‘Prevent Workplace Bullying’ … But How?

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By Marli Rusen

The Legal Requirement to Prevent/Minimize Bullying
On November 1, 2013, WorksafeBC published policies in which employers are mandated to “prevent or otherwise minimize, workplace bullying and harassment.”  Supervisors and employees are expected to assist in this process.

It is one thing to respond to complaints of bullying by investigating and resolving such complaints as expeditiously as possible, but it is quite another to prevent bullying.  How can we do so?

Here are useful “tools” to apply in an effort to prevent harassment/bullying:

  • Conduct practical, strategy-based educational workshops for staff that clearly define workplace expectations on respectful behaviour;
  • Follow-up with written standards of conduct that clearly establish workplace expectations regarding appropriate behaviour;
  • Engage in early, informal and direct discussions with individuals when disrespectful/disruptive behaviour occurs; and
  • Apply progressive discipline to hold individuals accountable for unacceptable, disrespectful behaviour that persists after – and despite – training, clear expectations and informal discussions.

Often, however, more complicated/complex situations arise, involving entrenched, unexplained or unresolved conflict that has continued over time or involves a significant number of people, some of whom may be particularly powerful/influential individuals within a team or organization.

In other situations, there is “something going on” with a particular team but no one is talking about it and no one is coming forward with a formal complaint/concern.  From a “workplace dynamics” perspective, there are hushed whispers, strained faces, limited eye contact and palpable tension.  From a “metrics” perspective, there is notable turnover, requests for transfers and significant sick leave.

What do you do then?

In these circumstances, we highly recommend that an environmental scan be conducted.  Environmental scans are effective tools that allow employers to accurately diagnose and better understand dysfunctional dynamics that are at play in the workplace.

What is an environmental scan? 

  • An environmental scan is a highly confidential process in which employees within a team, department, or organization are provided with a safe opportunity to discuss their perspectives, concerns and insights in relation to the current workplace dynamics;
  • Anonymity is a fundamental aspect of environmental scans – the information provided by individuals is considered but their identities remain protected throughout and subsequent to the process;
  • Scans are mandatory so that each individual is seen to be interviewed and no one is singled out or “judged” for volunteering to participate in the process;
  • An experienced third party neutral should conduct the scan – the results will not be considered reliable if internal management conduct this process as employees will often not disclose or discuss their issues given concerns of possible breaches of confidentiality and/or retaliation;
  • Scans should not “turn into” an investigation of a particular person.  If issues arise that demand an investigation, such as allegations of possible safety concerns, misconduct, harassment or bullying, then this should be initiated separate and apart from the scan;
  • The outcomes of scans are “future focused” – they are not (and cannot) be used in a punitive way;
  • Recommendations that may flow from a scan include: non-punitive transfers, performance-improvement plans, adjustments to schedules, letters of expectation and in serious situations, without-cause terminations.  Other recommendations include team facilitations, mediations, skills-based training, educational workshops and other interventions designed to improve the overall workplace atmosphere.

Scans should be conducted only if:

  • Confidentiality of participants remains protected; and
  • Employers are prepared to consider and act upon reasonable, feasible recommendations flowing from the scan.

In my experience, scans that are done improperly, or are ignored in the aftermath, can create damage and disengagement in an already fragile and vulnerable workplace.  So if you are going to do them, ensure they are done properly.

Marli Rusen currently practices as a third party harassment/human rights investigator, mediator, and labour arbitrator.  She has transformed her extensive experience as an employment and labour lawyer into proactive, practical and timely “tools” to assist parties with the informal and formal resolution of complex workplace challenges and issues.  These tools include: workplace training; policy development; environmental scans and investigations; and formal conflict resolution, including mediation and arbitration. Find out more about MFR Resolutions Consulting Corp. at www.mfrresolutions.com, marli@marlirusen.com, or 250-590-8153.

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