Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace – Clearing the Air

The workplace can be a complex and insensitive beast.

With different personalities scrambling to make themselves known and heard, often not caring too much whether they hurt or upset a co-worker along the way, you might just end up with a culture of bullying and harassment on your hands—perhaps one of the worst workplace beasts of all.
A workplace experiencing bullying may even be at complete odds with how the organization publically portrays itself to the outside world. One bully can create so much turmoil, it doesn’t even matter how small or large the environment is.
The term “attitude is everything” goes a long way in the workplace.
Sometimes there are days when you walk into the office and immediately sense that something is wrong. You know something is going on…It’s the tension…You can cut it with the proverbial knife.
But what it is? It wasn’t like that yesterday. So what has happened today?
Well, what has likely occurred is that someone has said or done something that was perceived to be plainly wrong—”unwelcome behaviour” is the term used in most definitions of bullying and harassment.
Also, chances are that the manager didn’t do anything about it or, gasp, perhaps it’s even the manager causing all of this tension. And if that happens it tends to bring everything to a sudden halt, with each employee saying, “Did I just hear (or see) what I thought I heard (or saw)?”

So what sort of unwelcome behaviours are we talking about?

Being shouted at or having someone lose his or her temper towards another employee both fit the description. Perhaps it’s an employee being treated disrespectfully or rudely, or someone having an insulting or offensive comment made about them.  Possibly it’s the classic gossiping and rumour mongering that occurs in organizations, or maybe an employee has been ostracised from a group of coworkers.
It could even be the consistent criticism of your work or the lack of acknowledgement of your views, thoughts, and ideas for improvement.

This is all bullying regardless of which way you look at it.

However, the distance between disrespectful behaviour, incivility, and unjust treatment is often grey and blurry.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say an organization, having attracted a new employee to apply for a position, trains that person according to the new-employee orientation manual and eventually provides job specific guidance.
The new employer is then introduced to the range of human resource (HR) practises that the organization supports. Possibly one of those is the fact that workplace safety is a top priority.
A gap begins to appear immediately in the system if the employee perceives the HR practise to be stimulated not by an organization’s concern for the well being of the employees, but by a desire to cut costs associated to workplace accidents, or even by legal requirements forced on the business.
In order to change and illuminate such inconsistency, organizations MUST take a long, hard look at the way every level of the business interacts.
This is no easy task, I know. Often, the corner suite will have no idea that the business is even ill, so why would they go to the doctor? Well, that’s another problem.

The solution? Let’s manage the managers!

Managers, after all, are expected by the employees to model and exemplify appropriate behaviour, and treat everyone respectfully and fairly.
The way in which a manager conducts him or herself is a direct reflection on how employees will behave around them, particularly when the manager is not present. So now we must ask, what sort of leadership style do they demonstrate and is that style reflective of who they actually are? Is the manager autocratic, laissez-faire, self-centred, or synergistic?
Furthermore, the leadership of an organization must make it clear what their expectations are of the managers in the first place.
You cannot make an assumption that a manager intuitively knows what is expected of them.
Could that be the problem? Could the reason for the chill in the air simply be because the leaders of the organization have not actually sat down with their managers and discussed what their expectations of them are in terms of promoting fairness and respect?
How sad if that were true.
When accident investigators are examining incidents, they often look for the root cause. Generally speaking, root causes are systemic in nature and are found at the near top of an organization, quite removed from the physical site where the incident actually occurred.
I imagine the root cause of bullying and harassment within a workplace sometimes stems from the leaders of the organization not clarifying to their managers what their expectations are and then ensuring that those expectations are met.
So I invite you to be your own investigators. Get to the root cause, and hopefully the air will eventually start to clear.


About the Author:

Phil Eastwood is a former London Bobby who brings a thirty-five year career in policing to his role as Senior Partner of Fiore Group Training, a recognized leader in training top North American organizations. Phil is lead author of workplace training courses in respectful workplace training, workplace violence employee training, and leadership training seminars.

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