A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT

Yesterday morning while having breakfast in one of my favorite business travel hotels, I could not help but overhear a conversation between the two individuals seated not more than three feet from me.  The gist of the conversation involved workplace behavior that simply would be intolerable to most of us and I would hope any good manager.

There was an initial discussion of a public berating the younger of these two individuals absorbed from a colleague in front of a group, during a meeting, and in the presence of the group’s manager who said and did nothing.  The conversation then moved on to another incident where the same youthful individual was personally insulted in the same workplace by the same colleague who delivered a series of personal, negative epithets including, as I recall, the phrase “you stupid child”.

By themselves, you may consider these minor incidents in comparison to others you have experienced.   And of course, I have no way of knowing anything about the performance of this youthful individual, what may have precipitated these outbursts, or whether the verbal aggressor may have had legitimate cause for concern.  What I do know is that personal and publicly humiliating verbal attacks and displays of ill-temper in the workplace constitute a hostile working environment, at least for the target individual, and that a manager — according to the story as told — was a witness at one of these incidents

No manager can keep tabs on everything that happens in a workplace for which she or he is responsible.  Yet all managers are responsible for expeditiously addressing any incidents they witness, — or become aware of — that go beyond normal, acceptable bounds.  At a minimum in the above story, a private chat with the individual who delivered his insults in a group meeting would have represented good management practice and may have headed of incident number two.

I am not suggesting here that a manager should attempt to excessively police the interactions within his or her workplace in an effort to establish some unreasonable level of polite, civility.  A great many workplaces exhibit vigorous, robust, and generally productive exchanges between employees and their bosses.  Emotions, arguments, and disagreements often get heated, the decibel level rises, and the language used can easily get charged.  But there are boundaries beyond which professionals and colleagues should not venture and management needs to enforce them when required.

As a rule of thumb, demeaning, disrespectful, personal attacks are always unacceptable and immature.  Similarly, profanity laden outbursts, temper tantrums, or racially and ethnically charged remarks directed at, or in front of, colleagues need rapid management attention.  The best managers are quick to identify any employee with demonstrated anger management issues and initiate the necessary, constructive intervention when required.  Finally, any behavior or language of a sexually harassing or demeaning nature requires a prompt management response.

One of the principal functions of a manager as a designated authority is to establish the behavioral norms within which he or she expects their subordinates to operate.  Ignoring any of the above behaviors sends the unambiguous signal that these behaviors are — if not OK — tolerable.    Consequently, they will be repeated.  Addressing them promptly sends the opposite signal and, trust me on this, the message rapidly spreads.  Employees must remain in their workplace because their pay check depends upon it.  It is unacceptable to require them to endure abuse because they have no other option.

One of the things all managers control is the power to establish the atmospherics within which their subordinates will work.  Regardless of the overall culture of an organization, in your piece of the world, you have the clout to emphatically say “this is how I expect all of you to behave”.  And the best managers never forget that it is their behavioral example that speaks louder than their words.

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