Changing the climate of a hostile workplace

Changing the climate of a hostile workplace

Rivera, Carrie T

Many of our nation’s workplaces share a dirty little secret…hostility in the workplace. In workplaces across the nation, men and women are subjected to discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence all at the hands of coworkers, managers, and bosses. Billions of dollars are lost each year due to decreasing retention rates, stress– related health problems, and loss of productivity. With the recent rash of workplace violence and the mounting costs of inefficient business practices, lost workdays, and recruiting and training new employees, management and business owners can no longer turn a blind eye.

Just what constitutes a hostile work environment? What are the effects on your employees and your bottom line? How can you change the climate of a hostile workplace? Using the resources and guidelines provided in this article, employers and employees can work together to identify problem employees, correct hostile environments, and screen future employees for hostile tendencies.

What constitutes a hostile workplace?

You may be wondering just how widespread the problem is and whether you actually have a problem, or just some whiners in your midst. Dr. Alan A. Cavaiola and Dr. Neil J. Lavender, coauthors of the book Toxic Coworkers– How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, feel that not only is the hostile workplace widespread, but it’s costing profits, productivity, and the health of many employees. Lavender cites statistics from the book: “In our own research, we found out that 80 percent of our sample of over 1,000 employees were significantly troubled by one or more individuals in the workplace.”

Cavaiola further cites, “According to recent statistics, more than 1,000 people are murdered annually on the job, more than 2 million suffer physical attacks, and it is estimated that more than 6 million are threatened.” He goes on to explain, “In looking at hostile work environments, we look at the overall corporate culture first. For example, if the prevailing corporate culture is characterized by distrust of employees, arbitrary promotion decisions, expected overtime, no job security, no upward mobility, and heavy workload, these would be some of the factors that would contribute to a hostile work environment.”

Robert H. Kamm, consultant and author of The Superman Syndrome, agrees. “A hostile work environment is one in which systemic fear negatively impacts people’s willingness and ability to communicate their pain and possibilities and, consequently, their ability to develop feelings of loyalty and devotion to the company’s vision and goals,” he says. “For all the attention paid to cultural development in the workplace during the ’90s, my personal experience and observation through study both tell me that it is extremely widespread.”

A hostile workplace takes many forms, from bickering employees to actual physical violence. But whatever form it takes, it has serious consequences to both the company and the employees.

What are the effects of a hostile workplace?

All three experts agree the effects are wide ranging and should be considered serious by both the employee and employer. Kamm details the effects, ” High employee turnover is a common outcome of a highly fear-based work culture. We cannot measure the cost of turnover easily, it depends on the business, but I’ve seen estimates in the last 10 years that have run from $5,000 per low-wage employee to $50,000 for managers. It clearly can be much more when key leaders depart. Fear clearly contributes to increased stress on employees, higher likelihood of unplanned days off, sickness, and lower commitment in the moment-to-moment stream of work where focus should be unwaveringly applied to the jobs at hand. As Dr. Deming, a successful business consultant, said, `The economic cost of fear is appalling.'”

Lavender concurs, “Working in a hostile work environment can certainly take its toll from a medical, psychological, and social perspective. Many of the patients we work with, who were working in hostile work environments or working in companies with one or more toxic coworkers, often had complaints of stress-related illness (high blood pressure, migraine and tension headaches, stomach and bowel upset, and a variety of aches and pains, for example). From a psychological standpoint, anxiety and depressive symptoms were most frequently noted. These employees would dread going into work the next day. They would dream about work and often would talk about work with friends and family members. Socially, we found that just about every relationship would suffer.”

The costs of a hostile climate mount significantly when a mentally unstable person is added to the mix. Not only does the worker suffer health problems and crumbling work and social relationships, sometimes they pay the price with their life. A hostile climate must be taken seriously before it can be changed and should be taken seriously before it’s too late.

How can you change the climate of a hostile workplace?

Both employee and employer can join together in making a change. As with most changes, Kamm believes changing a hostile climate starts at the top, “To start, leaders must hold themselves more accountable than anyone else in the organization for leading from vision, inspiration, and inclusion-not from fear. If they create fear in their management style, it will ultimately infest nearly every corner of the business.”

As well as looking to the leadership of a company and ensuring they’re using correct business practices, Cavaiola contends there are internal services the company can offer to head off or change a hostile climate. “Factors that will help decrease a hostile workplace environment are the type and quality of services offered by human resource departments and employment assistance counseling services. Those HR departments that are responsive to management and staff usually can help to divert hostile work situations from becoming even more volatile.”

Furthermore, Cavaiola says employees can take an active role in changing their workplace’s climate, “I am reminded of the expression, `If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.'” He stresses employees should treat everyone with respect, be responsive to everyone’s needs, and make themselves heard when there’s a problem. All in all, the solution is to acknowledge the problem and start taking employee concerns seriously and acting on them. Employees must speak up, and employers must respond.

But what can employers do before the workplace becomes hostile? You can use several screening factors when interviewing new employees to make sure disruptive personalities are culled from the pack of potential workers. Lavender explains, “Right-to-work laws, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act, make it difficult to prevent employers from hiring individuals with psychological disorders. However, an astute interviewer should be aware of the disturbing effects the various personality disorders can have. Interviewing questions should look to glean the following information:

* Does this person have a checkered work history?

* Does this person make you feel uncomfortable?

* Be aware of the various personality disorders and their symptoms.

* Be sure to ask the person what types of relationships they have had with other individuals on the job.

* Beware of former workplace story themes that tend to repeat themselves.

* Does this individual seem to blame everyone else for their work problems?”

American business is host to the hostile work environment. Admit it or not, billions of dollars are lost every year to sick days, lost productivity and even safety issues. A hostile work environment has a variety of causes, but its effects are wide ranging and extremely damaging.

Changing the climate of a hostile workplace can only be done with the cooperation of everyone in the climate. Whether you’re the president of the company or the newest employee, all staff members are responsible for the climate, health, and well-being of their workplace environment. By incorporating peer counseling, leadership training, human resource department programs and savvy interview techniques, today’s employees, managers, and executives can work together to provide a safe, healthy, and productive climate.

Carrie T. Rivera (who swears she’s not one of the dangerous personality types) is a freelance journalist and the president of Alight Communications at www. She can be reached at

Copyright Quality Publishing, Inc. Jun 2001

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