How Companies Can Prevent Abusive Workplace Behavior

The idea that someone might feel unsafe or intimidated in the workplace should alarm any business professional, but the good news is that there are structures you can put in place to prevent abusive workplace behavior.

As a business owner or manager, you are obliged to provide employees with a safe workplace. In the US, the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires the provision of safe and healthful workplace conditions, covering almost every category of employee. Aside from legal obligations, employers recognize the importance of a positive working environment and the impact it has, for the better, on employee productivity. If people feel they have control over what they are doing and if they feel that they have the support of management and colleagues, they are likely to be more productive. A positive workplace has higher rates of staff retention, reduced absence rates, and provides better levels of customer service.

Encouraging a positive workplace environment requires employees to play their part. As an owner or manager, you can put the systems in place and lead by example, but if instances of employee misbehavior arise, you should be prepared to take action. Employee insubordination is not something that you as a business owner or manager can tolerate. Nonetheless, you should have a proper policy in place to deal with insubordination in case of legal proceedings on the grounds of discrimination. You will have to be able to demonstrate that the employee was given a direct order, that they received the order and understood it, and that they refused to follow the order, either by explicitly saying they would not do so or by way of non-performance.

Bullying and harassment is a common form of abusive workplace behavior. Bullying and harassment can be defined as behavior that makes someone else feel intimidated or offended. Categories of bullying or harassing behavior range from the spreading of malicious rumors and picking on someone to undermining someone’s work and even denying them the training or promotion opportunities to which they are entitled. An employer needs to be very careful about how they structure the workplace – it may be that they are unaware that they are denying an employee their training or promotion opportunities, for instance.

Bullying and harassment does not necessarily have to be face-to-face. It can happen by letter, by phone, by e-mail, or even on social media. Harassment constitutes unwanted behavior and can be based on someone’s age, gender, disability, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious belief, among other reasons.

To prevent abuse in the workplace, an employer should have proper systems of reporting and disciplinary action in place. Employees should be trained on what is expected of them in their dealings with colleagues and management. Likewise, employees should know how to report abusive behavior and should be confident that their disclosures will be dealt with properly, and confidentially where appropriate. An employer should have formal grievance procedures in place, backed by proper documentation of complaints made. Nonetheless, employees should be made to feel that they could also approach management and HR staff on an informal basis and discuss their concerns, safe in the knowledge that if they are not satisfied they can take their grievance further.

Another example of abusive behavior that can arise in the workplace is alcohol and substance abuse. Employees abusing substances are a danger to themselves and a danger to their colleagues. Imagine a scenario in which an employee abusing drugs or alcohol is operating machinery in a workplace, resulting in injury to themselves or a colleague. An oral fluid lab test is a straightforward way of testing for alcohol and substance abuse in the workplace. An employer should obtain the consent of employees before introducing such a testing system. Achieving employee consent not only covers any legal obligations but also represents an opportunity for the employer to outline to staff the benefits of any testing system from the point of view of workplace safety. If an employee tests positive for substance abuse, disciplinary action will typically arise. A positive test for substance abuse is also an opportunity for a manager or owner to sit down with the employee and discuss the help and support they need. Accurate report results can be available within 24 hours of testing, providing reassurance for employers that substance abuse problems in the workplace can be identified and dealt with quickly.

A happy workplace is a productive workplace, so business owners and managers should do all they can to actively encourage something that will benefit staff as well as the business.