5 Ways Organizations Can Decrease Offensive Behaviors in the Workplace

With the rise of several sexual-harassment and bullying scandals, the era for responsibility has finally arrived in the workplace. Companies can no longer sweep claims and issues under the rug or shield themselves behind NDAs. It is critical to set measures in place to avoid employees from violating workplace codes of conduct as much as possible. Offensive behaviors are extremely common in the workplace—more than 10% of employees experience harassment and bullying on an annual basis. This often comes at a significant cost to companies due to high turnover rates, loss in productivity, a surge in sick leaves, substantial legal expenses and compensations.

There’s also the negative impact on a company’s reputation as evidenced in Uber’s sexual-harassment incidents when they fired 20 employees, or at Binary Capital when Justin Caldbeck was forced out within days, and the company had to shut down a $175 million investment fund.

It is very hard to believe that a “normative” or even the most appreciated person has offended other employees. In this article, we will try to help understand the psychological mechanisms available in order to justify unethical behaviors.

Thanks to the research acquired over the last 30 years, we can better point out some of the most impactful drivers for offensive behaviors in the workplace such as sexual harassment and bullying. The below five drivers, out of the “Dirty Dozen” drivers for unethical behaviors taken from recent research, increase the chances for offensive behaviors inside companies.

HR leaders impact company culture and play a key role to help ensure the organization’s culture is on the right track.

Therefore we will follow with the 5 ways HR professionals can decrease offensive behaviors: help managers understand both the individual and social psychology of the drivers, increase awareness, encourage managers to motivate leaders in their teams, use specific solutions and measure. These measurements are based on Ulf and Urs’s research and Cassiopeia’s experience working with companies in that field.

Blaming the Victim

An effective strategy to diminish guilt and remorse from any unethical behaviour is to put the blame on the victims. Affected parties are constructed as accomplices or even the ones who are really culpable. For example, in a sexual-harassment incident, the offender may think his or her behavior is warranted: “It’s because she looked at me like that” or “It’s because how she was dressed.”

Another mechanism supporting the strategy is to use derogatory language when referring to victims. When people shift blame from themselves to the victims, they may not only effectively liberate themselves from moral blame but they may also construct their doing as serving righteous motives, thus giving adversaries “what they deserve.”

Diffusing Responsibility

People are often able to deflect guilt and remorse by clearing away their agency. One of the most effective ways to do this is to diffuse responsibility. Whenever others are involved in similar ethical transgressions, people can effectively shift blame to them and absolve themselves of any responsibility.

For example, a bully can think, “But everyone is shouting in my company,” or a harasser can say, “In the sales department, everyone drinks and talk obscenely about women.”

This kind of thought pattern is glaringly evident in the case of Ray Hadley, a top-rated broadcaster that was accused of bullying. He addressed the allegations telling his listeners: “You would be hard pressed to find anyone who has not lost their cool in the workplace and those that claim they have not are liars.”

Large and bureaucratic organizations provide an ideal environment for diffusing responsibility with generalizations of this nature. Structures and processes provide anonymity and complexity enabling people to completely dismiss personal responsibility.

Misconstructing Consequences

In order to make decisions and actions appear more ethical or less unethical, people are psychologically motivated to reconstruct the consequences. They tend to minimize or even fully deny any harm upon victims. The outcome is “not so bad” or “normal,” they often say. And, as many consequences will likely materialize over time, people are able to downplay consequences further. Misconstruction of consequences may serve to reject claims by affected parties; its prime purpose though is to convince themselves that what was done is acceptable behavior.

For example, in Joe Biden’s case, he downplayed allegations by remarking that he just “tried to make a human connection” or was “just hugging.” The same reaction was claimed by 500 Startups’ founding partner, Dave McClure, who wrote about his initial response for his actions. He said, “We were just hanging out! Why are people so upset? I tried to present my crappy behavior in the best possible light.”

Giving Yourself Moral License

Moral (self-) licensing describes a subconscious phenomenon that allows people to disengage from their moral standards when they have high confidence in their self-concept as a moral person. Studies demonstrate that people asked to remember episodes of their lives where they have shown ethically principled behavior are subsequently more prone to engage in unethical behavior. Seeing themselves as a “good” person in a certain domain often gives people the license to refrain from strictly adhering to ethical standards in other domains.

Harassers or bullies might allow themselves to harm other employees because they perceive themselves as “good” when participating in corporate social responsibility activities or being an active and engaged member of a family.

Assuming to Be Invisible

According to moral psychology, when people consider themselves to be invisible, or when they believe they cannot be caught and their reputation will not suffer, they are more prone to distance themselves from the moral standards that they uphold when others are around. Studies show that unethical behavior increases as participants in experiments are assured or made to believe that their actions are undetectable. In contrast, when primed with being watched, e.g. via wall posters displaying human eyes, people refrain from indulging in unethical behavior.

Morality is a social enterprise; without others, there would be no need for morality guiding and prescribing how people behave towards each other. In the absence of others, the motivation to stick to moral norms diminishes greatly.

This is especially true at decentralized companies, where the risk for offensive behaviors is high for several reasons. The first one is being more challenging to be aware of the company culture in a different location, especially in locations that are located far away from the headquarters. The second is the “invisibility-effect”—employees that work away from the HQ often believe they are invisible and that senior management might fail to  notice their misconduct. Lastly, in different global branches, the company culture can vary in a way that is not aligned with the HQ’s perspective. For example, a local employee might not see shouting at employees as offensive as other managers from HQ might perceive such behavior.

So what are the five main ways HR professionals can decrease offensive behaviors?

Help employees understand both the individual and social psychology of the drivers for offensive behaviors. HR professionals should discuss the drivers for offensive behaviors with executives and team leaders and decide how the company’s managers can assure it won’t happen on their watch. For example, an HR professional and a team leader should ask how we can assure that subordinates and peers won’t feel invisible and allow themselves to commit any misconduct.

Increase awareness. The HR team should talk about cases from the organization€˜s context and explain what is inappropriate and to call out the changes – what is not appropriate anymore. They should discuss any immoral behaviour with other leaders and within their professional and private networks so that everyone is aware of what is inappropriate.

Motivate the formal and informal leaders to accelerate a positive change. In most of offensive behavioral incidents, other colleagues are often aware of them. But most employees choose to remain as bystanders and fail to act. The company’s HR should explain to managers how to delegate responsibility to specific people, and encourage them to act and stay more active when a situation surfaces. HR professional can use bystanders training in their companies and encourge executives to motivate their leaders. Formal and informal leaders can greatly influence group norms. Managers should detect these leaders and motivate them to support change in the team’s culture.

Act on specific problems with specific solutions. Research has shown that a generic compliance training that most companies currently use for preventing offensive behaviors is often ineffective in preventing these behaviors. The more specific the training is, the more it will address relevant examples leading to -more effective prevention. Try to use specific training techniques that address certain behaviors and scenarios inside the company and the specific teams that need it.

Analyze the employee experience. HR professionals should use people analytics methods to track the employee experience and make data-driven decisions. There is no excuse to look away and not adopt data-driven techniques regarding potential offensive behaviors. Use the right tools and products in order to be more aware of offensive behaviors so they can be caught on time before they escalate. We also believe that in the near future, by using AI and people analytics, the ability to predict these kinds of behaviors and what drives them will only get better.

It is vital to create an enabling environment where people are encouraged to change their behavior. The above are some concrete steps that will go a long way to create a healthier and less toxic work environment for all.

Shiran Yaroslavsky and Ulf Schafer
Shiran Yaroslavsky is co-founder and CEO of Cassiopeia. Ulf Schafer is associate professor of practice (leadership, organization and HR) at SDA Bocconi, as well as a visiting lecturer at ESMT in Berlin. Send questions or comments about this story to [email protected]