APA on Workplace Incivility

I’m delighted that the latest issue of Good Company, the online newsletter of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Program, examines workplace incivility (see link below).

The lead piece highlights the important work of Christine Pearson and Christine Porath. For years, researchers and practitioners addressing all sorts of employee conflict and mistreatment — ranging from day-to-day workplace dust ups to severe, malicious bullying — have found their work immensely useful.

In a study by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, 10 percent of workers reported witnessing incivility on a daily basis and 20 percent said they were targets of incivility weekly. These findings are alarming in and of themselves, but even more so given the negative impact of these behaviors on employees and their organizations.

Research shows that employees who experience incivility tend to be more stressed, spend less time at work and have lower productivity. These employees may then begin to dislike their job, decrease their level of loyalty to the organization and eventually leave their job.

The APA is calling upon employers to take these behaviors seriously, rather than dismiss them as personality conflicts.

Good Company article:  http://www.phwa.org/resources/goodcompany/newsletter/article/158

5 responses

  1. Hi, David –

    This is definitely good news.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the article at the following link:
    http://ow.ly/16yDiW. It seems to indirectly suggest analyzing workplace abuse from a safety standpoint rather than from civil rights point of view. Given the numerous obstacles to civil rights claims in the area of employment, legislation against workplace abuse founded in safety seems intriguing.

    I haven’t put much thought into this. I just get so frustrated trying to hack through the legal barriers to civil rights claims – it always feels like I’m entering a jungle armed with only a pocket knife. The courts have not given plaintiffs’ advocates a whole lot to work with in this area, so it’s a steep uphill battle with every case.

    Healy Conflict Management Services

  2. Hi Debra,

    Thanks, as always, for your comment! I’ve become persuaded that occupational safety law should be part of an overall response to workplace bullying, but that role is problematic under current law. Here’s why:

    U.S. occupational safety law is much more limited in scope and “teeth” than that of some other nations. Under federal law, an employer has a general duty to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

    That’s a tough standard for bullying-type situations. Note especially the inclusion of serious physical harm but not serious psychological harm.

    In addition, sanctions are limited mostly to small fines and cease & desist orders, with no provisions for compensation to abused workers.

    In other words, we’re back to changing the law in order to make it sufficiently responsive. It’s why, when I was debating whether to propose a new statute (which turned out to be the Healthy Workplace Bill) vs. tweaking existing law, I settled on the former.

    In terms more relevant to your work as a conflict management specialist, invoking current workplace safety laws to combat psychologically abusive work situations is, alas, waving yet a different pocket knife, and a somewhat dulled one at that. Amending that law at a federal level to make it responsive to bullying would be very difficult, politically speaking.

    For a more optimistic take on the use of occupational safety law in this context, Prof. Susan Harthill has written a very good law review article, which can be downloaded here: http://works.bepress.com/susan_harthill/1/.


  3. Thanks for educating me, David!

    I’ve printed Prof. Harthill’s article and skimmed it quickly. I fully understand your point about the lack of teeth of U.S. occupational safety law (I have a long story about this. . .!). I suppose rather than limiting the approach to ending workplace abuse, I’d like to think there’s a multi-pronged approach.

    I have much to learn on this topic – thank you for your patience. I so appreciate the considerable efforts people such as you have already expended in researching and determining the most effective way to combat this devastating “disease.”

    On a separate matter, the following article caught my eye a couple of days ago: “Promoting a ‘Drama Queen’ is guaranteed to create chaos.” http://ow.ly/16Qsn

    In your opinion, is there a difference between a workplace bully and what the author of the above mentioned article refers to as a “drama queen”?

    Please don’t feel the need to respond right away…I know how busy you must be.

    Thanks again.

    • Debra, that “Drama Queen” piece is very interesting, and I hope others will take a look. I think the answer to your question lies in the details of individual behavior. As the article points out, “drama queens” (and that includes men) come in different varieties. Some are just a pain, others are kind of interesting (from a distance), while some are truly nasty. For example, the description of “Charlie” definitely suggests a more abusive personality:

      • Charlie looked and sounded like Sherry, but there was a difference. No matter how trivial the problem, he immediately found someone to blame without any attempt to determine what really happened. He hunted them down and spewed his rage at them in public.

      His invective knew no bounds. It was personal and demeaning. Sometimes he backed up his threats by hastily firing people. The human resources department often had to bail him out to avoid unfair-employment-practice lawsuits.

  4. Hi, David –

    I agree that “Charlie” sounds abusive. However, I see the conduct of the other examples to be similarly abusive and have often found these “types” to be at the eye of human resource/company legal department storms. As you are well aware, without workplace abuse legislation, there is no way under the law to touch these individuals – unless, of course, an employee complains of/can prove sexual harassment or disparate treatment.

    In the legislation you’ve drafted, do you describe a particular standard, e.g., “reasonable person”? Does your legislation provide any additional protections, or a different standard, for employees who may be more vulnerable to abusive behavior, such as victims of domestic violence or those with PTSD?

    Thanks very much. I’d hoped to read Susan Harthill’s article over the weekend (structuring workplace abuse legislation under federal OSHA laws), but didn’t quite get there. I did read “The Law in Shambles,” per your suggestion. I’m reading it again! Thanks!

    Take care.

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