The Bully, the Bullied and a Better Way


I’ve been reflecting on the behaviours of those in the workplace that are labelled “bullies.”  They are labelled this way by employees, as well as by investigators like my colleagues and I.

We go in with the complaints in hand, employer policies in mind and the law as our benchmark.  We go in with a focus on the “bully’s” behaviours and how they affect others.

We listen to the impacts on others’ wellness, sense of safety and anxiety connected with the way that the “mean” boss has chosen to manage the workplace.  We scrutinize their emails, their conduct at meetings and their decisions to email one person and not another.

We do all this with a moral focus—wherein the mental health lens applies to the complainant, the victim, but not the boss.

Reflecting on the Bigger Picture

The other day, I was driving on the Highway of Tears.  It is a place, where if you allow it, you can feel both the sadness, loneliness and the need to reflect.  It can encompass you as you drive.  If you allow it, that highway will make you think.  It will make you pause. If you allow it.

Life, in its most challenging moments will do the same.  It will make you think.  It will make you pause.  As one of the most reactive of souls, I am embracing this need to take in these opportunities to press slow-mo, wait, think, reflect and apply whatever lesson life is throwing my way to the daily life I lead.

Reflecting on Pace and Perspective

Lisa Southern from Southern & Associates with be speaking at the HR Conference + Tradeshow as part of a breakout session titled, Anatomy of an Investigation: Step by Step Tips on Effective Investigations.

For me right now, work is overwhelming.  Hard work can culminate in success.  Success sometimes feels like too much too fast and a workload, pace, and weight of responsibility that can overbear.  What was my saving grace has now become my Achilles heel.

Six years ago, I would open a new file twice a month.  In the last six weeks, we have opened 40 new files and I have no doubt more will come tomorrow.  We don’t have the capacity to do this without some stress, some strain and people working harder than they had planned.

I find myself in the epicentre of this growth.  While I am unwilling to claim the title “victim” of success, reflectively, I can see that I am at risk of losing myself in all of this.  At times, that has already happened.

So I reflect.  And I pause.  As I lose myself, I see the behaviours of others I have met in my interviews.

A focus on my files until this week has been on those that are the recipients of bad behaviours by others at work.  I read the terse emails, the words that were not thoughtfully delivered, the intolerance for those taking time for vacations and workouts, while the boss was working 24/7.  And I did that through the lens of the employees who were at the receiving end.

Can Bullies Be Victims Too?

Then this week, reading the words I write about others, and reflecting on my own thin skin of late, my short wick, my resentment at those that are taking time to recharge while I burn out, I had another thought.  What if the bully, aka, the respondent. What if they too are under the arsenal of unreasonable stress, of loneliness, of responsibility resting on their shoulders for the success of the enterprise and the livelihood of others.

What if the bully is also a victim?  What if the bully is also feeling the strain of mental health issues and that the behaviours are related to a lack of help or draining of their resiliency to cope.

I wonder if the lens of investigation—where fault and findings go hand in hand in most cases—is the right lens.  If safety at work, where successful, safe and respectful workplaces are the goal and where strain, stress and performance is often at play as a cause of the bad behaviour, it is worth questioning if we are applying the right tools to the issue.

A Better Look at Cause of Bullying

If the legislative changes in 2015 to the Workers Compensation Legislation were about mental health at work, maybe we need to revisit this to also examine not just the impact of bullying behaviour, but the causes too.  Moreover, maybe we need to consider other approaches to address and remediate the cause and impact other than investigation and punishment, neither of which, in the long run, will lead to sustainable changes in behaviour.

Yes, I’m writing this because I’m sitting on a plane coming back from Smithers, B.C. to Vancouver, after having a long few weeks where I have demonstrated less than my best.  And yes, I write this because I’m not always proud of my behaviours, but I also know I am a good person, and I understand why my “less than best” happens and and how hard it is some days to cope well and consistently deliver the kindness for which I strive.

I know I can do better.  I think we all can.  And while I sit on a plane ready to descend to the tarmac at YVR, I’m not sure our current legislative and legal (moral bound) approach to bullying and harassment isn’t worthy of some reflection and change too.



Lisa Southern is the Founder of Southern & Associates, a legal firm located in North Vancouver that specializes in employment and labour law, especially in the area of workplace investigations. Lisa strongly believes that engaging a reliable and fair Investigator results in a sustainable and acceptable outcome, demonstrates the necessary due diligence, and results in less litigation post-investigation. Lisa’s specialization in workplace investigations is built on her transition through key legal roles that continue to provide her with a unique background and perspective. In 2003, Lisa was appointed to the BC Labour Relations Board, first as vice chair, and then as registrar and vice chair until 2009 when she returned to private practice and started to focus on the important work of investigations and supporting exceptional workplace culture. In addition to her investigation work, Lisa is frequently appointed as a mediator and also arbitrates labour disputes.

Lisa will be speaking at the HR Conference + Tradeshow in Vancouver, B.C. on April 3rd. To register for the conference and see the whole lineup CLICK HERE.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.


Enter your email address to receive updates each Wednesday.

Privacy guaranteed. We'll never share your info.