Workplace Conflict Policies: Slippery Slope or Necessary Evil?

Workplace Conflict Policies: Slippery Slope or Necessary Evil?

In a recent blog post by Stephen Paskoff “The Ethical Workplace” blogger, Stephen argues that policies prohibiting workplace bullying will “…lead to years of litigation and a bounty of wealth for plaintiffs’ and defendants’ lawyers. In the process, as legal and factual standards emerge, organizations will face increased risk and uncertainty as to where to mark the boundary between firm, proper, and harmless conduct versus that which crosses into illegal territory. The result will be cost, disruption and inefficiency.”

While I don’t disagree with Stephen that policies prohibiting workplace bullying are risky and may be costly, I remember many years ago when the exact same arguments were made about sexual harassment prevention policies, anti-discrimination policies, and the like. It’s easy to make claims for the “slippery slope” wherein we have unintended and costly consequences from policies and legislation but I think it might be a risk we have to take. And, believe me, I am not a fan of policies.

Why I don’t Like Policies

What I have seen is that prevention policies increase complaints initially, but then things settle down as people realize that a policy is no safeguard against harsh behavior and that complainants hardly prevail regardless of the existence of a policy.

Workplace Bullying Policy: My Recommendations

  1. If you want an Anti-Bullying policy, put some teeth into it. Make the definition clear and specific; make consequences appropriate for the behaviors; have prevention training programs in place; take all complaints seriously and investigate every complaint.
  2. Empower your HR department to conduct investigations. Support the investigators to get at the truth. Make sure they understand the complete dynamic of workplace bullying issues.
  3. Don’t allow some people to get away with bullying and hold others accountable for the same behaviors. That is, if the line manager cannot bully, then neither can the Chief Operating Officer.
  4. Align your policy with your culture. If you are going to have an anti-bullying policy but you have a culture of aggression or “take no prisoners” in your company, then don’t bother with the policy.

So, before you start thinking about the dire consequences of the “slippery slope” of an anti-bullying policy, think about the conditions under which a policy would make sense and how you would enforce it. The slippery slope is created by a poorly written policy that is not enforced and that runs counter to the culture of the organization.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years.  My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.  You can contact me here.

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  • Kellie Auld

    I think the key to having any policy be successful is to give it teeth and not just lip service. If an organization isn’t prepared to stand behind their policies – I tell them not to write them. Bullying and harassment are tough because what most companies have demonstrated, is that it is the complainant who is viewed as the problem. We have to change our mindset if we’re going to successfully investigate and implement policies that have meaning.