Learn How to Prevent a Toxic Work Environment

Diffusing a Toxic Workplace

Businesswoman standing on bull's-eye with people in a row
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Bullying is a widespread workplace problem, both within the legal profession and without. However, employers should not accept, shrug off, or ignore bullying issues because they lead to a toxic workplace, higher turnover, a bad reputation for the company, and potential lawsuits.

For additional information on dealing with a bullying and a toxic work environment, review these articles:

Keep reading to learn what steps can employers take to defuse a toxic workplace with tips from Jean Copeland Haertl, CEO & Founder of Safety and Respect at Work, LLC in Boston.

Bullying is a pattern of humiliating, offensive workplace conduct most often perpetrated by someone in a position of power and/or authority. Bullying often manifests as an abuse of power whose targets suffer serious and long-lasting emotional and physical health harming effects. Not unlike batterers who emotionally abuse their victims, bullies engage in learned abusive workplace behavior because they often get away with it.

From working with bullies, I have learned that most, if not all, target specific employees. Bullies are also cognitively aware of their actions, changing their behavior when in the presence of superiors, often appearing charming and professional.

While anyone can engage in workplace bullying, according to recent statistics from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 72% of bullies are bosses. The first and most important step an employer should take is to recognize that bullying is not something that an employee should be left alone to address. Simply suggesting that employees should learn strategies to respond to bullying is like telling a battered victim she needs to learn to communicate more effectively and directly to minimize the abuse inflicted by a batterer.​

Organizational leaders should take ownership of helping to address and eliminate all forms of workplace abuse. Steps to diffuse a toxic work environment include but are not limited to:

1. Establish an Anti-bullying Policy

Establish and implement clear policies and reporting procedures that address bullying. Most companies have a code of conduct policies, but many of those policies are general, and/or solely address unethical and financial misconduct. Rarely do companies maintain policies with specific language that adequately defines a range of prohibited behaviors.

2. Implement Company-wide Training That Addresses Bullying.

Once a sound policy has been established with clear and multiple reporting mechanisms in place, leaders must ensure all managers and employees receive training on how to identify, respond, and report potential bullying behaviors.

Because many managers and employees have trouble distinguishing bullying behaviors from workplace violence and unprofessional behaviors, it is critical that training underscores the many ways bullies target their victims in the workplace. Unlike one misdirected and unprofessional comment, bullies perpetuate a pattern of coercive control, often isolating their targets, undermining their work, and engaging in an aggressive and humiliating behavior.

Bullies are often known to most in the company. They are the "elephants in the room" much like perpetrators of domestic violence. Like batterers, bullies minimize, deny, sidetrack and blame their targets, hoping to avoid accountability for their actions. Training must separate managers from employees, and highlight the challenges and fears employees struggle with in reporting these kinds of behaviors.

3. Implement Disciplinary Action.

Hold bullies accountable for their behavior by consistently and fairly implementing appropriate disciplinary action. Not unlike a worker who has violated a company's sexual harassment or workplace violence policy, employers must investigate all complaints related to mutual respect policy violations.

Depending on the nature of the behavior and/or impact on the target, employers must take swift action and discipline workplace bullies - up to and including termination, if necessary.

Sometimes, a bully who is confronted with the possibility of disciplinary action, including the fact that his/her behavior has negatively impacted another employee, will take steps to alter his or her behavior. Progressive disciplinary action can be combined with remedial training in some cases. I strongly discourage any form of mediation in these cases.