June 3rd, 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass healthy workplace legislation. The new law (which applies to public sector employees), defines bullying as repeated verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, and work place sabotage. The model policy, to be formulated by TACIR (Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations) will provide immunity from related law suits to adopting entities.
TACIR Workplace Civility Task Force members will be charged with reviewing committee and floor hearings on bill best practices, identifying ways to discourage and prevent bullying, researching how to model healthy workplace policies (from organizations that have experienced successful implementation), and crafting best practices to identify and dissuade misconduct. The policy in its final form will assist employers in addressing allegations of bullying and in preventing retaliation of complainants.
Enumerating what shouldn’t be is a necessary, but insufficient first step in transforming workplace culture. Zimbardo has argued “. . .persons develop a penchant for corruption when placed inside institutional structures that encourage its practice” (Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivancevich, & Konpaske, 2011). In other words, people can become ethically challenged over time in firms which foster moral disengagement.
Elements that may contribute to toxic culture are nebulous performance appraisal criteria. These make it easy for managers to demonstrate negativity toward someone who is not their favorite employee, or one supersedes expectations and subsequently sparks jealousy. Greater objectivity in criteria, along with performance plans that are communicated upfront give the recipient a solid idea of how they’ll be evaluated. What tends to happen is that workers beginning a job don’t have a clue, and are then unpleasantly surprised at their year-end upbraiding.
But mechanisms designed to promote better achievement sometimes backfire. Employees can become so caught up in seeking more that their actions morph into uncollegial behavior – e.g., exploitation, failure to give kudos, unseemly self-promotion, gossip, along with work habits that splice corners. A company gets the culture it rewards, with the product a result of their procedures. The way people behave toward one another is an essential determinant of the end result, reflected in how they treat customers.
In your company, are employees encouraged to write positive phrases about coworkers, which are then posted in a common place? Is anyone rewarded for being a “civility star,” or for helping their peers? I think cutthroat cultures develop by default, when no one looks under the hood to see what’s festering.