The #metoomovement has focused much needed attention on sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a serious problem for working women and men, but it is only the tip of the mistreatment iceberg. A nationally representative survey of Americans found that nearly half report being emotionally abused at work each year. In our research, we found that two-thirds of nurses endure verbal abuse at work. Employee mistreatment is clearly a problem that is in need of solutions.
What Is Employee Mistreatment?
Employee mistreatment are acts that attack, demean, and insult people at work. It consists of spoken and written statements, as well as facial expression and gestures. They can occur in face-to-face interactions, or through electronic means such as e-mail or social media. When such acts repeatedly focus on an individual over time, they rise to the level of bullying. These acts can be motivated by anger, dislike, but often they are used to exert power over another person.
Sticks and Stones
The old “sticks and stones can break my bones” rhyme told to children makes the assumption that words do not have the same impact as physical violence. Unfortunately this is not true, as verbal mistreatment can have the same psychological effect on employees as physical violence. It can affect both the employee’s well-being and that of the organization. Mistreatment has been linked to:
- Emotional Distress. Targets of mistreatment can experience anger, anxiety, and depressed mood. This can be particularly severe in individuals who have anxiety and depressive disorders.
- Post-traumatic Stress. Being bullied at work can lead to post-traumatic stress, and even hospitalization. A case in point is Helen Green who sued her employer after being hospitalized for the effects of bullying.
- Physical Health. People who are mistreated experience elevated levels of physical health symptoms, such as digestive disorders, headaches, and fatigue.
- Job dissatisfaction. When someone is mistreated at work, it can affect how they feel about the job, and job dissatisfaction can lead to disengagement and turnover.
- Poor Job Performance. Being mistreated is stressful, and it can distract people from doing job tasks. It can disturb sleep, meaning employees are not at their best when at work.
- Accidents. Both distraction and fatigue can be factors in workplace accidents.
What Can Organizations Do?
One of the functions of management is to maintain a safe environment that allows employees to flourish in their jobs. An organization that allows mistreatment is not getting the most return from the investment in human resources. It is impossible to guarantee that no employee will ever experience a negative interactions with others. The goal should be managing mistreatment to minimize both its frequency and impact. This can be done by building an organizational climate that encourages civility and mutual respect among employees. This can be accomplished by:
- Adopting and expressing civility and respect as an organization value. Messages from top management that we should all respect and value one another can lay the groundwork for a positive climate.
- Create policies that discourage mistreatment. Policies can be written that reinforce the idea that people should be civil and respectful. Most organizations have policies about sexual harassment, but these policies should also cover other forms of abusive behavior.
- Managers should serve as referees to mediate conflicts among employees. They should pay attention to interaction patterns, and if one employee is mistreating another, the manager should take action. This begins by talking to the person about the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.
- Provide support for individuals who endure mistreatment. This can be particularly important for people on the front lines in dealing with the public, such as customer service employees and healthcare providers such as nurses. For example, many restaurants have policies that a server does not have to serve an abusive customer, and managers can ask such customers to leave.
- Have an open door policy where employees can discuss problems with mistreatment from others. Be prepared to investigate claims that one employee has mistreated another, and take appropriate action when such events occur.
Organizations can create climates where all forms of employee mistreatment are discouraged. Much of that starts at the top with organization leaders modeling respectful treatment of others. Positive behavior can trickle down throughout the organization to help discourage mistreatment. When control of employee mistreatment is taken as an important organizational objective, the well-being of employees and the organization can be enhanced.