Bullies best eradicated with strict policies

May 27, 2016 - 06:00

Rules, action plans, campaigns and good intentions are fine. But nothing beats strict sanctions when organisations want to tackle bullying in the workplace.

How can we stop bullying at work? (Illustrative photo: Colourbox.)

Many employee representatives and HR managers in Norway believe that sanctions against bullying work are the best way to handle workplace bullying cases. This was the result of a survey in which either an HR manager or an employee representative in 233 municipalities answered the question regarding what, in their experience, was the most effective way to combat bullying.

In this case, sanctions may entail written warnings, transfer and ultimately, dismissal.

Their answers did not surprise the researchers behind the survey. Kari Einarsen, PhD fellow at the UiS Business School, is one of them.   

"Sanctions send out a very strong signal, and they bolster the values of the workplace", says Einarsen.

Even so, it is the preventative measures against bullying in the workplace that are closest to her heart. In her thesis, she looks at what ought to be done so that the workplace deals with reported cases of bullying in a positive way.

A major social problem

Bullying in the workplace is usually associated with talking behind the victim's back or hurtful teasing from one or more people in the workplace. If this happens repeatedly and over a long period of time and in ways that person who is being bullied is unable to defend themselves nor escape, it's considered bullying.

About 5.5% of Norwegian workers report that they have been bullied at work, according to working environment surveys carried out in 2005. Research shows that these figures have remained unchanged. In essence, this means that about 284,000 people in Norway experience bullying in the workplace.

"A working environment in which there is bullying, often scores lower in working environment surveys and may result in people leaving their jobs. Often, productivity in the workplace also falls. In environments where roles are not clearly defined, where the work is demanding and stress levels are high, there is a greater incidence of bullying than in working environments without these factors", explains Kari Einarsen, and she goes on:

"This not only affects the individual worker, it also has repercussions in the workplace and for society. Bullying results, among other things, in longer periods of sick leave and in people leaving working life. In other words: bullying is costly for society.”

Einarsen believes it is important for companies and workplaces in general to adopt a holistic approach to prevent bullying, by introducing several measures. Thus, sanctions are just a small part of a wider system. 

What really works?

To find out what works, Kari Einarsen has used the term ethical infrastructures. The term refers to a model that the company researchers, Ann Tenbrunsel and Linda Klebe Trevino have created, that view the organisational context related to (un)ethical behaviour.

Ethical infrastructures holds formal and informal systems in a workplace. It is these formal and informal systems that form the boundaries of how we are expected to behave and react to behaviour that is contrary to the values and standards of the organisation.

The formal systems are observable documentations and written procedures, for example guidelines and action plans on bullying. Furthermore, training programmes in what bullying is and the consequences of bullying may lead to as well as attitude campaigns and formal staff meetings where bullying is on the agenda, are part of what Einarsen regards as ethical structures. Staff appraisals and working environment surveys in addition to sanctions are part of the model.

The informal systems deal with the implicit messages about what values the organization truly holds, such as the climate and social norms in the workplace.

"The formal and informal systems are connected. For instance, having working environment surveys or training in conflict management is of little use if the norms in the organisation are that bullying is something that one has to put up with in silence", Einarsen points out.

Ethical infrastructures very important
Kari Einarsen. (Photo: Asbjørn Jensen.)

The researchers sent out questions to employee representatives and HR managers in 404 municipalities and received replies from 233 of them. The results showed that overall these ethical infrastructures were very important for how people experienced the handling and management of reported bullying in the workplace.

But only one of the structural elements in isolation was important for the experience of good management of such situations: namely sanctions.

In addition, formal surveillance of the work environment, as well as recurrent communication of organizational values regarding workplace bullying and training in conflict management had a major effect on the extent to which those questioned in the survey felt that they handled bullying well.

But informal systems such as having a social norm of intolerance toward bullying and a good climate for conflict management are just as vital, if not even more so. The results show the importance for the organization to take a broad approach, applying several measures, to successfully handle reported cases of bullying.

"Written rules on how one should behave and how the organisation should handle reported instances of bullying, are of no use if they remain lying in a draw instead of being communicated and worked with. For ethics to work in practice, the workplace must communicate its ethical policy to its employees on a regular basis", Einarsen says.

She says that this can be done through attitude campaigns or as a separate theme at staff meetings, staff appraisals, training, and working environment surveys.

Focuses on people

Einarsen also wondered what characterised organisations that had ethical infrastructures in place.

One of the main things that the researchers found was that organizations that holds a general high sophistication of human resource management (HRM) practices also had introduced ethical infrastructures.

"A high sophistication of HR  practices, or simply put a focus on people, means that the organisation is good at recruiting and retaining staff and also following up staff through appraisals, etc. It further meant that employees enjoyed good health and that sickness absence was low.

Einarsen can thus conclude that organisations emphasising focus on people, also implemented ethical infrastructures.

Not about the economy

The survey showed that the economy of the municipalities has no connection between the introduction of ethical structures such as training programmes, staff appraisals and attitude campaigns.

"We were surprised about that.”

On the other hand, size does matter to some extent. The big municipalities had policies against workplace bullying in place, more so than the small ones, according to those who were asked.

It is also not the municipality's economic strength that made people feel that bullying was taken seriously in their workplace", Einarsen concludes.

Kari Einarsen has carried out this study together with Professor Denise Salin of the University of Helsinki, Professors Ståle Einarsen and Anders Skogstad of the University of Bergen and Professor Reidar Mykletun of the University of Stavanger. The study has not been published, but Kari Einarsen has presented it at two conferences and she won the Regional Researcher Grand Prix in Stavanger and participated in the national final in Trondheim on 26 September.

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