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Abusive behavior can be stopped

Tim Mcguire United Feature Syndicate

“We reap what we sow” is both a biblical mandate and a gardeners’ warning. My e-mail makes it clear to me it is also the reality in workplace culture. When bad behavior is tolerated, it becomes a dangerous cultural norm.

A nurse in the troubled health care industry complained in her e-mail: “I have been screamed at, thrown at, had doors slammed in my face, (been) belittled and humiliated. My colleagues suffer the same abuse, but nobody wants to step up to the plate and report this behavior because they feel nothing will change and it’s ‘just part of the job.”’

Management is obviously well aware of the problem because the nurse says, “At my first job interview I was asked if I could tolerate ‘yelling once in awhile’ since the surgeons were under such pressure while a patient was under anesthesia.” She adds the administration “hesitates to discipline doctors because they are the ones who bring in the patients and provide financial security for the hospital.”

And the behavior is bound to continue because nobody at the top is willing to stop it and the victims of the abuse are convinced they have to put up with it.

A supervisor at a retail store wrote in response to one of my columns: “I have been spoken to and shown very little respect by some veterans and managers in this store. I have always prided myself on taking the proverbial high road and thickening my skin. … I often feel under attack and undermined at every turn. Corporate HR is aware of the problems and feels that these things will change (with new supervision at the top.)”

The e-mailer then posed this question for me, “At what point are we as a company setting a ‘social norm’ by tolerating and essentially condoning meanness?”

I wrote back: “You are setting a cultural norm every time an act like this occurs and nobody gets called on it. A new boss is going to be saddled with this problem and it won’t get any better until it is clear the negative won’t be tolerated. I do not agree with the advice from corporate HR. The back-talking and gossip should be stopped in its tracks or the store is going to go through many more bosses.”

Problems involving disrespect, anger and insensitivity don’t go away just because you might wish them away or because a new boss shows up on the scene. They only go away when firm boundaries are set and people who cross those boundaries are disciplined.

The aberrant behavior in the hospital and in that retail store did not start yesterday. Over a long period of time a “cultural norm” of meanness has been allowed to develop and fester. Somewhere along the line, it became apparent to offenders that the door slamming, the threats, the back-talking and the gossip would go unaddressed by leadership.

In many workplaces with this kind of culture the behavior often starts at the top. The lack of respect for people, the bully tactics and the meanness are modeled by bosses. Just as often, employees see this behavior take place right in front of managers and supervisors so they assume it is OK.

The hospital administration and the corporate HR department in these two cases would likely express shock and amazement if a violent act occurred in the workplace this week. In fact, many violent acts result from exactly this kind of behavior.

Encouraging a healthy, problem-solving workplace will create better work performance, less turnover and happier employees and those are important goals. But it is crucial for employers to realize that it is so important to develop zero tolerance for these behaviors simply to protect everyone in the workplace. Mean-spirited, rude, and disrespectful workplaces can quickly become violent workplaces.

Tip for your search: In a healthy workplace boundaries are well-understood. When those boundaries are violated do not assume it is being tolerated. Report it and document the fact you reported it with a formal note. But this is the most important tip: make sure you are not the gossiper and backbiter.

Resource for your search: “Get Them on Your Side” by Samuel B. Bacharach (Platinum Press, 2005)

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