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Human Resource Policies: Anti-Bullying Or Pro-Civil Workplace?

Human resources departments are usually the nexus point for creating policy, and are usually responsible for drafting workplace anti-bullying policies. As our awareness and sensitivity has increased, more companies have or will continue to create anti-bullying policies. But should they?

On one level, I think we'd all agree that as is the case with sexual harrassment policies, companies need to provide guidelines and policy to employees, with the aim of reducing both. The question though, is the slant. There are actually two different alternatives. We can create an anti-bullying policy, which highlights on what we do NOT want, or we can create a "civil workplace" policy that highlights what we DO want, with less emphasis on what we don't want.

It goes a little beyond mere semantics.

Problems Associated With Focusing On Anti-Bullying

  1. Bullying itself is poor concept because it evokes such emotional responses and tends to polarize people about what constitutes bullying and what does not. In part, that is because bullying, much like sexual harrassment is hard to define via strict behavioral definitions. Context counts. Behaviors that would be construed as bullying in one context and between two specific people, might be perfectly acceptable to two different parties. The term bullying makes it sound that there are universal behavioral definitions of the term, and that's simply not true.
  2. Anti-bullying policies, by focusing on what NOT to do, may not help people know what to do, and we know that to achieve actual behavior change, we need people to know both what is not acceptable and what IS acceptable, or in other terms, what one should do instead.
  3. Anti-bullying policies tend to be much narrower than focusing on the more positive civil workplace policies.

Civil Workplace Policies Better And Broader

One major difference between an anti-bullying policy and a civil workplace policy is that the latter can be broader. Bullying is only one aspect that affects whether a work environment is toxic. Civility in the workplace can include things that don't really fit in a more narrower, "this is what you can't do" policy. For example, it can define how employees should use common resources shared with other employees, processes for resolving conflicts, and norms for communication that go way beyond what you'd normally find in an anti-bullying policy. it's simply more comprehensive.

There's another advantage to a civil workplace policy and that is that it is positive, not negative. It helps create a shared vision about the type of workplace one is trying to create, because, it spells out preferred methods of interacting and communicating, rather than just saying: "Hey, this is what we don't want". It can still include reference to bullying behaviors, of course, but it can be much more. Civil workplace policies reflect what a company CAN be, and that builds culture.

On balance, HR departments might be well served, as would companies and their employees, by looking more broadly, and creating a more positive, vision linked and comprehensive policy that describes the civil workplace most employees want and crave. It's broader, and doesn't use terms, like bullying, that are often ill defined, and have a huge amount of emotional baggage attached, often stemming from childhood experiences.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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