Most of us may pass off children’s books as playful frolics through our imagination.
But don’t write them off so quickly…turns out many of them may even have lessons to be learned for our own workplace.
Let’s take Lewis Carroll’s 1865 whimsical classic, Alice in Wonderland.
I want to focus on one scene in particular where Alice attends a tea party and meets the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Dormouse.
The March Hare and Alice have a conversation, and at the end of it, the Mad Hatter speaks for the first time, telling Alice that her hair needs cutting.
Do you remember what Alice’s response was?
“You should learn not to make personal remarks, it’s very rude.”
Well said, Alice.
So, as it turns out, Alice’s adventure in Wonderland seems to closely resemble some modern-day workplaces. Workplaces where rude comments are made in a disrespectful and harassing manner.
If Alice and the Mad Hatter were in a place of work, Alice would have every right to feel uncomfortable by that inappropriate comment. And although people in Alice’s situation may not speak up the way she did, they certainly should.
After all, it’s easy for a comment like the Mad Hatter’s, if left alone, to slowly turn into a habit of bullying and harassment. One day it’s a comment about Alice’s hair, and then next maybe it’s about her weight. Unfortunately, there are many co-workers like the Mad Hatter out there, and many people who are not like Alice to tell them to alter their behaviour.
There have been a number of studies conducted on these situations and they often revolve around the fact that workplaces no longer look like the traditional places that they used to be—the interpersonal infrastructure within organizations has broken down.
Fortunately, there are companies that are working hard to reverse this situation, and as a result, are making their mark in the world of employee engagement.
But most companies are not doing anything at all and, worse still, the supervisors in those companies are not doing anything when they see or hear incivility between employees.
They may say something like: “that’s just the way so-and-so is” or “they didn’t mean anything by what they said” or “he’s always been like that” or “she’s probably just having another bad day.” Supervisors and managers tend to turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment.
So, let’s say Alice decides to wander into her supervisor’s office, shuts the door and starts with, “I want you to do something about the Mad Hatter. He’s at it again.” All chuckles aside from this somewhat comical re-imagining of Carroll’s classic tale, the supervisor is likely to sit and listen to Alice. When Alice has calmed down to the point where she can go back to work, the supervisor might make some comment about “having a word with the Mad Hatter,” to placate Alice. But alas, the entire thing is put aside.
Until the next time the Mad Hatter harasses Alice.
And the next time.
Until Alice starts to realize that nothing is going to be done. Ever.
Meanwhile, the Mad Hatter continues to get away with bullying and harassment over and over again and Alice finally decides to find another tea party to work at, giving up on her supervisor completely.
Alice’s supervisor may not realize, but since the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision made on July 29th, 1987 in the case of Bonnie Robichaud against Dept. of National Defense, employers have been responsible for the behaviour of their employees—especially those nightmare employees like the Mad Hatters of the world (yes, they are not just fantasy), and their insensitive supervisors.
So, what can a workplace like Alice’s do to implement this?
An employer can avoid a lot of the difficulties that their employees (and their supervisors) create for them, by supporting the development of a more respectful workplace where bullying and harassment is put under a magnifying glass (or a looking glass for that matter…).
Here are 7 important (perhaps critical?) suggestions that can assist in that development:
- Providing respectful conduct training for all employees
- Providing training for all employees in how to communicate more effectively in person and via email
- Providing training for all supervisors in conflict management
- Ensuring that the company policy on respectful conduct is clearly known within the organization and constantly messaged by the leaders and managers
- Ensuring that during new employee orientation, the issue and importance of respectful conduct is messaged effectively
- Ensuring that a zero tolerance for offensive and disrespectful conduct is maintained
- Ensuring that the importance of a respectful workplace is articulated within the strategic plan of the organization.
Perhaps if Wonderland had these same standards that our workplaces should have, Alice’s experiences wouldn’t have been so frustrating.
“…they don’t seem to have any rules in particular; at least, if there are, nobody attends to them,” she even remarked to the Cheshire Cat.
Don’t let your workplace be run like a madhouse.
Rules are there to help employees of an organization feel safe and respected, and leaders need to be modelling those behaviours.
The similarities between our workplaces and the mad tea party is a somewhat sobering fact, but remember, that was just a fantasy book…how would you rewrite your workplace?