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Times Up for Leaders Who Ignore New Health and Safety Laws
Written by: Janet Hueglin Hartwick
Workplace hazard includes offensive comments effective June 1
What’s the difference between rude behaviour, incivility, and harassment?
Employers, supervisors, and workers in Alberta will want to pay attention to how this question gets answered as the new Occupational Health and Safety (“OHS”) laws, come into effect on June 1, 2018, casting a wide net that blurs the line between workplace incivility and harassment.
Changes to the OHS Act, broaden the concept of workplace “health and safety” to mandate employers ensure the psychological and social well-being of workers, to protect against harassment, bullying and psychological violence. This is a huge step forward for employees who are otherwise expected to suffer through years of toxic stress. Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, says “Studies have found that “psychosocial” factors such as work-related stress, are the most important variables in determining the length of life.”
Indeed, social scientists have determined the brain can’t distinguish between physical and social pain when a person feels excluded from social connections or activities. In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains “[w]e would never expect someone who has a broken leg to run from one meeting to the next. But when someone is in social pain, we often treat this as if it should be compartmentalized and kept out of the office.”
Hallelujah! Condoning bad behaviour in the name of being a “professional”, will no longer be tolerated. But how do conversations in your organization need to change? How does your leadership need to think differently? What can HR professionals do to help their organizations be in compliance with new OHS laws?
Incivility vs. Harassment
In Civility Matters! An Evidence-Based Review on How to Cultivate a Respectful Federal Public Service, produced by the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada, incivility is defined as “the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct…Incivility constitutes rude, insensitive, disrespectful, and thoughtless behavior, which is directed toward individuals.”
Here’s the confusing part. The OHS definition of harassment also includes a broad range of behaviours, such as “unwelcome conduct, comments, gestures or contact which causes offense”, “exclusion or isolation of individuals”, or “intentionally withholding information or giving the wrong information”. Unlike acts of violence, incidents of harassment might prove hard to distinguish from incivility.
Professor Peter Bowal and Associate Professor Thomas D. Brierton, question the new OHS legislation, in their LawNow Magazine article Harassment as a New Workplace Safety Issue, saying “Defining harassment in a legal all-or-nothing framework is problematic. What is the threshold quality and quantity of the prohibited behaviour? Is it a subjective or objective analysis? What standard of evidence is required for proof? Experience shows how factually-relative, indeterminative and practically intractable these kinds of workplace disputes may become.” They go on to question how “Violence and harassment appear to be treated as variations of the same problem. Harassment may be as little as a single incident or comments that a worker says causes offence.”
Converse vs. Communicate
In my experience training and coaching leaders for over 15 years, one thing is consistent, leaders tend to be better communicators than conversationalists. They learn to “stay on message”, give a speech or conduct an interview but many remain unaware of how the comments they make negatively impact a team member or colleague. Herein lies the challenge and opportunity of tackling workplace incivility.
As Porath says, “…what matters is not whether people actually were disrespected or treated insensitively but whether they felt disrespected. Incivility is in the eyes of the recipient. It varies not just by individual but also by culture, generation, gender, industry, and organization. What you consider uncivil may not be the same thing your boss considers uncivil.” The consequences of incivility are real. “…incivility robs you of your cognitive resources, hijacks your performance and creativity, and sidelines you from your work. Even if you want to perform your best, you can’t, because you’re bothered and preoccupied by the rudeness.”
Lawbreaker vs. Law Protector
The OHS Act requires employers and supervisors to “ensure workers are not subject to nor participate in workplace harassment or violence” and investigate incidents of harassment and violence and take corrective action.
Yet, according to Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, authors of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, 60 percent of uncivil workplace behaviours are perpetrated by supervisors who have a higher job status than the person they targeted. The Civility Matters! Report also concluded 63 percent of respondents “who reported being harassed said that people in positions of authority were responsible.” Clearly, there is a need for leaders to not only enforce the new OHS laws but also understand why staff deserve protection from harassment, bullying and psychological violence.
4 Recommendations to Mitigate Risk
While the changes to the OHS laws take effect June 1, 2018, it will take time for the impact of the new legislation to be fully understood. In the meantime, here are four communication recommendations for HR professionals to consider.
1. Help your leadership team understand the cost of incivility/harassment in the workplace.
- High performers with an above average number of negative interactions at work are 13 times more likely to leave than low and average performers with the equivalent number of negative experiences.
- The Society for Human Resources Management estimates departures of junior employees cost organizations 30-50 percent of employees’ annual salaries. For mid-level employees, the cost of exit rises to an estimated 150 percent and for high-level employees, the figure can top 400 percent of annual salary. Source: Andrew Parker, Alexandra Gerbasi, Christine L. Porath. The Effects of De-energizing Ties in Organizations and How to Manage Them. 2012.
- Research conducted by badbossology.com found most employees spend 10 or more hours at work per month complaining or listening to others complain, about their supervisors. Almost a third spend 20 hours or more on this activity each month. Source: Civility Matters! An Evidence-Based Review on How to Cultivate a Respectful Federal Public Service
2. Use the hazard assessment process to identify leaders who need advanced conversation training.
- It’s not uncommon for an office of 30 or more to have at least one or two leaders who are reluctant or abrasive communicators.
- Psychological hazards, including harassment, bullying, and stress, are part of the hazard assessment process. This is the ideal opportunity to train these leaders before an incident of harassment might occur.
3. Create a communication charter in addition to the required harassment and violence prevention plans (if you have 20 employees or more).
- Help your leadership team define the standard of healthy, civil conversations they want to hold themselves to (and likely already follow.)
- Set your team up for success. Clear examples help illustrate to everyone what is and is not acceptable.
4. Offer a conversation tune-up session for all employees.
- Small changes can have a big impact. Take a proactive approach by offering all employees the opportunity to review workplace conversation best practices.
- For some staff, this might be the chance they need to unlearn some bad behaviours they didn’t notice they had in the first place.
Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a communication coach, trainer and speaker. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based communications training program that helps leaders manage today’s emotionally engaged workforce. Janet is also is also the President of Soilleirich Communications Group, a consultancy that specializes in corporate and employee communications.