The High Cost of Workplace Bullying

Those who are bullied in the workplace appear to suffer more than employees who are subjected to sexual harassment, says Queen’s School of Business Professor of Business Julian Barling.

This unexpected finding comes from a new study conducted by Drs. Barling and Sandy Hershcovis, a PhD graduate from the Queen’s School of Business who is currently on faculty at the University of Manitoba.

The researchers reviewed the results of 110 studies conducted over the past 21 years. They looked at both workplace aggression, which includes bullying, incivility and interpersonal conflict and sexual harassment. In the latter category are gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and “quid pro quo” harassment: the extortion of sexual cooperation in return for job-related considerations.

Surprisingly, employees subjected to workplace aggression were more likely than victims of sexual harassment to leave their jobs and to have a poorer sense of well-being. The study also showed less job satisfaction and fewer satisfying relationships with their superiors among workers who were bullied.

One possible explanation for these findings is that sexual harassment victims, who now have the backing of legislation aimed at preventing and punishing those responsible, may perceive they have a stronger “voice” to respond, suggests Dr. Barling, an expert in labour relations and organizational behaviour. “Employees are more able to seek recourse by filing a complaint with management or grieving to a union, allowing a perception of personal controllability.”

Non-violent forms of workplace aggression are generally not illegal, however, and employees feel they must fend for themselves if they experience such acts. This lack of societal denunciation of aggression diminishes the employee’s ability to change, reduce, or eliminate the negative act.

Another reason workplace aggression takes a special toll on victims is its concealed and insidious nature, Dr. Barling continues. “Sexual harassment generally involves direct behaviors, such as gender-related jokes, unwanted touching, or unwanted requests for dates.”

In contrast, workplace aggression, in addition to acts such as name calling and yelling, often involves hidden acts, such as withholding resources, failing to correct false information, or ostracizing a target. While the victim of such behaviors can perceive these acts, confirmation or validation by others may be more difficult.

Also, as sexual harassment becomes increasingly unacceptable, victims may be more likely to assign blame. Victims of workplace aggression – not normally viewed as an illegal act – may be more likely to suffer in silence, fearing they are imagining such behaviors or are responsible in some way for being targeted.

There is no intent to downplay the seriousness of sexual harassment compared to workplace aggression, the researchers say.

“What our study shows is that – due to its relative invisibility and comparative lack of a legitimate social voice – the impact of workplace aggression may be greater on employees, who must either exit the organization or endure intolerable behaviors,” says Dr. Barling

Lessons for Leaders in Engaging Employees

Employee engagement is a top HR priority for the Ontario Public Service (OPS), says Richard McKinnell, a senior OPS manager and the 2006 Amethyst Fellow at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. Richard – former Assistant Deputy Minister in Corporate Services Division, and a Director of Communications for several ministries, including the Centre for Leadership and Human Resource Management – shares engagement lessons for leaders in the following Q& A.

Does engaging employees in the public service present particular challenges?

In some ways I think it makes employee engagement easier. As with any large organization, challenges do exist. When you have 67,000 people who are geographically dispersed and have diverse work activities and priorities, it is very tough to make sure you reach everyone consistently, and that you are being heard and understood.

In March 2006 the Ontario Public Service (OPS) conducted the first enterprise-wide employee survey to assess employees’ job satisfaction, commitment to the organization and overall perceptions about the OPS workplace. The survey was sent to 36,000 employees across the organization and more than 14,000 responded.

What emerged – and what I think makes employee engagement easier – is the commitment to public service and to making a difference. Commitment to public service motivated a majority to work in the OPS and they said that their work unit takes pride in their work. This is a tremendous unifying factor across a large organization such as ours. We were really gratified to see this.

How big a priority is employee engagement in the OPS?

Employees are at the heart and soul of the public service. It is important they feel valued and respected, and understand how their efforts contribute to the organization’s goals. It is also important for the OPS to foster a workplace culture that is supportive of innovation and recognizes accomplishments both formally and informally. Measuring levels of engagement help us monitor our progress and identify areas where we need to improve.

That’s why employee engagement is one of our top three HR priorities. In November 2005, the OPS launched a comprehensive three-year Human Resources Plan that aims to help transform the organization into a world leader in public service.

The plan focuses on three key areas: engaging employees to achieve organizational results, attracting talent by gaining a competitive edge and building capacity to sustain a world-class organization.

To do this, we have to improve employee engagement – that is, we need to increase employees’ job satisfaction and commitment to the organization and its goals, and to improve the overall OPS work environment.

What did you learn about employee engagement in the OPS from your 2006 survey?

Results showed that employees are reasonably satisfied and engaged. For example, a significant majority of respondents said they have a good working relationship with the person they report to and that their supervisor treats them fairly. As I mentioned, commitment to public service motivated a large number to work in the OPS, and they agreed that their unit takes pride in their work, which is good.

However, employees told us that as in all organizations, there is room for improvement. It was clear from the survey results and other feedback that there is unevenness across the organization related to performance in key areas of internal communications, leadership practices, career advancement opportunities, and professional development and learning opportunities.

What are you doing in response to the survey findings?

The OPS has developed an Action Plan to address the results. It focuses on actions to respond to the priority areas of opportunities for growth and advancement, leadership practices, learning and development opportunities and organizational communications.

Some of the specific actions include:

  • developing a job rotation pilot program to support career growth and advancement
  • providing feedback to leaders and managers through employee surveys and making better use of 360-degree assessments to improve their leadership practices
  • developing and expanding distance learning as part our broader learning strategy
  • planning a management foundations and pre-management program
  • developing a communications guide for executives and managers with clear expectations for effective, frequent, two-way communication
  • re-instituting a paper copy of our employee newsletter, which had gone electronic

How will you monitor progress?

The 2006 employee survey helped us establish a corporate baseline. This year we are surveying all 67,000 OPS employees, which will provide more detailed results at the ministry and divisional levels. Each ministry will be able to determine where it is performing well and what improvements can be made. After the 2007 survey, we will survey employees every two years and track our progress on key priorities.

Have you any best-practices tips to share with managers based on your employee engagement experiences?

From my personal perspective, one essential is the visibility of senior leadership, getting them out of their offices to meet with staff. You need to build that right into the schedule. The Deputy Minister of Government Services, for example, has just completed a second round of Town Hall meetings in which she has gone out across the province and met with all the staff in the Ministry. Similarly, our Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the OPS, Tony Dean annually travels across the province, as part of his Executive Dialogue sessions. Meeting the leader personally makes such a difference within the organization.

Another factor is recognizing the importance of communication. It is more than just posting something on a website or sending out email; it is face-to-face discussion, talking about what engagement means within a work unit, giving opportunities for staff to give feedback to us, to share their questions and concerns.

And obviously, ongoing performance management and career planning and development are really important. You need to work with the people who report to you to ensure they are taking full advantage of the opportunities available to them.

What pitfalls do managers need to avoid?

For managers, there is the challenge of ensuring their actions model the good behaviour around employee engagement that the organization is after. For example, the survey yielded interesting findings about disconnects or perceived disconnects on work-life balance that need to be addressed.

They see the email messages sent 24 hours a day and on weekends, which send the message: “These people never stop and probably expect the same of us.” Managers need to be made more aware that not only what you say, but also your actions, speak volumes. On a personal note, this is something that I know I need to be more sensitive to in my work habits.

There are two other pitfalls. Don’t over-promise: never commit to something you aren’t able to deliver. And always follow up: are we really making a difference, have we done what we said we were going to do, and is it having a positive effect? The survey will really give us the means to answer these questions.

How does the OPS keep its senior leaders engaged?

The 2006 OPS Employee Survey indicated that senior leadership in the OPS has a relatively high level of engagement.

There is great flexibility within the OPS to move across areas of responsibility and functional areas based on transferrable skills. So many senior executives and leaders move from organization to organization in different disciplines, which is a great opportunity.

Also, in my own case, spending this year at Queen’s, on leave from a senior leadership role at the Ministry of Government Services, and having the chance to teach, work with students, write, and do research is a great mid-career opportunity. It re-instils my belief in public service – and in the important work we do.

Money buys presence. Money doesn’t buy passion.

If you are observing a growing number of colleagues working one-and-a half jobs, complaining of chronic headaches, turning down promotions, and suffering strains on the home front, Linda Duxbury has this to say: It’s not your imagination.

As one of Canada’s leading researchers in the area of work-life balance, Dr. Duxbury, a professor in Carleton University’s School of Business, has the statistics to back up her view that organizational cultures undermining employee well-being are simply no longer sustainable. She was at Queen’s November 17 to deliver the 2004 Don Wood Lecture, an annual event co-sponsored by the Industrial Relations Centre and the Masters of Industrial Relations program.

As a self-described advocate for stressed-out employees, Dr. Duxbury used research from her database of 33,000 Canadians to show that organizations have not kept pace with dramatic changes in the workforce and generally do not support a healthy balance between work and home. “Employers can no longer afford to ignore the issue,” she said. “We have to see the link between how people are treated and the outcomes your organization needs… Money buys presence but it doesn’t buy passion.”

Dr. Duxbury’s conclusions are based on data collected from 1991 to 2001. Some findings:

  • In 2001, 58 percent of Canadians complained of “role overload” compared with 37 percent in 1991. Similarly, those reporting job stress jumped to 33 percent in 2001 from 20 percent a decade earlier.
  • In 2001, 26 percent of Canadians said they worked more than 50 hours a week; in 1991 only 11 percent said they did. Managers and professionals have seen the biggest workload increase, with huge jumps in unpaid overtime.
  • In 2001, only 43 percent of Canadians said they were committed to their organizations and an equal number reported job satisfaction. By contrast, in 1991 66 percent were committed to their organizations and 61 percent reported job satisfaction. “Life satisfaction” dropped to 41 percent from 54 percent over the decade studied.

Dr. Duxbury said the increase in work-life conflict is mainly due to five factors: the “myth of separate worlds”; changing work force demographics such as the demise of the traditional family and the increase in the number of knowledge workers; the rise in dependent care issues, such as child care and elder care; organizational cultures maladapted to knowledge workers; and rampant downsizing and restructuring. As well, technology such as email has increased expectations and made it possible to work “anytime anywhere.”

The cost of not instituting more human-friendly culture and policies is increased absenteeism and “mental health” days, higher benefit costs, lower levels of commitment and job satisfaction, and severe recruitment and retention issues.

“Our calculations indicate that employers could reduce absenteeismin their organization by 23 percent if they eliminated high levels of role overload, 6.3 percent if they eliminated high levels of work interferences with family, and 8.6 percent if they could eliminate high levels of caregiver strain,” Dr. Duxbury said.

With Canada entering the tightest labour market since the 1950s and the pool of “new” workers shrinking, the issue of recruitment and retention looms large. The shrewdest organizations, Dr. Duxbury said, will understand key generational differences, in terms of what employees want from the organization and from their bosses. They will create and support a culture that encourages autonomy, challenge and innovation, and work-life balance, and will institute “cafeteria-style” benefits that allow employees to pick and choose depending on their life situation.

Until that culture arrives, Dr. Duxbury suggests individuals be organized and set goals, recognize that balance takes work, use exercise to cope with stress, and “use faith to put things into perspective.”

As for maintaining her own work-life balance, Dr. Duxbury said she practises yoga with her husband, does no work from Friday evening until Sunday after dinner, and takes a one-month vacation out of the country each year. Before an extended absence, she sets a bounce-back email message that asks people to contact her after her vacation. And upon returning, she erases all the emails she received during her absence. A brave and balanced soul, indeed.

Leo Gerard Takes On The World

Globalization and North American integration have created an economic elite at the expense of workers, said Leo Gerard, International President of the 700,000-member United Steelworkers of America. Mr. Gerard addressed nearly 100 attendees at the 2003 Don Wood Lecture on March 6, organized by the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre and School of Industrial Relations.

Mr. Gerard painted a gloomy picture of globalization’s effects internationally—drops in per capita income in Latin America and Africa; a widening gap between rich and poor, both within and among nations; and financial instability, as evidenced by the East Asian crisis, economic collapse in Russia, Argentina and Ecuador, and global recession.

In North America, free trade agreements are exacerbating these problems, resulting in “obscene wealth” for the few and harsh economic realities for workers, he added.

“CEOs in Canada and the United States are rewarded for moving jobs offshore, for laying off workers,” he said, “for terminating pension plans and retiree health care coverage, for ravaging the environment and for violating workers fundamental human rights—especially the right to freedom of association, to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. In its present form, NAFTA would extend those perverse incentives throughout the North American continent.”

Reversing this, Mr. Gerard said, “is the challenge placed before the labour movements of Canada, Mexico and the United States—and since our political leaders seem determined to duplicate the most objectionable features of NAFTA in the Free Trade Area of the Americas, before unions in Central and South America as well.”

Further, a global social movement is needed to ensure that the concentrated wealth created by globalization does not compromise democracy, he added. “That, in a nutshell, is the most serious implication of globalization and North American integration-not just for the labour movement, but also for every citizen on our continent, and in our world.”

The Don Wood Lecture brings to Queen’s distinguished individuals such as Mr. Gerard who have made an important contribution to industrial relations in Canada or abroad. The son of a Sudbury miner and union organizer, Mr. Gerard grew up in the company town of Creighton in northern Ontario, started working at Inco’s smelter when he was 18, and rose steadily through the ranks of union leadership to become a key figure in the international labour movement.

Download PDF: Globalization and North American Integration: Implications for the Union Movement

Latest on Dispute Resolution

On November 2 to 3, 2001, scholars, unionists, employee relations professionals, dispute resolution practitioners, and representatives from industry and government attended a special symposium on the State of the Art and Practice in Dispute Resolution. The symposium was held to pay tribute to the late Dr. Bryan M. Downie, an outstanding scholar and practitioner in the field of dispute resolution and industrial relations. The purpose of the symposium was to bridge theory and practice, contribute to a greater understanding of current approaches used in dispute resolution, and provide participants with an effective learning environment in which they could share knowledge and experiences. The event was jointly developed and sponsored by representatives from academia, business, and labour and supported with funding by the Labour-Management Partnerships Program.

Downie Symposium Proceedings excerpt

Discussions during the symposium revealed that employers, unions, academics, and human resource management/industrial relations practitioners recognize the need to improve relationships, engage in joint problem-solving, seek interest-based solutions, and share new research and practices in the field of dispute resolution. There was general agreement on the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships, not only in the workplace but also in other areas of our lives, such as the home, the community, and the world. The approaches that are taken to deal with problems or to resolve disputes will depend on the past and current relationships between the parties and the future prospects for those relationships.

  • Participants learned about four important characteristics of a positive or peaceful working relationship. In a positive relationship, people must have the opportunity to develop their potential, but not at the expense of others. The relationship needs to be characterized by both perceived and actual justice, and there must be fair treatment. There has to be respect for the person, and, as one discussant observed, respect for the democracy of the parties. Finally, the relationship has to be moving toward a condition of trust where each party is looking out for the interests and needs of the other. In looking for a positive working relationship, there are three important areas to consider: a substantive and sustainable outcome, a fair and reasonable procedure, and a psychological satisfaction of interests.
  • The presentations and discussions also brought forth several approaches and strategies for building better relationships and resolving disputes. In summary, the following points are worth reiterating:
  • People need to be able to discuss and work on areas of mutual concern, talk about past history, tell their stories, and develop a common vision for positive working relationships.
  • Communication needs to be genuine, open, transparent, and ongoing. Building support among the stakeholders is important.
  • Framing and reframing the issues or problems can determine the parties’ real interests.
  • Framing and reframing issues within the interest of the constituents can help to build consensus and mobilize support.
  • In labour-management relationships, it is important to recognize the democratic-political nature of unions when trying to build consensus.
  • Collaboration may require broad outside support, including a supportive political system.
  • There may be a need to develop new skills or change existing procedures, processes, and structures.
  • It is important to promote early and accurate exchange of information.
  • Acceptable standards and criteria for evaluating options need to be established.
  • It will help to generate multiple options. Procedures should be established to deal with future conflict.
  • If a party is using power in a relationship, the power has to be used in a respectful way; it has to be congruent with long-term objectives and promote the kind of relationship that is being sought.
  • Cooperation requires some sharing of power.
  • An initial failure to develop a collaborative relationship can lay the groundwork for future relationship-building.
  • Workplace issues need to be dealt with one problem at a time.
  • There is a role for third party assistance in developing collaborative relationships.
  • Mediation can positively change the culture of labour relations disputes and collective bargaining relationships by overcoming strategic, structural, and cognitive barriers, building trust and empathy, identifying the parties’ true interests, maximizing the opportunities to find common ground, helping the parties to problem-solve, involving the parties, improving communication, managing the needed cooperation, keeping a dialogue going, giving the parties ownership over the end result, and providing more enduring holistic solutions not always available to the law.
  • Investments in human resources help to build good relationships.
  • Unions should be clear in their objectives and accountable.

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