Toxic Work Environment ©2015 Gail Pursell Elliott
Toxic workplaces can be physically toxic or emotionally toxic. Some are obvious and others more subtle. Most of us are familiar with physically toxic environments where asbestos or noxious odors are present. OSHA regulations address this type of workplace safety. An emotionally toxic workplace can have physical effects on people as well. Employees have described entering certain work areas and getting headaches or feeling physically ill when there are no physical toxins present but the employees in that area are antagonistic toward each other. Others who may not be aware of the human relations issues may describe the atmosphere as oppressive or like “hitting the wall” when entering the environment.
The elements that define a hostile work environment include mobbing behaviors. Some of these include: “when an employee feels uncomfortable or scared to be in his or her work space due to offensive behavior, intimidation or abuse by a coworker or superior”. Whether or not the employee is the target of this behavior may be important to litigation, but even when the employee is not the target the impact of the aggression is felt. It is especially important when the atmosphere affects the work that is done and the employees’ ability to focus. Mobbing is an organizational dynamic. Elements within the organizational culture, along with the ways issues are addressed, allow it to exist and persist. These also damage the trust base and the willingness of employees to report misconduct.
Several recent Circuit Court rulings have addressed Title VII harassment and retaliation claims. Mobbing and bullying, which may target anyone regardless of whether they are included in a protected group, are not addressed by the act or similar legislation. A workplace used to mobbing or bullying can easily exacerbate behaviors prohibited by law. A culture grounded in dignity and respect principles can offset a lot of this type of abuse.
Case 1 – Involves a sexual harassment issue that was reported anonymously. Three female employees had experienced remarks and other harassing behaviors by their supervisor. They all told him to stop. A male employee in the department noticed the interactions and suggested to the supervisor that he stop the behavior. Upon receiving the anonymous complaint, a human resources representative approached the supervisor, asked several questions without interviewing anyone else. The complaint was closed as being unsubstantiated. All four of the employees were dismissed during the investigation. The court awarded damages to all four employees, stating that telling the supervisor to “stop” the harassment satisfied Title VII due to the broadness of the opposition clause.
Case 2 – The Fourth Circuit Court ruled that a single incident can support Title VII harassment and retaliation claims, if extremely serious, that an employee can reasonably believe that a hostile work environment is occurring. In this case, the employee was referred to with the same egregious epithet twice in a twenty-four hour period. The employee found this to be both offensive and humiliating.
Harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse, whether or not it is covered by Title VII. A status blind form of harassment, mobbing and bullying are often used to retaliate against an employee who reports an activity prohibited by law. These are the tactics used to set up an employee to look incompetent or difficult or even mentally ill after reporting a complaint. This is why employees may be reluctant to report misconduct. Statistics from the Ethics Resource Center have indicated that employees who do not report misconduct, apart from resolving the situation themselves, either do not have faith in the disciplinary system or fear retaliation. These are perceptions on the part of the employees. Whether or not they reflect reality, they have a very real impact on resolving issues when they occur as well as overall morale. These subtle behaviors set the stage for more incidents and put everyone at risk.
A general harassment policy attached to the company’s required policies that is consistently enforced can go a long way in creating a healthier work environment for everyone. It also positively impacts the bottom line in more focused performance, teamwork and trust, and receiving information essential to intercept misconduct before it gets out of hand.
(From The Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report)
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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit www.youtube.com/dignityrespectlady/videos
Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
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