Bullying in the American workforce is rife. The 2021 US workplace bullying survey found that a shocking 79.3 million workers were affected – with employees reporting that they had either been directly bullied (48.6 million) or had witnessed bullying (30.6 million).
Stories of bullying managers regularly hit the headlines. Forbes has highlighted the reportedly ‘toxic’ and ‘cut-throat’ style of Away Co-CEO Steph Korey, while Techcrunch recently described how Better.Com CEO Vishal Garg regularly berated his employees with insults.
The recent shift to hybrid working seems to have exacerbated the problem, with toxic behavior taking root over the computer screens now littering bedrooms and dining room tables, out of sight of supportive colleagues who might have called it out.
Organizations are clearly struggling to provide the healthy, happy, harmonious workplaces employees need if they are to perform at their best. So what exactly is going wrong – and what should HR be doing to improve the situation?
A complex issue
Bullying causes untold damage – to the people on the receiving end, to those on the sidelines and to corporate productivity and reputation. It’s tempting to think it is just about deeply unpleasant people, belittling others to meet some deep-seated psychological need to be top dog. But the problem is rarely that simple.
Three key issues are at play:
First, we are living in incredibly stressful times. The pandemic has plunged us into unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety.
When people have lost their compass and are operating in a pressure cooker environment, their emotions run high, they behave irrationally and take their stress, and distress, out on others.
Second, the term bullying is frequently being used incorrectly. The US Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee…abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating or humiliating.”
All of the above are of course unacceptable behaviors. But I’ve dealt with hundreds of people who have initiated complaints about bullying behavior, and in virtually all these cases, bullying per se was not what was happening. Typically, the situation began as a low-level, dysfunctional conflict of one form or another: a breakdown in communication, a misunderstanding, a poorly delivered management instruction, or clashing working styles.
Left unaddressed, these issues have quickly escalated into more serious conflict, and due to the confusing and incoherent nature of conflict management in many organizations, the parties involved have resorted to use of the term ‘bullying’, because they have no other meaningful way of describing their negative experience.
The problem is, that to describe conflict in this way is disingenuous to the victims of real bullying and harassment, who are often unheard, and who experience real pain, trauma and harm.
Finally, at the root of the issue is an overall lack of investment in the training and support managers need to help them lead dynamic, complex and diverse teams of people.
As a result, managers may lack the self-awareness and emotional intelligence required to lead their teams effectively. So, their approach to managing performance and delivering results often ends up being perceived as unfair, unpleasant or bullying behavior.
Equally, they may lack the courage, confidence and capability to deal with conflict effectively when it arises in their teams, turning to damaging and divisive formal policies instead of resolving situations collaboratively and compassionately.
A pro-active approach
The problem with these formal grievance or bullying and harassment policies – and indeed many of the other anti-bullying initiatives that organizations employ – is that they are reactive.
What’s needed are pro-active systems, processes and support to make bullying unacceptable and to encourage people to speak out at the earliest possible stage.
This is my seven-point strategy for HR practitioners who want to transform their cultures and create fair, just, people-centered climates for their people:
- Values led. Ensure values are visible and become a core part of your culture. It is vital everyone in the organization understands the core values, recognizes their importance and lives them through their everyday interactions and behaviors.
- Define desirable and undesirable management behaviors. It is important to set out clear expectations of how the business wants managers and leaders to behave, which should link directly to the corporate values. Required behaviors should be set out in a simple behavioral framework that shows clearly the positive and desirable behaviors and the undesirable behaviors. These behaviors need to be driven from the very top. Negative, destructive and aggressive behavior should be so counter cultural that it rarely happens, and when it does, it is dealt with quickly and effectively.
- Create an open culture where people can speak up about their experiences. Encouraging people to speak freely is vital for the overall health and wellbeing of the business. The true test of an organization is whether it listens to its people when they have tough messages to share at a time when the organization and working relationships are under stress. This is genuine employee voice and it is this kind of dialogue that will ensure underlying problems are spotted early and can be resolved.
- Review grievance and anti bullying procedures. Formal processes perpetuate a right/wrong, defend/attack, win/lose approach to problems in the workplace. They are damaging, divisive, create a culture of fear, and rarely, if ever, uncover the root cause of an issue. A framework will allow the business to resolve the majority of problems using informal dialogue, mediation, and facilitated conversations.
- Offer ongoing coaching, training and support. It’s not about everyone going on a one day course and then being left to fend for themselves. Living the values, demonstrating the right behaviors, listening to employees and handling conflict need to be part of core competencies of all managers so they understand what is expected of them and can access the support they need.
- Respond robustly, swiftly and fairly when bullying does occur. A framework will allow recourse to formal measures when needed. Managers need to have the right skills to be objective and with the support of HR, carry out factual assessments or investigations when appropriate.
- Use mediation and restorative justice if bullying does occur. The most powerful way to address and change behavior is to confront it head on and face-to-face. This may seem counter-intuitive, but bringing victims and perpetrators together can ensure victims are heard, and perpetrators understand the impact of their bullying behavior. The benefit of a restorative approach, above and beyond the dialogue itself, is the potential that it creates for understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Conflict exists in every organization and is part of working life. Not all conflict is bullying, and the labels of ‘bullied’ and ‘bully’ are often misleading and create rather than assist its resolution.
Nevertheless, when people perceive they are being bullied, they should be supported, trusted and believed.
It takes courage to speak out and to challenge bad behavior. Behavioral change can and does come about when the parties sit down together and discuss their situation openly and honestly.
Talking about how you deal with bullying, harassment and conflict in general doesn’t make you look like a bad employer struggling with a problem. It makes you look like a good one, dealing with a difficult fact of life.
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