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The Bully in the Business
Safety

The Bully in the Business

By | July 7, 2020

In this edition of SpheraNOW podcast, James Tehrani, Spark’s editor-in-chief, talks with Edward Stern, an expert on workplace anti-bullying policies.

James Tehrani:
Welcome to the SpheraNOW podcast. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s editor-in-chief. Today on the program I’m joined by Edward Stern, an adviser on workplace bullying, who previously spent four decades developing regulatory policy at the US Labor Department. For 27 of those years he worked at OSHA developing regulations and compliance assistance programs. Recently, he was a keynote speaker for the Symposium on Workplace Aggression, held by the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences. Thank you so much for joining me today, Edward.

Edward Stern:
Well, I’m glad to be speaking with you again, James.

James Tehrani:
That’s great. Edward and I worked on a couple of articles back around 2015, and I actually got to meet him when I was in Washington, D.C., for the SHRM Conference in 2016. So it’s really great talking to you again after all these years.

Edward Stern:
Yes, well, come on by.

James Tehrani:
I’d love to go back. Once travel is better we will do it. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what piqued your interest in the subject of workplace bullying?

Edward Stern:
Well, narrowly, this would not be one of my topics, because I worked on a variety of workplace safety and health topics. This is a little on the edge, but it fell into my lap when I lost a terrifically valuable coworker, who was highly-educated, very conscientious, and just a great young woman, on whom I was going to rely for some technical expertise, and she quit her job. So I was horrified to lose her, and I asked her why she was quitting. She said, “‘If you want to know why I’m quitting, start studying workplace bullying.”‘

Edward Stern:
This was in the early 2002, or three, something. I started collecting academic papers and talking to some of the eminent researchers about their papers around the country. Eventually, I got enough understanding that I could write something for union magazines, and then later for the general public. I’ve continued that in retirement, simply because I have spent so much time on it, I figured I may as well keep working on it.

James Tehrani:
That’s great. For employers, how should workplace anti-bullying initiatives play a role in their overall safety protocols?

Edward Stern:
I think workplace anti-bullying initiatives can be very valuable to employers and supporting, helping and backing up their safety initiatives. Because if they have a good policy, or it only has to be decent, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t think I’ve seen any that are perfect, but if they have a decent policy and they make a genuine effort to implement it, of course, you have to communicate it to implement it, then I think they get credibility with employees. If you have credibility and confidence that you’re going to pay attention to these issues, I believe that employees will be more likely to tell their managers and supervisors when they see safety issues that need to be addressed. But if you don’t do anything like this, if you have problems and don’t respond to the problems to which a company’s alerted, or your hide your eyes, well then the company loses credibility. That means the employees are not going to trust them, trust the leadership on matters of safety either. So for that reason, in my mind, having a workplace bullying policy ought to be one of the leading indicators of whether or not they’re going to have a safe workplace.

James Tehrani:
Interesting. How prolific is workplace bullying, and how do you define bullying? On the school yard it’s pretty obvious: Bullying is you push a kid who’s younger than you. But in the workplace it can also include microaggressions. Is that right?

Edward Stern:
Yes. It can be very subtle, and indeed it’s a little difficult to define it. I had that question before me some years ago from an acquaintance, who was a law professor at Georgetown. I thought about my definition, and I was not happy with it. I thought further on it, and I decided to organize it into a table so that people could see a variety of behaviors. Just in the categories of verbal and nonverbal aggressive behavior, bullying and abusive behavior. So that’s one way of looking, and the cross-cut on visible and hidden behaviors. That’s a two-by-two table. Then I added another layer down below of just the behaviors, the abusive conduct, that only a supervisor can do, that your coworker cannot do to you. So I have a six-way table. I put that in an article somewhere in a workplace bullying styles matrix. But I think then you fill in different kinds of behavior of what’s visible and verbal, and it can be visible and not verbal, including nonverbal aggressions.

Edward Stern:
It’s interesting that after, and of course, the speaking for the Oregon, the symposium at the end of May, I saw that there was some definite interest in understanding better the kind of aggression that’s done just by expression. People absolutely feel it when they’re given a cold stare or sneer. A sneer is so old. It’s such an ancient thing that even animals do it. Charles Darwin wrote about this in a book on the emotions, ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.’ I ran into that, when I was looking it up, I found it when I was studying sneers and violence.

James Tehrani:
That’s fascinating. Let me ask you this. Obviously, we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, there’s been a lot of news related to the call to end racism once and for all, and everything that’s going on in the world, just now we’re reopening. Our companies are starting to reopen. Are you concerned at all that there’s a bigger potential for workplace bullying as people return to the office after a few months?

Edward Stern:
Yes, actually, I am for a couple of reasons. One that occurred to me, and one that occurred to one of my colleagues, who alerted me to her concern recently, and she was a labor lawyer, a very shrewd labor lawyer, and also a union official for some time. Let me deal with her thought first, before I come to my own. That is, she was concerned that the people coming back to the workplace will be anxious. It’s quite a change for people. They’re coming back to something new, and just that anxiety and edginess will prompt bullies to be more aggressive. I think that’s a possibility. I don’t reject her hypothesis on that.

Edward Stern:
My thought was, before I heard my colleagues thought, was that these bullies miss the opportunity to torment others. It’s something that makes them feel good. They don’t do it accidentally. It’s done because they need to abuse and degrade others, because it makes them feel better about themselves. Consequently, they’ve missed it, and I think it’s quite possible that we will see a good surge of it when they come back. But even for these folks, it may take them a little while to hit their stride, just because everybody will be a little off coming back and feeling a little strange.

James Tehrani:
Especially, you go back into the workplace, people are wearing masks, and then you see somebody who’s not wearing a mask, or vice versa. I could see the potential for people trying to pick on those people, individuals to take it on themselves to make a point.

Edward Stern:
Oh, I have no doubt. There are people who feel strongly that, I talked to another friend, who happens to be an attorney, a smart and successful attorney. She told me the other day, she didn’t believe in the masks and the disease at all. Now, mind you, she’s an attorney, not a doctor. I was sort of startled, because I live across the street from the National Institutes of Health. I have neighbors who are health scientists. I know a lot of people, and they’re serious. One of my friends is a virologist. The older gentleman who’s now retired, but long, long-time student of virology, and not just a student, eminent researcher. It’s not a joke. They’re serious and they have good ideas. I certainly agree with you, James, that there could be some controversy and mocking and demeaning as a result of this.

James Tehrani:
Definitely. Just for the record, we do recommend wearing masks in the workplace, because until there’s a vaccine, or at least some kind of drug to help cope with this, it’s going to take everybody’s efforts to keep everybody safe.

Edward Stern:
I will not disagree with you on that. I spent a lot of years doing projections of risk and how exposure to various hazardous materials will affect people. It involves statistics and probability and so forth. The same rules apply here. You don’t have to reinvent statistics and probability to figure out, that if you’re exposed to a lot of people, who are not covered, whose faces are not covered. Well, then you have an increased chance that at least one of them, you only need one, at least one of them will be a danger to you.

James Tehrani:
Definitely. I know this is not your area of expertise, but I am curious with more people working from home these days, are you concerned at all about the rise of cyberbullying?

Edward Stern:
Well, it certainly could be there. I offer this thought to you. That is, I did not see cyberbullying in the office, because I think it’s too easy for the IT people to figure out where it’s coming from, if it’s coming from inside. But if people are at home, it may be easier, safer for bullies to harass them from outside. So they wouldn’t be using internal systems. But whether it’s happening, I am sorry, I just haven’t studied that.

James Tehrani:
That’s totally understandable. I just was curious about your thoughts. For an employer, what are the risks of not taking bullying seriously? Obviously, no employer is going to advocate for bullying. But what about employers that don’t take this very seriously?

Edward Stern:
Well, there is a risk, and that is even, when you have a substantial number of people out of work, if you’ve got the company running, and you have trained staff, you want to keep them there. You want to keep the talent. If you mistreat people, there will be other opportunities for them. The better the people are, the more talented, more experienced, the easier will be for them to find other jobs. So if you have someone, who just because of their insecurity, especially the narcissistic personalities, because of their insecurity, wants to torment others, only one or two at a time, in my mind, and treat the others nice. But if they’re going to do that, eventually they will drive people away and they will be driving away the people, who make the bullies feel less comfortable and who are they? Is it people who are well-educated? Who have good skills at working with others? Even appearance, even frankly, looks might play a role in that.

Edward Stern:
But my goodness, if you have people with experience, and education, and good social skills and you drive them away, then the company loses. By the way, I spoke with the head of the Minnesota State HR a couple of years ago while I was collecting information on this. He said, ‘We compete with the private sector, and we want to attract and keep the best talent we can.’ That’s one of the reasons that they developed and promoted their Respectful Workplace Policy. Their policy is Respectful Workplace Policy, and then inside it, it lists all the bad behavior, which is workplace bullying or aggressive conduct.

James Tehrani:
What are the top three or four things you’d like to see in an anti-bullying initiative at a company?

Edward Stern:
Oh boy, that’s a good one. Number one, once you have it communicated on a regular basis, at least once a year, to all the employees, put it up on the company website so people can see it easily, including your competitors and the general public. This gets you get you a little respect. So, if you have something, communicate it. Next, when you have a policy, it’s not enough just to write about and address the issues of yelling and shouting and cursing at people. Those are obvious things, and that does happen. I have been involved in working with cases like that. But that’s not the only thing that happens. Some of the behavior is undermining. It’s sabotage of people that you want to torment, often because of personal envy or out of retaliation for something someone said. So these are subtle. A person could be targeted and not even know they’re targeted for a little while, but eventually they catch on. So you have to, in my mind, it’s not enough to just go for the clear, visible, and actions, but also the hidden actions.

Edward Stern:
There’s another one that’s addressed in the model policy of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Inter-Governmental Regulations. They have a very good model policy. They speak about acts and omissions. So, simply refusing to respond to somebody who has a right, as an employee, and has every reason to expect that the person he is trying to reach will speak with him, or talk to him, or meet with him, or answer his telephone calls.. If you don’t do that, that’s also workplace aggression, because you’re cutting that person off. And they know it. They may not realize it right away, but they’ll catch on.

James Tehrani:
That would be an example of subtle.

Edward Stern:
I beg your pardon.

James Tehrani:
That would be an example of a more subtle form of workplace bullying?

Edward Stern:
Yes. I’ll tell you, I got caught on that myself years ago. I needed to speak to someone. They say, “‘I can’t right now. I’ll get back to you.”‘ Then a couple of weeks go by, and I say, ‘Wait a minute, we need to talk about this. This is important for part of the role that I’m responsible for.’ Four weeks went by. One of the senior officials absolutely refused to talk to me. I thought, “‘Oh my goodness, they faked me out.”‘ I should have realized sooner, but I didn’t.

James Tehrani:
How do you get that kind of buy-in from senior leadership when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives?

Edward Stern:
I think you want to encourage the corporate leadership, or the organizational leadership, maybe governmental or non-governmental, you want to encourage them to realize, to keep in mind, that recruiting and keeping people cost money. When I spent a lot of time recruiting people and training people, and if you have good people there, and they leave because they’re not well treated, you’ve lost an investment in there. It’s not even a matter of morality. It is a matter of morality, but forget the morality of treating people with common decency. But you’re losing money when you lose talent. If it happens to the government instead of private sector, you may not be losing money, but you’re losing the ability to carry out the mission of the federal or state or municipal government office, that you’re responsible for, because you are losing some of the talent that you would otherwise have. This absolutely happens. It just means that whatever organization you have, you’re not going to be as effective.

Edward Stern:
One other thing is when you end up with lawsuits, then it’s embarrassing for the company or agency, whoever it is. That’s one thing. Also, employees can speak their mind about the company they left on Glassdoor and other similar spots where they can rate the companies. That has the effect of deterring some people from applying to the company for jobs. You’re looking to replace somebody. Somebody looks at what they read about bad behavior at the company. They say, “‘I don’t want to apply there.”‘ I know this happens. I’ve talked to people about that.

James Tehrani:
Do you see a lot of lawsuits related to workplace bullying?

Edward Stern:
I’m familiar with some, and typically employees, the average person just doesn’t have the resources to do this. But if they are in a situation where they have a union that can help them, and the union has funds to have a lawyer, well, that gives them an advantage, or once in a while the employee him or herself is an attorney and will take the case into court by him or herself. I’ve seen that happen too. At that point, you would expect that HR would start paying attention. But honest to goodness, I know of one case, one situation in which one supervisor, who seemed to have a problem with women, I’m going to tell you, I’m not speaking about OSHA, because I dealt with workplace issues in a variety of agencies. I was asked to, so I’m not talking about OSHA. I think we did pretty well.

Edward Stern:
But they had a supervisor who had a problem with women, and as a result, he drove away three women. Each of them filed, and because they viewed it as an EEO thing, they filed discrimination cases in federal court, and they settled one out of court. They went into court on the next one and lost, and here they let the person do yet another case. Before, on the steps of the court, before they’re ready for trial, again, they lost. That outfit lost $2 million, just because of that supervisor. Finally, they had the sense to say, ‘Well, you know what? Maybe he shouldn’t be a supervisor.’
. It’s not huge money, but it helped to compensate the people who felt they were discriminated against. I think these cases were that I’m thinking of were brought as under the guise of under the rubric of EEO, but really, it was because partly discrimination and partly workplace bullying. Just harassment.

James Tehrani:
Is that one of the most egregious examples you’ve seen?

Edward Stern:
Oh, I thought that, as a continuing case, that the organizational leadership just turned a blind eye to. I can’t think of a worse example. I’ve seen people who were familiar with cases, where a supervisor was yelling and cursing and screaming at the employee. Matter of fact, this one involved, they were both attorneys. So fortunately, not our OSHA attorneys. They were really a very good group. But another group of attorneys and behaving in a most appalling fashion, but that’s not the way this person ordinarily behaved. When the employee raised it with the union and they invited me to sit in, everybody sat down with HR. The woman described her situation, and the boss said, I don’t think he said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘It won’t happen again. It won’t happen again.’ As a result, there was no grievance or EEO complaint. It was with Dart, it was a woman, also a senior attorney. There was no formal complaint filed against the guy, because he said it wouldn’t happen. To my knowledge, it didn’t. So he lost it one day, but maybe that was really a very unusual situation for that guy. Anybody can have a bad day. Even me.

James Tehrani:
We all can have bad days. I hope my dog barking isn’t showing up in the recording here, but this is live. So we are doing our best. Where can people go to learn more about workplace bullying?

Edward Stern:
Well, there’s a variety of things to look at. As a very nice policy, short and sweet, I really like the National Institutes of Health Office. It’s called Civil. That’s just the name, Civil. If you just Google NIH Civil Workplace Violence, they have a short, sweet, but subtle policy that I discuss with them on many occasions. I’m impressed, because they covered many of these issues with actions and omissions. I think words and stares and sabotage, they’ve got that. They wrapped all of that workplace bullying, psychological violence in with their workplace violence program. They did it in a couple of pages. It’s really very short and sweet. It’s a terrific little example.

Edward Stern:
But another example I like very much, as I say, is this model policy from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Inter-Governmental Regulation. The best way to find it is just to, say, search on TACIR. That’s their initials, model policy and up pops this policy that was done in response to the state law of Tennessee. I believe, was the first to initiate a policy for governmental state and local governments. Then later, some years later, I think in 2019, they extended it to the private sector. This model policy is a marvelous little example. It’s hard to beat.

James Tehrani:
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for that. Is there anything else you’d like to add today about workplace bullying?

Edward Stern:
Well, I offer one thought. That is, it is useful to go back to people who were abusive and say to them, “‘I don’t know if you realize, but what you’re saying is very offensive.”‘ You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but it’s worth a try. For those people who are entirely wrapped up in themselves and who have a sense of grandiosity, and they just feel that they’re terrifically important, then you look for the character traits of a narcissistic personality disorder. One of my friends, who’s a psychiatrist and was a director of a psychiatric department for a hospital, told me years ago when I asked him about it, how do you deal with these people? He said, ‘Edward, you can’t. Don’t think that you can influence these people. They are very, very difficult to change.’ So from that kind of person, you’d better start thinking about getting away from them.

James Tehrani:
I concur. I did some research on this a number of years ago, and I came to the same conclusion. If you’re dealing with certain people with this narcissistic personality problem, it can be very cumbersome.

Edward Stern:
I had run into one of those people, and I had to deal with the person for a while. The person was so strange. I called one of my friends, who was a psychotherapist. I said, ‘Come down and Chinatown, I’ll buy you lunch.’ I take advantage of my friends. I admit that. But I described, and he asked me, do you see this? Do you see that? Yes, no, yes, no. He said, ‘Well, take a look.’ This was a couple of years ago when they had the definition under the DSM4. He said, ‘Take a look at the narcissistic personality disorder traits.’ Over a period of time, we saw that this person exhibited nine out of nine. You needed five to be classified. This individual exhibited nine out of nine. So I thought to myself, I didn’t know if there was, I think you were ahead of me, James, on this realizing you can’t deal with it. But when I saw my friend, the psychiatrist, at a family picnic, I said, ‘Do you have any advice?’ He said, ‘Try to avoid them, because you’re not going to be able to deal with them.’

James Tehrani:
Exactly. One closing thought I had was, we talk about this quite a bit is when you do lose workers, you also lose that knowledge base. When you’re talking about workplace safety, that’s so important.

Edward Stern:
Well, the people walk out. Of course, if you degrade them and humiliate them, and sabotage, they’re de-motivated. So they’re no longer engaged. They’re not going to offer you the good ideas, because the company doesn’t care about them. So they’re not going to care about the company. So they’re no longer engaged employees, which are the source of ideas. So you lose that. Then when they leave out, out they go with their knowledge that they’ve gained from years, and that’s a loss. You don’t have the talent, you don’t have the knowledge. You’re absolutely right. Then you have to try to find somebody to come in. I have seen people like this. They chase away people year after year. Unfortunately, HR, too often, is thinking of their role is to protect managers. They need to start thinking about protecting the organization and the mission of the organization, not just individual managers.

James Tehrani:
Even with newer employees who might feel bullied, it costs a lot of money to just bring onboard a new employee. So if you have someone who’s new and they start a job, and then six months later they’re gone because they’ve been bullied, you have to start that whole process again. That’s not cheap.

Edward Stern:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, that’s money down the drain. I do have one other thought on this. That is, some of the people who are bullies, who are unhappy with themselves for one reason or another, and they want to take it out on others, some of those people are knowledgeable people. One of the ways that you can improve the situation is to move them out. If they’re supervisors, move them out of being supervisors and managers into senior advisory positions, non-managerial, but well-paid non-supervisory and non-managerial positions. I have seen that work, and I can think of one highly knowledgeable, highly intelligent and educated person who just treated people terribly. When that person was made a non-supervisory senior expert, the individual over, I don’t know, maybe it took a couple of weeks, this is not somebody I worked with directly, but I knew people who worked with the individual. Over a relatively short period of time, the person was happier and was nice to people. So it turned out to be a good thing for that individual not to be a supervisor.

James Tehrani:
Interesting.

Edward Stern:
But the company still kept the expertise. So it was a win every way, all the way around.

James Tehrani:
That’s a great, great example. I really appreciate your time, and your sharing your expertise on workplace bullying with us today, Edward. It was great talking to you again. Thank you, so much.

Edward Stern:
Well, it was my pleasure. I’m happy to talk to you again.

James Tehrani:
All right. Thank you, so much.

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