Last week I caught up with Deb Burlington from Enhance Solutions. Deb works with organisations to create safety cultures driven by leaders. When our conversation turned to the topic of bullying, Deb shared her anger at recently hearing an employment lawyer suggest people who make claims of bullying, typically do so with selfish or malicious intent. Apparently the lawyer implied that the employer is often the real victim because claims of bullying are used to avoid performance accountability, cause disruption or gain advantage.
Both Deb and I found this attitude infuriating; particularly coming from someone in the lawyer’s position of influence. Of course it’s true to say that some people make dishonest claims of being bullied and harassed. However it’s outrageous to suggest that most people who make a complaint are lying. Lets recognise that sometimes people bring false claims but realise also that most don’t. This lawyer’s attitude is unfortunately all too common. Unless the business community accepts we have serious issues to deal with progress toward eradicating bullying behaviour from workplaces will be slow.
Every employer has a duty of care to provide a healthy and safe work environment. Achieving that starts with accepting responsibility for not only the physical but also mental and emotional well being of people at work. Bullying behaviour from people at any level of an organisations hierarchy will have a detrimental impact on the well being of people and the organisation. The experiences people encounter at work are very much the concern of leaders. It’s every leaders job to manage not only the conduct of their own staff but also that of service providers, alliance partners and customers.
Never ignore complaints of bullying – respond with an open mind and take action when people put up their hand with claims of being mistreated. Remember that everyone’s perceptions are their reality; if a member of your team feels bullied something needs to be done about it. One way or another something has to change; either his or her perceptions or the behaviour of other people toward them. It’s never acceptable to ignore bad behaviour and allow people to be impacted; regardless of the challenges or consequences you fear in addressing the issue.
It’s critical that people are encouraged to stand up for themselves against bullying. Healthy workplace cultures rely on people being willing to call out bullying behaviour they either witness or experience. Some leaders we work with fear inviting complaints will encourage more of them. It’s true to say when working to shift an unhealthy culture, people who have been holding back their complaints may step forward if encouraged. In ‘normal’ circumstances however people typically only complain of being bullied when they feel they have serious reason to do so. If they feel they have a genuine cause for complaint then it’s critical a leader is ready to listen.
Of course just because someone complains doesn’t mean his or her complaint is reasonable. While its critical to listen it’s also important to remain objective and gather the facts. Some people are undeniably hyper sensitive and overreact to harmless behaviour. Others are misinterpreting reasonable management actions as falling within the legal definition of bullying. If a complaint turns out not to be a case of bullying, at least the issue has been identified and can hopefully be resolved.
Influencing behaviour and creating a workplace free of bullying starts with hiring decisions made. It astounds me when I observe leaders hiring people they know are likely to bring an aggressive and disrespectful approach. In pursuit of a results focus and achievement drive they hire these people, turning a blind eye to the impact they are likely to have on the rest of the team. Then when people complain they dismiss their concerns telling themselves they are simply resisting change.
Expectations set, decisions made and actions taken showcase the behaviours that are truly valued. How people are rewarded, recognised, reprimanded and disciplined reveals the culture of any organisation and the extent to which bullying is not only tolerated but also encouraged. Driving bullying from any workplace is only possible when it becomes a non-negotiable priority. Regardless of any position of power or influence no one should be allowed bully other people.
Keep in mind that some people who bully are naïve to the impact of their behaviour on others. These people can be helped; by addressing the issue with fairness, honesty and compassion, they can learn to take a different approach. An honest mirror held up in front of the unintentional bully by someone they respect can have a profoundly positive impact on their self-awareness and behaviour.
To rid workplaces of bullying behaviour organisations must:
Educate: ensure people understand what constitutes bullying and what doesn’t
Set clear expectations: of acceptable and desirable standards of conduct
Inspire personal ownership: encourage people to look out for one another and challenge bullying behaviour
Hold people accountable: make behaviour matter as much as results achieved; take action. Make people responsible for the impact of their own behaviour on other people. Be prepared to make difficult decisions to uphold behavioural standards
Lead by example: when the boss is a bully the game is over. From Board members to supervisors expect every leader to provide consistent example of the approach valued and expected