#436  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 11          November 1999

Preventing a Hostile Workplace
by Lynne McClure, Ph.D.

Dr. McClure is a consultant and keynote speaker on managing high-risk employee behaviors.  Author of Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace (Haworth Press,Binghamton, NY, 1996).  She is President of McClure Associates, Inc. in Mesa, Arizona (phone 480-829-6801; email LMcClure@McClureAssociates.com; www.McClureAssociates.com).

The impact of a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision will blindside some managers and enlighten others.  Faragher v. City of Boca Raton was the first case to state that  companies must prevent--not simply react to--all hostile acts at work.  “Hostile acts” include employee violence, harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and other behaviors that prevent an employee from doing his or her job. 

Many managers still do not recognize the implications of this decision.  Yet by taking action only after an incident occurs, firms risk huge losses.  Workplace violence alone costs U.S. businesses $36 billion a year, and losses in productivity, reputation, and employee retention increase the cost immeasurably.  And sexual harassment costs plenty as well--in 1998, Mitsubishi paid a landmark $34 million to settle claims that female employees regularly were harassed.  But to other managers, this new expectation presents an opportunity:  the most effective way to prevent a hostile workplace also boosts innovation, creativity, and productivity.

The Preventive Approach

In sharp contrast to traditional reactive approaches, the most effective preventive approach is for managers to identify and address eight categories of high-risk employee behaviors in the early stages, long before the behaviors escalate to violence, harassment, or other hostile acts.  Both the categories and the early intervention are innovative.     

When using the eight categories, three criteria help managers assess the degree of risk:

1.         How many of these behavior categories does the employee demonstrate?

2.         How often does he or she demonstrate them?

3.         How intensely does he or she carry them out?

The higher the employee “scores” on these three scales, the greater the risk. 

High-Risk Behaviors

The eight high-risk employee behaviors differ greatly from popular “profiles,” which are too generic and which rely too much on demographics such as race, gender, and age.  These categories give managers a structure within which to observe employee behaviors.

1.  Actor Behaviors:  Acting out anger and other negative feelings instead of talking about the work problems that caused the feelings.
Example:  Slamming doors, pounding on the desk.

2.  Fragmentor Behaviors:  Making no connection between what  he or she does and what the outcomes are.
Example:  Failing to finish his or her part a project, and later not taking any responsibility for the project’s failure.

3.  Me-First Behaviors:  Acting in ways that meet only his or her needs, without regard for the needs of the team, the company, or the customers.
Example:  Taking a break when it suits him or her, instead of waiting until the appropriate time.

4.  Wooden-Stick Behaviors:  Behaving in rigid, inflexible, and controlling ways.             Example:  Insisting that things be done “my way or no way.”

5.  Mixed-Messenger Behaviors:  Acting in ways that contradict his or her self-description.
Example:  Talking as if he or she is a team player, but refusing to cooperate with other team members.

6.  Escape-Artist Behaviors:  Acting in ways that avoid reality.
Example:  Lying, substance abuse, and/or alcoholism.

7.  Shocker Behaviors:  Suddenly acting out of character.
Example:  A reliable and productive employee starts to show up late, and his or her performance declines.

8.  Stranger Behaviors:  Becoming fixated on a person or an idea.
Example:   An extremely withdrawn employee becomes convinced that a co-worker is “out to get” him or her.

Innovative Intervention

Intervening at such early stages is, itself, an innovative act.  So is focusing on employee behavior as part of the performance criteria.  By adding behaviors to the list of task-related job duties, and by using the eight high-risk categories to monitor for unwanted behaviors, mangers will have a preventive system for formal and informal feedback about employee performance.  These steps allow managers to recommend or require  training and/or counseling sessions for employees, depending on the degree of risk, before hostile acts occur. 

To manage high-risk behaviors, managers must: 

·  require, in advance, appropriate behaviors (versus the eight high-risk behaviors)         

·  provide training in appropriate behaviors at work

·  document high-risk behaviors an employee demonstrates

·  discuss high-risk behaviors with the employee

·  require that the employee replace high-risk behaviors with appropriate behaviors

·  offer or require additional employee training in appropriate behaviors

·  offer or require external counseling for the employee

·  monitor the employee’s behaviors regarding appropriateness

·  recognize and reward positive changes in behavior

At the same time, managers must be prepared to fire the employee if high-risk behaviors continue and/or escalate.  The goal is to intervene early enough to change high-risk behavior.  If change does not occur, or if the behavior already is too far along on the high-risk scale, termination may be necessary--another innovative step, compared to many firms’ denials of the problem.  In most cases, however, the use of these eight categories, documentation, training/counseling, and monitoring will lead to new behaviors and a more productive environment for everyone.

Inviting More Innovation

These steps will enable companies to prevent hostile acts at work, which they now are required to do.  At the same time, these preventive steps also can increase a company’s innovation, creativity, and productivity. 

First, the focus on employee behaviors also helps managers recognize and reinforce positive employee behaviors, such as designing new methods (innovation), solving problems in new ways (creativity), and producing better-quality results more quickly

(productivity).   Recognition--perhaps the single most significant motivator--and reinforcement can lead to an increase in all these behaviors.

Second, the reduction of negative elements--such as legal liability, physical risk, and behavior problems--will lead to a more relaxed and comfortable environment.  Morale and commitment are likely to soar, and this atmosphere is more conducive to innovation and other positive outcomes.

Third, these preventive steps can be used in the hiring process.  Interview questions that seek out behavior patterns can identify applicants who are most likely to be innovative and least likely to be high-risk.

The pressure to prevent a hostile workplace can, in fact, lead to a more innovative, creative, and productive company.

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How Great Is Your Company’s Violence and Harassment Risk?

For each statement, check the response that describes your company, to see how high the risk is

1.         T_____ F_____ Most employees openly discuss and resolve work
                                   situations which have caused them to feel angry.

2.         T_____ F_____  Technical specialists get input from co-workers,
                                    customers, and others whom their work impacts. 

3.         T_____ F_____ Work performance and appropriate behaviors are the
                                   real criteria that lead to rewards.

4.         T_____ F_____ Most managers genuinely ask for employees’ input,
                                   and they use the input in positive ways.

5.         T_____ F_____ Most managers are good role-models for adapting to
                                   change.

6.         T_____ F_____ No one is required to work more than 40 hours per |
                                   week.

7.         T_____ F_____ Most managers notice, and address, changes in the
                                   ways employees act.

8.         T_____ F_____ Managers consistently address and document
                                   performance and/or behavior problems on the part
                                   of employees.

9.         T_____ F_____ Your firm requires training in violence-prevention and
                                    harassment-prevention.

10.        T_____ F_____ There’s never been a violent incident at work.

11.        T_____ F_____ No harassment takes place where I work.

12.        T_____ F_____ Your company has and enforces violence-prevention
                                    and harassment-prevention policies. 

Give yourself one point for every statement you marked “false.”  Then check below to see how high the risk is in your firm.

0            Congratulations!  Your company is not likely to have incidents of violence or                harassment. 

1-2        The risk is still low, but the one or two items you checked could increase it quickly.

3-5        Risks are increasing daily.  Here’s hoping that those in charge notice and take action.

6-8        The risks are great enough to find ways to protect yourself.

9-12      Your company is at risk of injury, lawsuits, or both.   

© 1999 McClure Associates

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