Cover Story

The logo for the Ramsey County, Minn., government is a big red R, which stands for the county's name on building signs and letterhead. However, the R takes on a double meaning on employee identification pins: It hovers over the word "respect," and is just one way the county fosters a work environment that is inhospitable to bullying, says Don Gault, a member of the county's public health department.

"We have a policy of respect, and we back it up with trainings that teach people to listen to each other," says Gault, who also serves as a member of the county's Workplace Action Team, the group responsible for such initiatives.

In fact, Ramsey County takes a variety of approaches to preventing workplace aggression. It even occasionally brings in a theater group to illustrate the ways that miscommunication can escalate in a workplace. Such a broad strategy is probably the most effective way to address workplace bullying, observes Kevin Kelloway, PhD, a psychologist at St. Mary's University in Canada who researches the topic.

"The way you limit [bullying] behavior is not by developing an exhaustive list of things you can't do, but by taking a more positive approach, saying 'This is the way we treat other people here,'" says Kelloway.

Businesses are increasingly tapping psychologists' expertise to foster healthy, respectful workplaces, Kelloway notes. For instance, he has found that companies increasingly call him for help changing their climates. They may be motivated by a number of factors, such as avoiding lawsuits, decreasing employee sick-day use (see "Worrying for a living") and reducing turnover, he notes.

"We are seeing a trend where there is a shortage of qualified professionals," says Kelloway. "Companies are competing for talent, and…people recognize they can go elsewhere instead of tolerating behavior they may have tolerated in the past."

Further support for the idea that improving work climate can decrease aggression and bullying comes from a recent Department of Veterans Affairs pilot program. In it, psychologists and other professionals taught employees communication skills using a technique known as Collaborative Action Inquiry, which encourages groups to collect data on a problem and then cycle through stages of action and reflection. After the training, employees at the pilot sites, including hospitals and claims-processing centers, reported less aggression and increased employee satisfaction.

In one case, the intervention reduced the average time for a claim to be processed, notes project consultant Joel Neuman, PhD, a psychologist in the School of Business at the State University of New York, New Paltz. Workers accomplished this feat by listening more carefully to one another: For example, they used a "talking stick" that gave one person the floor and reduced interruptions in meetings.

"The only way to address day-to-day forms of aggression-verbal aggression, psychological aggression, emotional abuse-is to change the nature of the conversations people are having with each other," he says.

Rooting out root causes

Beginning in 1999, Neuman and his colleagues aimed to help 11 workplaces in the VA system increase communication and civility. But a team of outside experts can't just go into an office and tell a company how to reduce bullying, says Loraleigh Keashly, PhD, a psychologist at Detroit's Wayne State University who also consulted on the project. Unique issues contributed to disrespectful behavior at each of the VA workplaces, she notes.

"At one claims-processing center, the root causes were problems with communication and unfair promotion," says Keashly. "Favoritism was poisoning the climate there; union employees felt they weren't being heard by upper management."

So Keashly, Neuman and their colleagues asked both the union and management to nominate a group of employees to serve on an "action team" that would address the problem. The researchers then gave everyone in the center a survey that measured, among other things, how often the employees felt they were the target of disrespectful behavior, such as hostile glaring, malicious gossip and eye-rolling. The consultants then presented the results, which showed that some aggressive acts occurred more frequently there than at similar VA facilities.

With guidance from the researchers, the action teams analyzed the data and determined that rank-and-file employees were frustrated because they felt unheard by management. So they instituted an intervention program called "Flake-off Fridays," in which the center's assistant director invited a randomly selected group of employees to meet and chat with him. During these hour-long meetings, employees asked questions, brought up concerns or just enjoyed some time away from their desks.

After the institution of Flake-off Fridays, the researchers administered a follow-up survey and found that bullying and other aggressive behavior had decreased at the claims center. The average amount of time it took to process a claim also decreased, reports Keashly about the as-yet-unpublished data.

The researchers repeated this process of surveys, meetings, intervention and follow-up at 10 other VA workplaces with similar results, says James Scaringi, the VA's special project program manager.

Though the teams' projects were no doubt part of the improvements, the process of developing the interventions-through respectful though sometimes heated discussions-also contributed to reduced bullying, notes Keashly. During the planning meetings, the psychologists taught the action teams to, for instance, speak up when someone said something that was unfair about another employee, she notes.

"Not only was the intervention they designed having an impact, but the way they were operating was catching on with other people," she says.

Backing it up

The public health department of Ramsey County also aims to change how people communicate with each other by running training sessions that emphasize listening and communication. In one exercise, small groups of co-workers go through a list of behaviors, such as "You get angry, go into a private room and kick the wall," and rate how violent they are on a scale of one to 10. After considering the examples, the group members discuss their answers.

"We have done this with thousands of people, and what we have found is each time we do it people have very different responses," says Gault. "What you learn from it is that people you work with have different takes on these things. One person might think kicking a wall is a healthy way to relieve anger, while others may think it is violent."

The exercise usually leads to discussion of what behavior is appropriate at work. The goal, however, is not to come to a final definition of respectful behavior, but to expose employees to each others' perspectives, Gault says.

While such discussions are useful, having a policy that explicitly defines and imposes sanctions for bullying can help fortify attempts to improve communication, says Kathryne Dupré, PhD, a Memorial University of Newfoundland business professor who researches the causes of workplace aggression ("Bullying stems from fear, apathy"). Ramsey County has such a policy, which is stated on posters and in the employee manual, and so do many businesses that APA has lauded through its Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award, notes David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, the directorate's assistant executive director for corporate relations and business strategy. Each year, the program nationally recognizes companies that safeguard employees' health and well-being. One such example is IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center, which won in 2006 in part because of its efforts to foster cooperation and respect in the workplace, he notes. (See the May Monitor or for a full list of the winners.)

"IBM does a variety of things to address the issue and create a culture of trust in the organization, including creating a work environment where intimidation is not tolerated and formalizing this through their core values and employment guidelines," he notes.

The company's Business Conduct Guidelines state that IBM will not brook any intimidating behavior, and the company backs that up with disciplinary action, Ballard says. In fact, IBM won media coverage in 2003 when it fired a group of factory workers who were bullying their new boss.

"It's not just the existence of a policy but the belief that the organization will enact it," Dupré says.

Further Reading

  • Gault, D. (2005). Creating respectful, violence-free, productive workplaces: A community-level response to workplace violence. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 4, 119–138.

  • Keashly, L., & Jagatic, K. (2003). By any other name: American perspectives on workplace bullying. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf, & C.L. Cooper (Eds.), Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice (pp. 31–61). London: Taylor Francis.

  • Neuman, J.H., & Baron, R.A. (2005). Aggression in the workplace: A social psychological perspective. In S. Fox & P.E. Spector (Eds.), Counterproductive workplace behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 13–40). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Neuman, J.H., & Keashly, L. (2005, August). Reducing aggression and bullying: An intervention project in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In J. Raver (Chair), Workplace bullying: International perspectives on moving from research to practice. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Academy of Management, Honolulu, HI.