 2019 survey, which also showed that a majority of bullying is done by supervisors. 

Of course, peer-to-peer and client/patient-to-employee bullying is also tremendously harmful, as Perceptyx’s own research on healthcare violence demonstrated. There, an overwhelming majority (more than 9 out of 10) of healthcare workers experienced or witnessed violence from patients or their caregivers.  Nurses in hospitals were the most likely of all healthcare employees to be exposed to violence (physical or verbal) at work, with 96% experiencing an instance in the past month. The magnitude of incidents is also greater for this group: 4 in 5 hospital nurses have had to call a coworker or security because they feel unsafe — twice as many as workers in other roles.

While noting that colleagues perpetrated only 33% of the bullying in their own healthcare sample, Buriro et al. observed that bullying by supervisors and colleagues is interrelated, because bullying is more frequent when it is purposeful and seemingly “institutionalized” by the behaviors of those in power. Research from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada noted that colleague-to-colleague bullying can often occur when there is a significant reorganization, the appointment of a new manager, a promotion that upsets one or more individuals, or an illness or injury that reduces the ability of an individual to perform in their role.

The Outcomes of Bullying on Others

Research from Salin and Notelaers in the International Journal of Human Resource Management (2020) analyzed two separate survey studies to show that bullying has organizational effects that go beyond those who are bullied. Witnessing bullying can affect work-related outcomes, such as poorer overall employee attitudes and engagement, because of the “psychological contract violation” that has taken place. When they see their peers bullied by supervisors and colleagues, witnesses may perceive this as a violation of perceived promises of respectful treatment on the part of employers that have an obligation to provide emotionally and physically safe workplaces. 

Beyond that, it should probably go without saying that a culture of bullying provides zero benefits and imposes numerous costs on an organization. Bullying from supervisors accustomed to highly competitive, “boiler room” sales environments does not make an organization more competitive by forcing supposedly weaker employees to leave. Nor does citing history and tradition — “our organization has always been very high-pressure, very results-driven” — justify a culture of bullying. Bullying and hazing aren’t ways of making employees “pay dues” or “just how things are done in this industry.” 

How to Measure Bullying

With all of this in mind, it’s important to have a listening strategy in place that will enable your organization to keep tabs on employee attitudes related to bullying. 

Perceptyx has a library of items in place that can be utilized for these measurements, as well as any number of custom items that our I/O consultants can work with your organization to develop. 

For organizations using an index specific to workplace bullying, sexual harassment, or incivility, I’ve seen the following items impacted most by the prevalence of these practices:

  • Employees report feeling less valued
  • Burnout is nearly twice as high
  • Perception of survey effectiveness is negatively impacted 
  • Psychological safety and DEIB perceptions are negatively impacted
    • These perceptions are at their lowest when “vertical,” supervisor-led bullying is occurring 
  • Intent to stay is negatively impacted
    • Intent to stay is far lower when supervisor-led bullying is widespread

When evaluating this data, we have to be mindful of cultural differences. Among other countries and cultures, the barriers that exist in terms of speaking out may vary greatly. This may possibly lead to people in those areas “skipping” survey items or selecting “neutral” rather than “unfavorable” when responding.

Solutions to Bullying

To make a meaningful difference in the culture of an organization that is experiencing bullying, leaders need to quickly transition from multi-channel measurement to data-driven action.  An effective plan for addressing bullying could include:

  • Code of conduct: The organization should have a code of conduct that is visible and clear throughout the entire organization.  Among healthcare providers, Northwell Health offers a detailed code of ethical conduct — applicable to everyone associated with Northwell — that could serve as a model for other organizations. Northwell emphasizes the importance of treating patients, members, staff, and the public with dignity and respect, and provides a detailed blueprint for reporting concerns to leadership.
  • Supervisors setting the example: At Northwell, supervisors and managers “have a special responsibility to set the right ethical tone.” This is critical given that research shows that top-down, supervisor-led bullying is the most pervasive within organizations. 
  • A clear chain of command for concerns to be shared and addressed: Northwell expressly requires that supervisors and managers must welcome employee communications, even if their questions and comments are uncomfortable, because “openness is essential to a healthy work environment.” The organization also has a detailed disciplinary policy for those who fail to adhere to their code of ethical conduct.
      • This process should involve a timely response from the appropriate individuals within the organization, as well as accountability for those who have a responsibility for ensuring the mental and physical safety of affected employees. 
  • Organizational support for affected employees: Organizations should provide a series of resources for employees whose mental and physical well-being has been impacted by bullying. For example, the Cleveland Clinic developed “Code Lavender.” This is a crisis intervention tool used to support people in the hospital. Patients, family members, volunteers, and healthcare staff can call a “Code Lavender” when a stressful event or series of stressful events occurs in the hospital. After the code is called, someone on the Cleveland Clinic’s Code Lavender team responds within 30 minutes. These interventions are made by representatives of the hospital’s spiritual care and healing services departments and are used when challenging situations threaten unit stability, personal emotional equilibrium, or professional functioning. Code Lavender utilizes evidence-based relaxation and restoration interventions to help people meet their immediate responsibilities and make enough sense out of the situation to let more lasting solutions emerge.
  • Psychological first aid from colleagues: For World Mental Health Day, I published an article that laid out my own strategy for providing frontline colleague-to-colleague psychological first aid. Not all organizations can afford a sophisticated intervention process like the one the Cleveland Clinic uses, so I outlined a more modest “Code Autumn” process that enabled colleagues who were dealing with difficult issues and needed to have someone on a client-facing meeting or call ready to “have their back” if they needed some emotional breathing room. A simple psychological safety program like this is both highly specific and tactical, and was immediately available to new hires who could be disproportionately targeted and impacted by bullying.  
  • Flexibility of work arrangements: Hybrid and remote work options should be made available to those who have been impacted by bullying to immediately remove them from potentially unsafe work environments.  
  • In-person mentorship and coaching: In a 2017 article, Laura Quiun and Marta Herrero outlined a program that used the reflective nature of coaching along with the benefits of autogenous (self-led) meditation in stress management training to promote coping skills and reduce stress levels. 
  • AI mentorship and coaching: For large organizations needing to deliver coaching at scale to their managers, Perceptyx’s AI-powered Cultivate Intelligent Coaching can provide much-needed feedback on the positivity, negativity, and frequency of communications toward employees, along with valuable information about one’s own cognitive load. 
  • Follow-up surveying: After communicating and implementing action plans, organizations need to follow up or branch on survey items that ask about an employee’s sense of feeling valued, trusted, and respected to see whether these plans have made a difference.
  • Crowdsourcing: If results continue to be low and the organization wants to pinpoint efforts to improve, a crowdsourcing product like Perceptyx’s Dialogue enables employees to share and vote on suggestions for what would improve their sense of well-being at work. Perceptyx research has shown that crowdsourcing significantly improves healthcare safety culture, and Perceptyx’s Leapfrog Group-approved Safety Culture Survey’s novel crowdsourcing method provides a listening channel for employees to co-create solutions to improve safety outcomes.

Better Feedback About Bullying Can Enable Your Organization to Take Action

Employees want to ensure their organizations are places where civility and respect are core values, and they have valuable insights to share. To understand how to retain and develop employees who might otherwise leave the organization due to their exposure to bullying, you first need to ask for their input — and then decisively act on their insights. A listening partner like Perceptyx can provide your organization with the listening strategy and resources to address bullying and many other issues. To learn more, schedule a demo today

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