Let me start you off with this, somewhat unsettling, fact of life:

Ask anyone you know whether he or she has ever worked with a bully and the answer will most likely be a resounding: “Yes, of course!”

Let me elaborate.

Within the training workshops I’ve been delivering recently on Respectful Conduct, I have the opportunity to be engaged by clients from a wide range of industries.

I have found that regardless of the industry, some of their stories, unfortunately, have this consistent theme.

Whether we like it or not, bullies have been a part of our workplace fabric for generations. So much so, that we know a good deal more about them these days.

If you’ll remember in a previous post, Andrea Adams publicly exposed the issue of workplace bullying in the United Kingdom back in the early 1990’s.

The research not only continues to tell us that bullies are prevalent in the workplace, it also informs us that there is so much more we can, and should, be doing to deal with the problem.

So how is it that they have been allowed to survive (and in many cases actually thrive) within our place of work?

From my perspective, I see it as a situation that generally reflects the breakdown of four systems within the workplace environment— every one of them having to do with accountability of one sort or another:

  1. Personal Accountability
  2. Peer Accountability
  3. Supervisor Accountability
  4. Formal Discipline

I want you to think about this list for a second.

Now ask yourself this question: What does your workplace look like when you hold it up against this list?

  1. Do individuals exercise personal accountability (not just the bully, but also the victim)?
  2. Do witnesses to the bullying exercise accountability? Do they say something? Or do they turn their heads away, grateful that it wasn’t them this time?
  3. What are your supervisors doing about the situation? Are they being held accountable and exercising their influence or authority?
  4. What about the formal discipline process? Is it used to deal with the bully? Has it ever been used to deal with a bully in the past?

When we look at our workplace and see that the bully not only survives, but can sometimes even thrive, it is highly likely that one of those four systems could have held the bully accountable and stopped the behaviour from continuing.

After all, when this situation is permitted to occur, a toxic environment is quickly created.

Here is an example of such a situation that recently occurred here in British Columbia. The investigator’s redacted report, which was released publicly last week, describes how a toxic work environment at the Vancouver School Board (VSB) was created and ‘survived’ for as long as it did— complete with allegations of bullying, harassment, and intimidating behaviour.

Page 39 of the report provides a glimpse into the world that the VSB staff endured, including how they legitimately felt there was no protection provided from clearly inappropriate behaviour at the hands of the VSB Trustees:

All Trustees bear responsibility for the environment in which the work of the Board is carried out and for the work environment in which District employees must work. Even those Trustees who did not engage in disrespectful or rude behaviour contributed to the creation of a negative environment because they tolerated this behaviour and they allowed the conduct of a few to create a culture in which there is no expectation they will work in harmony and cooperation and there are no consequences for a failure to act with respect and civility. They allowed ambient bullying to negatively affect the workplace.

In addition to the ambient bullying to which employees were subject there was credible evidence that members of the Senior Management Team staff were treated in ways in private and public meetings that can be fairly characterized as constituting bullying and personal harassment.

So, as you can see, it’s important that we all understand that we have an individual and collective responsibility to behave in a manner that is appropriate.

Additionally, it is critical to be aware of our individual and collective responsibility to hold others accountable.

The fact that bullying and harassment still exist in our workplaces (most victims and peers will actually leave before the problem is taken care of), means that not one, but all four of those systems have failed somewhere.

But it gets worse. Research shows that workplace bullying is on the rise in some places:

http://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/jun/26/workplace-bullying-rise-research-shows

I don’t know about you, but I am on a mission to reverse the trend—fancy coming along on this journey with me?