Bosses who bully undercut workplace safety, raise comp costs

Bosses who exhibit bullying behaviors can adversely impact the safety of their workplaces because bullied employees and their colleagues are less likely to engage in safe work practices, experts say.

Failing to address bullying behaviors can affect a company’s bottom line through absenteeism, lower productivity and increased workers compensation costs, experts say.

In early August, researchers from Portland State University in Oregon released a study finding that abusive supervision was negatively related to employees’ engagement of safety behaviors as well as their objective safety performance, and those who were particularly sensitive to the supervisory abuse were the “most likely to neglect safety in ways that pose risks to themselves, their colleagues, and others who have contact with the workplace,” the researchers wrote.

Liu-Qin Yang, an associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Portland State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said she noticed a gap in safety literature as it related to how leadership and team dynamics affect safety incidents and workplace behaviors, which led her to initiate the study of 500 technicians at a manufacturing company as well as a cohort of pilots and other employees at an airline in northern China.

Ms. Yang said she was surprised by how specific behaviors from a supervisor could influence the target employee as well as the whole group, and how the changed dynamics could impact the safety behaviors of the team of employees without them knowing it.

“They may not purposely forget to comply with the safety policies and procedures, but they ended up doing so anyway,” she said. “This speaks to the importance of training leaders and monitoring team dynamics to prevent implications.”

According to the Bellingham, Washington-based Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 national survey, 61% of bullies are bosses. Nearly 20% of Americans said they are bullied in the workplace, and of those individuals, 71% said the way the employer reacted to the bullying behavior actually harmed the individuals being targeted by the bullies.

Bullying behaviors can cause severe stress and contribute to accidents, experts say. A 2014 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that stress at the workplace costs the U.S. economy $500 billion, and that up to 80% of workplace accidents could be contributed to stress.

Teresa Daniel, dean and professor of the human resource leadership program at Louisville, Kentucky-based Sullivan University, said she’s been researching bullying in the workplace since 2005, and noted that it is crucial to distinguish between petty or uncivil conduct and bullying behavior, which is the repeated mistreatment of an employee through the use of abusive conduct, threatening, humiliating or intimidating behavior.

“The problem is pernicious,” she said. “There are mounds of research to support the fact that bullying creates health-harming problems for people — sleeplessness, heart attacks, hypertension, suicide. The research is unequivocal.”

When employees feel threatened by their supervisors, they become distracted and make mistakes, and in a higher-risk environment like a manufacturing plant, a mistake can be serious, said Ms. Daniel.

With 19% of individuals telling the Workplace Bullying Institute that they’ve been bullied and another 19% saying they’ve witnessed it, that’s a significant number of “the workplace being distracted by nonproductive work behaviors,” she said.

“If you’ve got that kind of distraction, it means there is going to be more mistakes, there is going to be more potential for people to get hurt,” said Ms. Daniel. “(Bullying) is clearly a safety issue and a cost issue. There is a direct measurable cost to employers.”

Bullying has also been found to have a “trickle-down” component that can further impact a workplace, said Gary Sheely, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based workplace violence prevention consultant and trainer for The Safety Institute.

“When supervisors are subject to abusive upper management, they are far more likely to bully those who are under their supervision,” he said.

Oftentimes, workplace bullying has a direct relationship to workplace violence, said Gary McDougall, president of workplace safety consulting company Conflict Solutions Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta, and can be the genesis for absenteeism, workplace accidents, disability and an overall decline in worker productivity, because the bullying behavior often becomes “water cooler talk.”

Despite the negative consequences of bullying, if the workplace bully happens to be a high performer, the employer often looks the other way, Ms. Daniel said.

“If employees see high performers being terminated for (bullying) behavior, people get on board really quick,” said Daniel. “If they think there are no consequences, they will persist. It has to be a culture of accountability.”

Legally, employees have very few options for fighting bullying behavior. Unlike protections in place for harassment and discrimination based on protected characteristics, no such state or federal legislation exists for addressing bullying, said Ms. Daniel.

More than 30 states have introduced a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which would provide a legal remedy for bullied employees, according to Workplace Bullying Institute. But only California passed a bill in 2014 that requires employers to provide training on abusive conduct.

“Unless there’s legislation that puts some teeth into those (anti-bullying) requirements … there aren’t going to be any real changes,” said Ms. Daniel.

Employers should have a written, no-tolerance policy for bullying — something analogous to a sexual harassment policy — and commit to taking complaints seriously, investigating all complaints and holding employees accountable for following the policies, advises Kim Shambrook, senior director of workplace training and consulting at the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council.

“For those people who are found to be bullying, take action,” she said. “If someone’s boss or coworker is bullying, there has got to be a consequence.”

Anonymous employee engagement surveys can also help root out bullying behaviors, said Ms. Shambrook. If employee engagement scores in certain areas of the workplace are lower, administrators should review that information with supervisors to uncover the issue and take steps to prevent bullying, she said.

Companies could also try to identify bullying supervisors by paying attention to areas in the company with higher incidents of workers compensation claims, safety infractions, turnover and absenteeism, said Ms. Daniel.

“If you’re seeing one group that is really an anomaly, it doesn’t always mean that there’s a (bullying) problem, but it certainly bears further exploration to see what might be going on,” she said.

This article was first published by Business Insurance.

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