Study Shows Training Doesn’t Solve This Emerging Trend


There is a trend in the workplace that is increasingly becoming popular, however this is not the sort of popularity that one might expect. However, it is a matter that needs to come more to the forefront. The matter is workplace bullying.

Unfortunately, this workplace trend is and has been on the rise in recent years. What is workplace bullying? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force conducted a study that was discussed at the June 2016 Society For Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) annual conference. It found that over the past 30 years, corporate training has not had a positive impact on preventing workplace harassment, according to a recap of the study in SHRM’s HR Magazine.

In other words, HR and Corporate Trainers cannot “train away” workplace harassment. The EEOC report also provided a similar definition of harassment. “Harassment is generally defined as any unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 and over), disability or genetic information. It becomes unlawful when employees are forced to endure offensive behavior in order to keep their jobs or when the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.”

However, the Task Force realized that workplace bullying and harassment cannot be limited to the number of rising claims that have been filed. Claims are underreported as 90 percent of people harassed never file a legal complaint. This means there are virtually thousands of workers who are being harassed either by workplace bullying, sexual harassment, workplace violence, hostile work environment, racial, gender, religious, etc. All of the items listed above (and more) fall under the category of harassment.

In a day and age where employee engagement, out of the box onboarding is being promoted, this is a disturbing trend that does not appear to be getting any better.

What can managers, supervisors and employees do to help curtail this problem? One way is to gradually change the workplace culture. This is not an easy task. It has to start with someone, and usually that means the organization’s leadership. The leadership should be looking for signs of workplace bullying. There are numerous online resources that can assist in the process. Management and employees alike can start with their HR department.

If the problem is the actual manager or supervisor, the HR or an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) professional may need to take charge.

Organizations should have confidential processes in place where employees can report confidentially without fear of retaliation. Employees should be able to report themselves, or if they see another employee in distress, the reporting employee should be able to report either via email, phone call, an online submission, etc. This brings us to another point. Employers should have or form some sort of whistleblower’s program in place for this type of reporting to occur.

This program should be administered by a third-party company so that employees can be assured that their reporting will be taken seriously and not swept under the rug.

In conclusion, we hope that this will give us some options to consider to curtail this increasing trend.

Joan C. Smith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

There are two fundamental challenges to overcome here.

1) What counts as harassment or bullying is often not so easily distinguished from other behaviours that the offender, or bystanders, can accurately identify it and stop it. There is a gradient of “pressure” or taunting that can occur in the workplace that provides the noise or crowd that individual acts of harassment can hide out in. In many respects, its not unlike the manner in which many chronic health problems can have symptoms that are easily overlooked by individuals as “just the aches and pains that come with being older”.

Signal detection is as big a challenge in organizational health as it is in personal and public health.

2) The other big challenge is training. I don’t know about others’ experience, but virtually every bit of “training” I’ve experienced in government has been roughly 2 days long – the equivalent of a weekend workshop. Workshops/training are offered off-site, and even when considered mandatory, not everyone attends or attends at the same time. Despite whatever breakthroughs or insights transpire at the training, transfer of training to the work environment is negligible. And much of what we know from research into learning predicts this outcome. Habits (and pressuring or harassing others) are frequently yoked to contexts. Training in one does not result in practice in a different one. That’s also why so many detox or other personal-change programs fail: people go back into the old context and all the habits come streaming back.

It’s not so much that training, per se, is ineffective. Rather, the training is configured or delivered wrong. The desired changes have to be identified and modified in situ. Far better to have a work unit log those exchanges during the course of a working day that made them uncomfortable, and discuss them at the end of that very day, and do so for a week, than send those folks off-site for a day and a half workshop that discusses harassment in the abstract. Allow those who all-too-easily slip into misbehaviour learn to recognize when they are doing so in the work context.

I imagine workshops can be effective at introducing new ideas that one had never considered. But when it comes to habits, and confronting things you’d rather not know or think about yourself, two days off-site with muffin breaks and catering are highly unlikely to provoke behavioural change.

JC Smith

Hello Mr. Hammer. Thanks so much for your comments. If a behavior is unwelcome, it could be considered harassment. Unwelcome and inappropriate behavior is all that it takes.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be blatant. Many workplace bullies use subtle, intimidation tactics. Just because it is not overt, does not make it right or legal.

The other piece regarding the culture (and this is from personal experience), no matter how much training one offers, how the training is delivered, etc. (even when outside consultants are hired), if the behavior is allowed and/or if management “looks the other way,” then we’re dealing with cultural issues within the workplace.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult (not impossible) to train (no matter what the method of delivery is) and correct some behaviors.

I believe that it is a culture issue which also takes time to chip away at.

Mark Hammer

I think you’re correct in suggesting that, if local culture seems to tolerate harassment or place it towards the bottom of workplace concerns, then even the best of training methods will fail to replace lousy interpersonal habiots with better ones.

Having studied this stuff in my own organization and many others for some 15 years, I think it is fair to note that a goodly chunk of the harassment that many employees can face on a regular basis is sadly well beyond the scope of what most sensitivity training addresses, and often beyond the jurisdiction of harassment-prevention officers. Yes, people are harassed by co-workers, bosses and subordinates. But many report harassment by folks in other agencies, or simply members of the public, or those they have custodial care of. In our own survey of federal employees, we find the highest rates of harassment are experienced by nurses working with veterans, prison guards, and social workers. I’m sure those who work at service counters in the tax office or unemployment line are not far behind. Here, it is not so much a matter of training coworkers to get along and be considerate of each other, as much as teaching self-defense, rotating staff so that they don’t get worn down by the inevitable, or perhaps merely staffing sufficiently so that folks don’t get on each others’ nerves because there is too much work, deadlines are too tight, and there aren’t enough people to do the work that needs doing.

That’s certainly no excuse for any of the subtle or not so subtle things coworkers do to each other. BUt where services are being provided to someone in another organization, and they start chewing you out over the phone because *they* have a deadline to meet and they view you as the obstacle to meeting it, there’s not much a harassment prevention officer in your agency can do about someone’s behaviour in another organization.

On the other hand, if one is serving the public directly, and a client who has been pushing a stroller back and forth for 45 minutes starts raining fury on you when their number is finally called, it can make one helluva difference if your supervisor strolls over and says “M’am, I appreciate you’ve been waiting a long time to be served here, and I *do* apologize for that. But my people work hard here, and they try to do the best job they can. I can’t let you treat them like that.” So part of effective training is not only teaching coworkers to be more considerate of each other, but also teaching supervisors effective ways to be a subordinate’s “champion” when circumstances call for it. There is an art to being an effective intervener, and not all supervisors know how.

And to close the circle, being a visible and effective champion for employees can be a big part of setting the behavioural standard for what is tolerated in the work unit – the culture.