When a “Hostile Work Environment” Isn’t

Over the years that I have been a consultant and investigator, I have sometimes been called when staff members go to management with a complaint that their supervisor has created a “hostile work environment” for them. As I interview the complainants, they tell me the supervisor

– regularly speaks harshly to them or yells at them

 – has favorites and is unfair

 – belittles them

 – frequently fails to communicate, or communicates inadequately.

I often discover that the supervisor behaves this way to all subordinates regardless of gender, ethnicity or age. She may be an ‘equal opportunity bully,’ or she may just be an inept supervisor. And, when I speak with the supervisor, she is shocked and hurt that staff see her this way, and denies that she yells, is unfair or belittles anyone. She also tends to believe that she is a good communicator. By the way, she’s well regarded in her profession, has been in this position for years, and if anyone has ever told her there’s a problem they’ve not done so in a way she heard…

 What’s the real issue? This is not a legal problem. It’s a skill and supervision problem. Thus, although staff may have brought a complaint under a legal discrimination label (the creation of a ‘hostile work environment’ is only a legal issue if it is an outgrowth of discrimination), this is not a discrimination issue since the supervisor treats all staff this way. But it is a problem, and still needs to be addressed.

What to do if you’re the manager: So, if you’re the manager to whom the supervisor reports, you do need to take this seriously even though it’s not a legal issue, because this supervisor’s behavior costs the organization. Staff who are feeling mistreated are less productiveand make more mistakes: they spend work time talking about how awful things are rather than producing, and often respond to work issues from a basis of fear rather than professionalism (see Driving Fear out of the Workplace, by Kathleen Ryan and Dan Oestreich). Further, a poor supervisor is the number one reason for employee turnover – but only those employees who are good enough to find work elsewhere will leave; the less competent employees will stay with you because they can’t find anything else. Since this supervisor is well regarded technically, you’ll likely want to keep the person on. If the position cannot be restructured to remove supervisory responsibilities, the manager needs to help the supervisor by

 – clarifying behavior expectations, and providing a timeline for behavior improvement and skill development

 – providing supervisory and communication training, with follow-up to ensure the training is implemented

 – providing ongoing mentoring

– bringing in a coach.

And, the manager needs to assure the staff that they were heard and that the issue is being addressed, and request ongoing feedback to know how things are improving.

But what if you’re a staff member with a supervisor who has these issues, and you feel powerless to do anything about it? We’ll address that next time…

Meanwhile, let us know how you’ve dealt with these issues! ~DS

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