Over the years, I have talked with several organizational leaders about persistent workplace aggression. I often hear from leadership that there were no signs that their workplace was experiencing violence. My response is always the same. There are always signs, if we choose to see them. But what are they?
One of the first indications that a workplace is having problems is change in work habits, including increased absences and use of sick leave. Additionally, leaders should also be wary of workers who start to tell on their co-workers’ behaviors. (This may seem like a nice perk for a leader to get the supposed ins and outs of what is going on. However, this is classic aggressor behavior to build trust with the leader so the leader will take the side of the aggressor and not the target.)
Variations in work patterns for bystanders, targets, and even aggressors often go unnoticed because it is not unusual for people to alter their behavior somewhat in an organization. However, these behavior changes are a slow progression from minor alterations in work habits that eventually lead to an entirely different work patterns for workers. For example, a target or a bystander who was once early to meetings may start to show up for meetings late. These people may also have participated in meetings, but their contributions also decline. These workers then sporadically show up for meetings and eventually, they stop. Workers tend to change multiple work behaviors over time. These are clues for leadership that something is not right in the work environment.
Another hint that a work culture is challenging is worker turn over. People tend to leave a problematic workplace if they can especially targets. This includes both workers who have been at the agency for long and short periods of time. Leadership should investigate thoroughly the reasons that people have left and implement an exit interview with pointed questions to get a good understanding of what they were experiencing at work.
Finally, leaders need to listen and really hear what is being said by their workers. This includes formal and informal concerns. Workers in fact do make complaints and identify the signs that workplace bullying is occurring. More often than not, leaders do not listen to what is actually happening, thus making the work environment worse. Leaders frequently deny that workplace bullying is part of the culture and are more likely to engage in victim blaming ignoring the multiple complaints about the workplace aggressor. This failure to act on the part of leadership is detrimental to the culture of any organization.
Leadership must remember that persistent workplace aggression is never one single incident, but rather an accumulation of occurrences. Therefore, leadership must look at all of these elements and the signs over a period of time in order to determine if persistent workplace aggression is infiltrating their organization.