Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse

Okay, I’m thinking out loud here, but I’ve been pondering the lines between promoting positive organizational cultures and drawing clear distinctions on when certain abusive behaviors call for sanctions.

In the U.S., the omnipresence of at-will employment — the right to hire and fire for any reason or no reason at all — and the low density of labor union membership means that most employers enjoy wide latitude to develop and implement employee relations policies and practices.

Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws.

Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better:

1. Encourage speech — The late Peter Drucker, management guru extraordinaire, nailed it in his book Managing for the Future (1992), where he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving. Drucker urged that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.

Worker silence is a sign that many have withdrawn emotionally from the broader enterprise and are doing what they have to do to survive. An organization that encourages a robust, honest exchange of ideas and feedback is much better off than one that sends the opposite signal.

But be forewarned: Once someone is punished for stating her opinion or offering constructive criticism, trust can easily disintegrate. This has to be a “walk the talk” commitment if it is to flourish.

2. Nurture civility — Civility, fairness, and genuine inclusion should be practiced by management rather than preached. It’s all about creating a culture based on actual, observable practice and conduct.

However, imposing company civility or speech codes is problematic. The give and take of ordinary human interactions needs to make room for occasional sharp exchanges and flaring of tempers. When conduct gets out of hand, someone should step in (see below), but an everyday dust up should not be punished. In fact, it may be the canary in the coal mine that signals a deeper problem worth addressing. Take, for example, a victim of sexual harassment who is written up for violating a civility code because she is angry about organizational indifference to her reports of mistreatment.

3. Prohibit abuse — When speech becomes abusive, intervention is necessary. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation should be prohibited. Some aggressors can be coached or counseled; others should be disciplined or terminated. Targets of their behavior should be safeguarded and protected from retaliation for reporting the mistreatment.

This is an ultimate test of organizational ethics, especially if an aggressor happens to be a senior person. Strewn around too many workplaces are a lot of lumpy rugs, with very ugly, destructive behaviors swept under them.

22 responses

  1. So true David, if we look at the global picture and we go back to i am the boss you are the worker mentality, it no longer works in society. I personaly believe that somewhere along the road that entire mentality got confused with slavery. For example yes we have bosses or supervisors if you will but are they really anymore important than the employee serving under them? My take on it is that we all have responsibilities, some come with more pay or less pay depending on what they are and rightfully so, however can the heart surgeon function without the medical assistant to hand him tools? Of course not and that does not give the surgeon the right to treat the medical assistant like a piece of crap and swear at them or humiliate them or talk down to them. My opinion is that if an organization is going to survive and grow today everyone should be treated equally given the guidelines you speak about in todays blog, the only exception being pay and or benefits depending on skill level and education and position. However every person in the chain is a vital link unless the BOSS wants to do it all and be the QUEEN, OR KING. If bosses are going to hire humans to help them out then they should respect them as an important part of thier team or dont hire them!!! Calling names, humiliating, yelling, pounding fists, slamming doors, threatening your job, stalking one at work and at home, talking down to, talking behind ones back to other employees,being overworked by 25 hours a week without pay, being controlled and told they own you, and you are not allowed to work for anyone else on your own time,being set up for failure,etc, and my list doesnt stop there, it is 30% of what i went through at my job at the Community center, but it should be illegal and never is it good for business and never does it promote growth in an oorganization and never is it healthy for the employee. People have committed suicide and have had their careers destroyed and i think that is where we have to start David, legislators lawmakers need to know just how hard the impact of this kind of behavior is, and how prevalent it is and the science behind it. You make a healthy, friendly, equal work environment that has rules that are fair and are in place to protect the organization, the employee and the public and you have a happy workplace, it will grow and its employees will grow and they will move on in the company or another company and this is what is good for our economy, not abusing people like i was abused that renders me disabled with ptsd, depression, anxiety so severe i cannot work. Lawmakers need to understand this type of behavior does not work in our society. Slavery is over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Don’t know if I’d go so far as the slavery analogy in most cases, but will remind that American employment relations is grounded in the old English common law concept of master and servant.

  2. The following guidelines are adapted from “The Skilled Facilitator” by Roger Schwarz (2002). I often introduce these at the beginning of a mediation as a starting point for contemplating the components of effective communication, healthy relationships and workplaces built on understanding and trust. (However, please note that I do not broadly encourage or discourage the use of mediation for workplace abuse. Each case is unique and must be thoroughly explored and examined with the people involved before such a decision can be made.)

    1.Share all relevant information and agree on the meaning of terms and words.

    2.Use specific examples.

    3.Explain underlying reasoning and intent.

    4.Clarify assumptions and inferences.

    5.Focus on interests as opposed to positions.

    6.Combine advocacy with inquiry.

    7.Discuss undiscussable issues.

    8.Develop agreed upon criteria for decision-making.

    9.Collaboratively develop next steps.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, David.

    • “Discuss undiscussable issues.”

      Worth emphasizing in 72 point font. Also leads to a question: “Why are certain topics discussable in some organizations and undiscussable in others?”

  3. The problem is the people above them (the manager) Debra, and unfortunately that is a culture that is allowed to develop. Once it gets to the level that David is describing its out of control.

  4. I agree with Sandy. Additionally — I know that everyone views “at will” employment legislation as the culprit in a lot of these posts — and it certainly may be for small and unregulated companies.

    However, for bigger companies, while there is a lot of background bullying and trumping up bad performance senarios on performance reviews, “at will” doesn’t really come into play that much because of the potential for time consuming law suits.

    From my experience, no one has ever been fired for no reason at all. There may be a “fake” reason, but there’s always a reason.

    • Mary, I agree that bogus performance reviews are a common part of the picture. Oftentimes the giveaway is an employee who has had quality evals for quite some time, only to somehow, suddenly become the world’s worst employee.

      • Oh my — this mirrors my experience, David. Yet, I’ve read some research on bullying that states that bullying usually does *not* manifest itself in evaluations. In my last review (for Tenure and Promotion) my evaluators critiqued my work in ways they had never done (for example, criticizing the length of my publications when they had never done that in the past), using the *wrong* criteria, and ignoring and dismissing so much of the scholarship I had completed. An external evaluation committee reviewed my work positively and said that the first evaluations should be dismissed because the wrong criteria was used. Provost agreed. President did not. I remain looking for full-time employment.

  5. Hi, Sandy –

    I understand what you’re saying, however, I’m not about to throw up my hands, walk away and simply declare something as being “out-of-control.” 🙂

    As an employment mediator and paralegal, I’ve seen my share of out-of-control workplaces. This is why I do what I do. I try to help individuals and organizations get a grip and find more effective ways of functioning when there is systemic organizational dysfunction. It’s highly challenging work! But, sometimes changes to organizational culture can come by working with one individual or one workgroup at a time.

    Take care.

    • The devil sure is in the details here!

      In the right hands, an intervention of some type can be constructive and fair.

      In the wrong hands…..well, we know….

  6. I agree with all comments, but I would add that just b/c someone sees the reality of a situation (Sandy) doesn’t mean s/he is maintaining that the only course of action is declaring something as being “out-of-control.” Or – that there is no place for appropriate intervention. It just means that some situations are really out of control – for us way down here. There are people who do have control — but they are not about to give any of it up. I’ve seen many mediations that have resulted in the mediator feeling really good about how things ended. However, to those of us close to all sources, the mediation actually ended with blatant unanswered retaliation by the employer.

  7. Dr. Yamada, I really like this post. You managed to clarify a confusing topic – what appropriate communication is and isn’t.

    It’s been my experience that many people seem to think that civility means never being direct, never discussing the problems that people don’t want to acknowledge, and never showing a shred of emotion while discussing serious issues. People seem to admire those who can gloss over any issue so that nobody feels uncomfortable, except perhaps those who have a conscience.

    It also seems to me that a lot bullying behavior is conducted under the guise of being civil. People do and say horrible things while never raising their voices, using foul language, or revealing emotion. They use “civility” as a cover for their treachery.

    People know when it’s safe to speak up. Those signals come from the top. Some of us speak up even when it’s not safe and we take a beating for it, but it’s better than being part of the dysfunction.

  8. Excellent feedback from everyone on this topic, thank god for this site. David i totally understand what you mean about the slavery issue, it certainly is not the norm, however in my situation it was very much like that, for example i had to go get my bosses coffee and donuts, i was forced to work whenever she wanted me to whether i had obligations with family or not with no extra pay after 40 hours, and it usually was 20 hours a week over 40. She said whatever she wanted to me and told me who i could and could not talk to in the facility and pried into my personal life and then later made accusations about things she knew.If things were not done exactly how she wanted them she would threaten me and then as i corrected it, she would change direction so it was still wrong. I was told if i didnt like it to get out and quit. I was verbally abused and psychologically tortured, I do not remember a lot about slavery from High School but it sure felt like it to me. Pitiful that this kind of behavior exists in todays workplace!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. I’ve always believed that the role of supervisor is as a “servant” to the employee. Their responsibilities include training, setting up and facilitating a framework to get the job done, making sure the employees have the supplies and facilities they need to accomplish the required tasks. Part of this is performance reviews, but their purpose should be to insure that the employees are properly trained and supported. I honestly don’t think that employees in general want to do a bad job. They want to be listened to and included in the organization of their work. Despite the common law basis of our employment law, effective organizations have less power dynamics.

  10. David
    In my ongoing search for recovery from my severe bullying experience, i remembered something yesterday that i thought was interesting. My former supervisor that bullied me nearly to death never picked on people that were not very intellectual, or super motivated and she refrained from hiring such people, if she did hire highly motivated people to be on her team she trained them to be like her. One such incident was a couple of years before my downfall my former boss hired a woman to be on her team as a manager of one of her departments in the organization, unlike me where she took all of my power away and controlled everything i did she gave this woman the power to do whatever she wanted and within a year out of her 90 some staff only 5 were still with her that were there when she was hired. This new manager teamed up with my boss and started riding me also and continually joined forces to come up with things to consistently ridicule me with, one such thing was this new manager would send me emails to complain about things and cc them to my boss. This manager was on the same level as me a department head. They would call me in my bosses office and demand that i fire my entire staff complaining that my staff were not doing their job and demand that i fix the problem. Funny thing is a year later all of what was my staff are still there doing the same job the same way they did it before. I have to wonder if bullies are only threatened by smart, driven people and if they are threatened by them they either try to get them to be bullies or they get rid of them. Does any of this make sense?

    • Mel – I loved your first words in your response, ” In my ongoing search for recovery from my severe bullying experience …” I’ve been doing this research (more intently at some times than at other times) for over 2 years to help me make sense of what happened to me. It helps in many ways. Yet, I also feel that, because of the time and energy spent on this research, the people who bullied me are *still* sucking my energy.

      • I agree until some things are settled like lawsuits and other things that it is very difficult to put these things behind us. My research has really opened my eyes to how prevalent bullying is in the workplace in our society. I did not know it even while i was being bullied for 10 years. I was really blind to it. I feel it is my responsibility now to help get the word out and let those out there that are not aware, aware. It is a difficult journey for sure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • One reason why my focus on bullying has once again been heightened is because the bullies are now bullying someone else. She knows what I went through. I have been in contact with the newest target but am waiting to meet with her in person before I present her with some of the information I have on bullying and mobbing.

        My area of expertise is communication. Many times I have considered starting a business that allows me to talk to employers/employees about bullying.

    • One thing i have been really struggling with even for a while before i lost my job was the denegration of faith in my abilities and it got so bad towards the end that i could no longer do my job without severe anxiety and panic attacks. Since i left work i have been struggling with the fear of ever going back and every morning when i see people in the working world i feel so incompetent and keep wondering why i feel like i could never do anything again. Today it came to me that in many jobs we get our strength and courage in ourselves from some power we are given by our employer, they empower us and put there trust in us to do our job and when we are amongst our peers we feel safe and validated because we have our employer behind us. When we get bullied we have that power stripped away and we slowly sink into a hole of mistrust in ourselves and we no longer feel validated because the bully wants us to feel that way, this gives the bully more power. What a terrible way to go down and what up an up hill battle it is to sort it out.

      • Mel, I understand what you are saying. I also suffered from extreme anxiety and panic. I could not understand what was happening to me.

        I think you put your finger on why targets feel such a loss of validation after being bullied out of work. We lose part of our identity, and purpose, and power. We feel minimized compared to other employees.

        Another way to look at the experience, which might be more empowering, is to recognize that, although we didn’t ask to be targeted, perhaps we were for a reason. You have been vocal on this site and you have affirmed what I experienced and, undoubtedly, what other targets have felt as well. Your voice is your power.

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