A Prescription to Stop Bullying

By Stephen Paskoff

Jul. 18, 2014

During a routine physical, your physician informs you your blood pressure is extremely high. She advises you to live a healthier lifestyle, but beyond that doesn’t tell you how to treat the condition or what could happen if you do nothing. Not a very effective way of convincing you to adjust your habits, is it?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly how some organizations, including health care, are handling unprofessional, abusive conduct, or what many call bullying. With laws under consideration, including one enacted recently in Tennessee, many organizations are drafting new anti-bullying policies to stave off legal claims.

Some employers are broadly identifying professional behavior and laying out aspirational goals — like respect and professionalism — rather than specific behavioral standards. Further, they are inadequately addressing the impact of improper behavior and failing to explain the consequences if such conduct continues. This Band-aid approach might give the appearance of effort on the employers’ part, but definitely will not lead to behavioral change.

For that, leaders must explicitly communicate that uncivil, abusive behavior is thwarting their institutional objectives, which incorporate standards around quality, safety, innovation, teamwork, efficiency and productivity. These are the key business metrics that drive the most sustained, effective organizational change. And, ultimately, this is why civility and professionalism are important for workplace health.

Next, organizational leaders need to clearly identify the specific behavioral standards that must be met. Broad generalities won't do it. That means that “prescriptions” for civil conduct must be as defined as clearly as common blood pressure recommendations, such as: lose 20 pounds, walk 30 minutes a day, avoid drinking more than an ounce of alcohol a day, don’t smoke, and take this specific medication as directed. It’s impossible to define every form of unprofessional conduct; by the same token, it’s impossible to define every health hazard that may cause elevated blood pressure. In other words, the key to making a lasting change is to define the kinds of behaviors which are most frequent, disruptive, and damaging.   

Third, personal consequences must be tied to improper behavior. Laying out specific provisions of organizational harm is not enough. Additionally, the urgency of adhering to new standards must be made clear and reinforced. In health care, when patients are advised to lower blood pressure, they’re also informed that, if left untreated, they could suffer a heart attack, stroke, dementia, or some other debilitating consequence. Likewise, offenders in the workplace must receive the same type of credible message: Align your behavior with our standards or your employment will be terminated.

Occasionally, we fall off the wagon when it comes to adhering to our doctor’s advice, and, it usually leads to a decline in our health. In the same manner, an organization that doesn’t stick to a sound plan for addressing abusive behavior will suffer negative impacts, which may include: a decline in teamwork, safety, productivity or the like.

As a final reminder, here are four simple steps to treat the disease of workplace incivility:

·       Diagnose the problem;

·       Explain its impact;

·       Prescribe a specific remedy;

·       Remind individuals what will happen if bad acts continue and the prescription isn't followed.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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