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Before drafting your policy

on workplace decency,

compare these two alternatives

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, 2007

In the present day, most colleges, universities, and hospitals, as well as many other institutions and corporations, feel pressure to enact policies against bullying, mobbing, harassment, and other kinds of employee abuse, or in positive terms, policies to foster ethics, respect, dignity and decency in the workplace. Such policies are already common in Europe, increasingly so in North America.

Because nobody wants to be seen as tolerant of bullying or opposed to respectful conduct, policies of this kind are often written and adopted in haste, with little thought about the actual procedures and provisions laid down. Existing policies against sexual harassment and racial discrimination are sometimes seized upon as models. With a few changes of wording, a new, more general policy commanding employees to be nice to one another is suddenly in force.

The purpose of this webpage is to encourage careful, reasoned thought about alternative principles and provisions such a policy may include. If poorly designed, the policy may end up wasting time and money, worsening workplace relations, and generally doing more harm than good. The best way to ensure that such a policy is effective in fostering a culture of respect and decency is to discuss and debate alternatives ahead of time, to study other institutions' policies and experience, thereby to think through carefully exactly what the consequences of this or that policy are likely to be.

Since 1992, the British organization, Freedom to Care, has been working with employer and employee groups to design policies that work. FTC's Model Anti-Bullying Policy is worth studying carefully. So is the warning given in preface: "No policy or procedure is a substitute for a workplace culture of trust and openness."

There are valuable lessons in the experience of my home university, which created an ethics tribunal with great expectations in 1982, then unceremoniously abolished it in 1998, retaining an ethics policy but leaving enforcement to line managers. See my Documentary History of the University of Waterloo Ethics Committee.

What follows is a practical exercise to help anybody interested clarify his or her thinking about what kind of anti-bullying or pro-respect policy might best serve the common good. The exercise is designed to take about an hour:
(a) Fifteen minutes to read and compare systematically the two alternative policies below;
(b) Fifteen minutes to write a list of as many differences between the policies as you can identify;
(c) Fifteen minutes to check your list against the list of differences linked below; and
(d) Fifteen minutes to write down for yourself what conclusions you draw from this exercise.
Nothing prevents you from taking more time or less, or from skipping about and following links at will. You are best advised to proceed in your own way. The objective, after all, is to sort out your own thinking, make up your own mind.

I wrote the two alternative policies and created this exercise initially for a workshop on bullying and mobbing on 23 April 2007, for a joint employer-employee committee at The Council in Toronto, the body that oversees Ontario's 24 colleges of applied arts and technology. Thanks to all the participants for helpful feedback. If your workplace is a hospital or business, substitute the appropriate word wherever a policy refers to "the college."

Ready for Step One?: Read and study the two policies shown below in parallel columns. Print them on paper or compare them online, whatever works best for you.

Alternative A: Policy on Bullying/Mobbing and Workplace Dignity

Purpose. This policy addresses a growing threat to the health and safety of employees: workplace bullying, sometimes also called mobbing, moral harassment, psychological violence, or emotional abuse. Research has shown that sociopaths constitute 1-3 percent of the general population.

Definitions. Different authors and laws define bullying in various ways, but ordinarily include behaviour that:
• Is offensive and hurtful, intended to harm or control the victim;
• Violates standards of appropriate conduct toward others in the workplace;
• Is unwanted, unwelcome, and unsolicited;
• Exploits the bully’s position of power over the victim;
• Continues and is repeated over time, though even a single serious instance may qualify.

Legal precedents. Legislation passed in Quebec in 2004 defines the offense as “any vexatious behaviour taking the form of repeated, hostile and unwanted conduct, comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological integrity and that results in a harmful work environment.”

Similarly, Swedish law forbids “recurrent reprehensible or distinctly negative actions which are directed against individual employees in an offensive manner and can result in those employees being placed outside the workplace community.”

In a similar formulation, the collective agreement at the Opel Corporation in Germany prohibits any conduct “if the relevant action, toleration or omission is subjectively felt to be insulting, vexatious or otherwise demeaning and is recognizably rejected by the person concerned.”

Symptoms. Physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms that a person is being bullied at work include:
• Unusual pains, loss of strength and stamina, unusual sweating, poor skin quality;
• Loss of appetite, or at the other extreme, compulsive overeating;
• Loss of libido, general listlessness, anxiety or panic attacks, inability to concentrate;
• Feelings of powerlessness or overwhelming depression, especially on waking;
• Hypertension, elevated risk of heart attack or stroke;
• Obsession with small details at work or at home, inordinate fear of making a mistake;
• Loss of interest in work, especially when it was previously enjoyed;
• Unusual or unexplained absences from work;
• Substance abuse; excessive reliance on coffee, tobacco, or alcohol;
• Unwillingness or inability to trust;
• A terrorized state, to the point of being unable to enter the workplace or go near the bully;
• Contemplated, attempted, or actual suicide.

Discipline. In view of its destructive impact on victims’ health and well-being, workplace bullying is hereby designated an offense for which there is zero tolerance. Bullies will be subject to progressive discipline, in keeping with best practice in labour relations, up to and including termination.

Employer's responsibility. The employer hereby accepts responsibility for making the college free of bullying, as part of its duty of care to employees, and shall exercise due diligence in this regard, including provision of appropriate training to all employees in supervisory positions.

Research has shown that bullying most commonly occurs from manager to subordinate, but this policy also prohibits peer-to-peer bullying. It is the employer’s responsibility to enforce the prohibition on bullying of both kinds and to maintain a safe and healthy workplace environment.

Procedures. An employee who believes he or she is being bullied shall first confront the bully and state, orally or in writing, that the bullying must stop. If the victim chooses, he or she may be accompanied for this purpose by a co-worker or union representative.

If the bullying continues, the victim (or the union, on the victim’s behalf) shall complete the Official Bullying Report Form and submit it to the employer with detailed documentation.

In filling out the Official Bullying Report Form, the victim (or union official) is encouraged to review research reports on bullying, and to identify the precise type of bully encountered, whether chronic, opportunistic, serial, situational, unwitting, accidental, or sociopathic. The use of emotion-laden terms like jerk or asshole should be avoided. Instead choose words that describe precisely what kind of “difficult person” this particular bully is.

Within seven working days of receiving the allegation, the employer shall commence an investigation. There may be a single investigator, if the employer and union believe this is appropriate and can agree on whom to appoint. Otherwise, the investigation shall be conducted by a three-person committee, composed as follows:
• One member appointed by the employer through its Human Resources Department;
• One member appointed by the union; and
• The third member, who shall chair the committee, appointed by agreement of the first two.
Investigator(s) must be at arm’s length from the parties, and have no conflicts of interest.

Investigator(s) shall interview the victim, the identified bully, and any witnesses or others they deem appropriate, and review all documentation voluntarily submitted by either party, including medical and/or counseling records. The victim is entitled to be accompanied by a support person at the interview. Investigator(s) shall keep all information acquired strictly confidential.

Within 20 working days, the investigator(s) shall provide a confidential report to the employer, the union, the identified bully and victim, making specific recommendations for how to stop the bullying. These may include mediation (if both parties agree), a requirement of written or oral apology, referral for counseling or psychiatric examination, or specific disciplinary measures. Implementation of the recommendations is the employer’s responsibility.

If the investigator(s)’ recommendations are not followed, or if the bullying recommences or persists, the victim may file a formal grievance according to the collective agreement. If appropriate, a complaint may also be filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Outcomes. Whether or not discipline is imposed on the bully, the report of the investigator(s) shall be retained in his/her file for five years, to establish a record in case of subsequent offenses.

Intentionally false or vexatious allegations are not allowed, but no reprisals shall be permitted against employees making complaints under this policy.

Alternative B: Policy on Workplace Dignity and Personal Aggression

Purpose. This policy addresses a serious threat to organizational effectiveness and to the health and safety of employees: personal aggression in workplace relations. By this is meant treating an employee with contempt, denying the human dignity and respect to which all are entitled.

Exclusions. Exchange of information and opinion among employees – managers, teachers, and support staff – is essential to the achievement of the college’s purposes. Dissent from policies and decisions, honest feedback, discussion, argument, debate, even occasional harsh words and bruised egos are normal aspects of college life. So is feeling pressured to get work done. So are the identification of inadequacies in employees’ job performance and differential distribution of rewards according to quality of work. This policy is not intended to inhibit the healthy expression of critical opinion, nor the joking and teasing that ease the stresses of work and life.

Definitions. Distinct from everyday banter and disputes is intense personal aggression wherein one or more employees grind a targeted employee into the dust, making his or her work a living hell. The object may be elimination of the target or sheer pleasure in his or her humiliation. Such aggression may be unidirectional, one party delighting in putting an innocent victim down, or mutual, two parties being at each other’s throats. The aggression is commonly called bullying if the perpetrator is one individual, or mobbing if it is a clique or cluster of individuals. Aggressors and targets may be managers, subordinates, co-workers, or any combination thereof.

Indicators. All employees have a responsibility to be on the lookout for aggression of this kind, whether directed to themselves or to others. Common indicators include:
• Relentless personal criticism, teasing, belittling, name-calling, ridicule;
• Yelling, blustering, the use of abusive, threatening language or gestures;
• Unreasonable job expectations and then censure when they are not met;
• Practical jokes that make the target the butt of derisive laughter;
• Sabotaging of the target’s work, setting the target up to fail;
• Steadfast ignoring of the target’s strengths, emphasis always on weaknesses;
• Isolation and shunning – social or physical exclusion from respected circles;
• Bad-mouthing, malicious gossip, rolling of eyes, whispering behind the target’s back;
• Silencing of the target, denial of the target’s right to be heard;
• Exaggeration of faults, false accusation;
• Formal or public denunciation; and
• A degradation ritual or severe dressing down in which the target is stripped of dignity.

Target’s responsibility. The target of personal aggression should neither suffer in silence nor retaliate in kind but act decisively toward recovering personal dignity and healthy workplace relations. Voicing concern privately and politely to the apparent aggressor(s) is often sufficient. If it is not, reporting the concern to higher authority or to the union is the appropriate next step. Informal efforts to rectify the problem should precede formal ones, but from the start, any employee who believes he or she is targeted should keep a written log or diary, recording by time and place the specific events that have caused concern, and retaining relevant documentation. If all else fails, unwarranted personal aggression may be the subject of a formal grievance in the case of unionized employees, as well as a human rights complaint, court claim, or appeal to ministry or press.

Employees’ responsibility. All employees are expected to act promptly to stop and remedy any instance of personal aggression they observe, above all by not joining in or reinforcing it in any way. Beyond that, discretion, ingenuity and courage are required, since by standing up for the target, one can bring aggressors’ wrath down on oneself. Possible interventions include:
• Showing kindness to the target, thereby assuaging the pain of humiliation;
• Saying, “Stop it,” or otherwise voicing disapproval of the aggression;
• Encouraging the target to report the matter to union or management, and offering to accompany the target for this purpose;
• If the aggression involves assault, fraud, stalking, or any other violation of the criminal code, encouraging the target to call the police, or in an emergency, phoning the police oneself.

Managers’ responsibility. Managers have a special responsibility to stop any observed or reported personal aggression and to restore the kind of healthy workplace relations that serve the college’s goals. They should investigate the matter thoroughly, with ingenuity and skill, toward identifying the nub of the problem and finding a win-win solution that, so far as possible, humiliates nobody. Managers should familiarize themselves with print and online resources on bullying and mobbing, and be aware of the complexity of these workplace pathologies (for instance, that an accusation of aggression is itself an aggressive act). Intervention may involve
• In cases that result from misunderstanding or an action the aggressor(s) now regret, facilitating reconciliation between the people concerned (this may or may not include written terms of agreement signed by the parties themselves);
• Removing from a supervisory position an employee who has been unable to hold his or her aggressive impulses in check;
• Transferring an employee who has engaged in aggression away from the target, or possibly transferring the target if he or she so requests;
• In cases where the target shows symptoms of debilitating stress, providing assistance in accordance with college policy; or
• In serious cases, imposing discipline, up to and including termination, on the aggressor(s).

Prevention. More important than remedy of personal aggression is its prevention. Accordingly, all employees are expected to observe the following principles in their relations at work:
• When at work, keep your mind on your job and on its place in the college’s overall mission, refraining from idle chatter and daydreams about personal likes and dislikes;
• Avoid sexual innuendo and flirtatious conduct; eroticization of the workplace distracts from work, confuses work-based interaction, and can hurt people deeply;
• Focus on the situation, issue, problem, or concern, not on the persons involved;
• Do not call anybody names, even in your mind;
• Look for ways to bolster the self-esteem of managers, co-workers, and subordinates, being generous with praise and gentle with complaint;
• Respect others’ privacy – nobody is expected to “bare all” in relations at work;
• When a manager, co-worker, or subordinate expresses to you a serious concern, never turn a deaf ear, but respond promptly, honestly, and respectfully, even if you must disagree.
• Treating subordinates with respect and refraining from personal aggression are basic qualifications for managerial positions, to be considered and discussed explicitly in the appointment process.


Ready for Step Two? Make Your List of Differences

At first glance, one of these policies probably appeals to you more than the other. Asking yourself why this is so is a good way to begin identifying differences between them. The reasons you write down for why one is better than the other are the beginning of your list.

Another way to notice differences is to ask yourself which policy you would prefer were on the books, if you found yourself bullied or otherwise disrespected. Which policy would be more helpful for rectifying the situation? Why so?

Then put the shoe on the other foot. Which policy would you wish for if you were accused of bullying or disrespecting somebody else? Which policy would better help you correct your behaviour if you were guilty, or free you of false accusation if you were innocent? Why?

Try putting yourself in the shoes of a manager deeply committed both to achieving organizational objectives and to a decent, respectful workplace environment. Which of the alternative policies would such a manager prefer to have in place, and why?

These questions are all intended to help you notice what are in fact quite fundamental differences between the two policies. Take your time, think of other questions, make your list of differences as detailed as you can.

Do not rush this step of the exercise. We humans learn best by racking our own brains. When your list of differences is as long as you can make it, click here to go on to Step Three, comparing your list of differences with mine.