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Targeting Toxic Environments

A recent study finds antagonistic behavior persisting in the workplace, with 20 percent of employees saying they’ve been subjected to a hostile or threatening social environment at work in the past year. What can HR do to curb this conduct?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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Employers have no doubt made tremendous progress in confronting workplace issues like bullying, harassment and violence.

But there’s apparently still plenty of work to do.

Consider a recent study conducted by RAND Corp., Harvard Medical School and UCLA, which finds 20 percent of 3,066 workers -- a fraction the study authors call "disturbingly high" -- saying they’ve faced a hostile or threatening social environment at work in the past 12 months. These employees say the unacceptable behavior has come in the form of verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats, physical violence, bullying or harassment, or sexual harassment.

Nicole Maestas, associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the study, is hesitant to opine on what might be driving this type of conduct.

"Our study was designed to estimate the fraction of people experiencing hostile social interactions at work, rather than explain why they occur," says Maestas.

With that caveat out of the way, however, the data suggest at least two potential explanations.

The first is external, says Maestas.

"We find that people who work in customer-facing jobs are substantially more likely to experience a hostile social interaction at work," she says, noting that bosses are an additional factor.

"We find that having a supportive boss is associated with a dramatic reduction in the likelihood of experiencing hostility at work," she says. "Bosses play two roles—they can be a source of hostile interactions themselves and/or they can protect or fail to protect employees from hostile interactions by investigating situations as they arise."

Supervisors -- and company leaders -- who turn a blind eye to threatening employees can indeed help foment a culture that breeds more of them, says Maestas, who recalls receiving messages "from two kinds of people" after this study was published.

"Some said, ‘Thank you, I’ve experienced [antagonism while on the job] too, and now I feel less alone.’ But others said, ‘That’s just how work is, and people should just buck up and deal with it.’ "

The latter type of manager "might be more willing to tolerate disrespectful behaviors in the workplace," says Maestas, especially "in the absence of clear corporate guidance."

Paul Babiak, a New York-based industrial and organizational psychologist, agrees with Maestas and her co-authors’ assessment that the percentage of workers forced to contend with toxic behavior is unsettling.    

He also points out that this particular study only examined a single year.

As such, "it’s unclear to me whether this phenomenon is one that is increasing," he says, "or whether these findings reflect the fact that we’re just asking better questions" regarding inappropriate and/or aggressive behavior in the workplace.

Nevertheless, "the fact that employees to any degree feel threatened in their work environment is disturbing, especially in this age of enlightened management practices and more open approaches to workplace design."

William Spangler not only finds the aforementioned 20 percent "alarming," but figures that the actual percentage of employees who report colleagues’ threatening behavior is likely "much lower, due to fear of reprisal."

Compounding the problem is the fact that "abusive co-workers and superiors are often very good at presenting an image of model behavior to their superiors," says Spangler, an associate professor of management and organizational behavior in the School of Management at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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Identifying employees who are responsible for these behaviors is "very difficult to do," adds Babiak, "as one does not know if such [actions] are chronic or circumstantial, or the result of poor supervisory skills.

While saying it would be "ideal" to use pre-employment screening tests to weed out would-be offenders, even extensive psychological testing or reference checking, for example, might not succeed at predicting one’s potential for bad behavior, he says.

Rather, the organization and HR need to "educate employees about their values, policies and procedures," and, importantly, take action when harassment, intimidation or any of the other conduct examined in the aforementioned research have taken place.

"Doing this as often as necessary will, over time, begin to imbed the corporate value system into the organizational culture, and, hopefully, forestall any new incidents," says Babiak. "Having a clear, confidential, anonymous communications link to upper management is a necessary part of this, of course."

Ultimately, the key challenge for HR when receiving reports of threatening, bullying or harassing employees is to "stay as neutral as possible until all the facts are in, and then make recommendations and take action that reflects the facts in each individual case," says Babiak.

These decisions "are not easy and will not please everyone, but the problem is serious and needs to be handled in the most efficient and fair manner possible," he adds. "In my experience, when an organization identifies and removes a chronic abuser, employees feel that the company and HR have done their job to protect them. This goodwill goes a long way toward building and maintaining a solid, positive corporate culture."

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