Monday, November 14, 2016

"Dear Ellen, what do I do about workplace bullying?"

Want to ask your opinion on office politics. HR not very keen to take action towards the players which create very negative energy. Where the staff can ridiculous fellow colleagues publicly & without any punishment. If you are in my position, what would you do?

Thanks for writing in!  Let’s deal with this in two parts: first, what is bullying and where does it come from and second, why your company isn’t dealing with it.
Bullied girl
From Rebeccadevitt0 at Pixabat

Bullying takes many forms but classic systems include these behaviours:
·        Spreading nasty rumours about someone
·        Laughing, jeering and humiliating someone
·        Nasty name calling
·        Yelling at someone, especially in public
·        Not inviting someone to a meeting they should be at
·        Not sharing pertinent information with someone so that they can’t do their jobs properly

Bullying is often a learned behaviour. Kids who go to a school where teachers allow bullies to run wild, will become bullies themselves. Some do so after being victims while others take to it without being victims.

Offices are exactly the same. I’ve seen happy workplaces turn into hells because of one new senior manager coming in and establishing a bully climate. It’s as if bullying is somehow infectious.

Hierarchies are involved too. Studies show that places with a strong top-down hierarchy are more likely to have a bully climate than places that are egalitarian. Let’s face it: the more power a boss has over staff, the more likely abuse is going to take place.

Note: you may want to look at Hofstede’s work here and examine the Power Distance scores for different communities. Power Distance is a form of measuring how top down a hierarchy is. 
Malaysia scores 100 compared to India at 77, Iceland at 30 and New Zealand at 22.  So in Malaysia, bosses have lots of power over staff, and this is why we have so many little Napoleons.

I don’t know what you do or what your position is in your company, so I’m going to talk about what can be done and who might be taking the action. Please read it and decide where you fit in.

So, how do you make changes?

Suppose you’re dealing with someone who has only recently started bullying. To affect change, you need to make a list of bullying behaviours, call the bully up on them and explain what the proper behaviour should be.

For example, “Jane, on Wednesday at the weekly meeting, you interrupted Sue. This is not acceptable. We don’t interrupt others. You then laughed at her. This is not acceptable. We do not laugh at others. You then made a nasty remark about her work. This is not acceptable. We promote constructive criticism.”

Then you need to set boundaries and a timeline for improvement. In my experience, a bully can’t be fixed with a single chat or sending them off to a workshop. They will simply give you the nod, and then go straight back to their usual behaviour.

Why is this? Here’s a list:
·        They may not know how to change
·        They may not know exactly what behaviour is okay and what is not
·        They may find bullying rewarding in terms of achieving goals, and they don’t want to give it up
·        They may enjoy bullying because it gives them a sense of power, and they don’t want to give it up
·        They may think that they can defy you

Bullies also often run in packs, so they have plenty of peer support to keep up their unwanted behaviour.

If you want change, you need to provide re-training, supervision that assesses the change, and a timeframe.  Clearly, if the change is not made within the timeframe, you have to let that person go. In other words, the person who demands the change must also have the power of sanctions.

Who does the training?

If the bullying is a consequence of learning, and simply bad communication and/or leadership style, then you can work with someone with common sense who is a good teacher and mentor.

You must have a proper plan in place, though, that includes pinpointing problem behaviour, outlining goal behaviour, describing how you will affect the change, and a timeline for making the changes.

However, if the bullying is a lifelong habit, then you may have a problem.  You see, children from dysfunctional and abusive families are often bullies. 
If this is the case with your people, then you need to address the underlying issues. In such families, cruelty, violence and abuse are commonplace. As you might think, this is serious business and you need a qualified therapist to tackle that.

If you are a multinational, you should have properly qualified people on call who can help. If not, you need to find someone and it will require a budget. I’m going to suggest that you don’t do it in-house. 
People need to be able to talk freely about very personal, very painful things in their past. They can’t do so if that person is someone they have to work with or see in the office.

Now the second part of the question: why isn’t your company doing something about the bullying?

When bullies invade the workplace, people who are good at their job simply leave and go and work elsewhere. Those who stay become less effective because of the poisonous atmosphere. In other words: bullies are very bad for business.

So why do companies allow bullies to flourish?

Some do so because they’re not interested in people. If the bullies contribute to the bottom line, the company doesn’t care how they do it. They don’t care about high employee turnover, either. If this is your company, I suggest you leave and find nicer people to work with.

Some won’t confront bullies because they’re afraid. Bullies work by intimidating people (remember the list of how they work?) and sometimes even senior people are too scared to stand up to them. That’s a problem.

If you think the place is worth saving, and you have some standing in the company, you need to create a team atmosphere. Build a core of good people who support one another. Then work to deal with bullying by documenting and reporting.

Some don’t tackle it because they’re not good at their jobs. Senior managers are human, and they’re not all in their jobs because they’re capable. If this is the case in your company, you need to document and report.

How do you document? Document incidents together with times, dates and witnesses. Tip: you might use the list of bullying behaviours at the top of this response. Put it all together in a report and go and see the manager responsible (or HR depending on how your company works).

When you report, do not take the bully with you!  Do not take victims with you!  As bullies intimidate victims, and victims are often horribly humiliated by the whole situation, you need to talk quietly, openly and rationally about the situation with someone who has the power and authority to address the issue.

Good luck and let me know what happens.

Have a question?  During November 2016 I'm offering a free agony aunt service. Email me!