Workplace Bullying Remains an Organizational Challenge

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By Paul Pelletier

Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools and other areas of society, causing the well-understood emotional and physical impacts, plus a long list of challenges for employees and their organizations. More sobering are the clear and irrefutable statistics – workplace bullying is costing businesses billions of dollars annually. For every short-term result that a bully achieves, there is a list of longer-term negative business impacts that far outweigh any temporary benefits.

Workplace bullying is a particular challenge for human resource professionals. As explained by Lisa Castle, vice president of human resources at the University of British Columbia: “Its impact is enormous: disengagement; lost of creativity and productivity; and sick leave, benefit, and turnover costs.”

According to a 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, seven out of 10 workers are affected by workplace bullying. According to Clare Rayner and Ståle Einarsen, both respected bullying researchers, 53 per cent, in some cases up to 75 per cent of the workforce, is bullied.

The statistics are sobering. Bullies are prevalent and the harm they cause has direct impacts on people, workplace harmony, and profits/success. The good news is that increased public awareness, recent research, and expanded legislation around workplace bullying have paved the way for efforts to prevent it and eliminate it.

Moreover, if managers, human resources professionals, and senior level executives take initiative in addressing bullying early on, much larger financial, ethical, legal, stakeholder, and project problems will be avoided. These initiatives will lead to wider support for zero tolerance for bullying in the workplace regardless of circumstance, societal norm, or jurisdiction.

Why Are Organizations So Ineffective at Managing Bullying?
Bullying is sufficiently understood and prevalent that most employers should be prepared to effectively handle it. However, despite laws, irrefutable data and research, good intentions and ethical reasons to do so, most organizations are generally very unprepared. They haven’t yet come to appreciate the costs of not acting or the most effective ways to confront the problem. Senior management say, “People are our most valuable asset,” but that is often a hollow cliché when it comes to bullying.

According to a 2013 US executive survey by Zogby Analytics, 68 per cent believe that workplace bullying is a serious problem. If so many business leaders believe this, why are most organizations terrible at managing it? There are many contributors which fully answer this question.

A Focus on Results
In our hyper-competitive world, there are intense and ever-present demands for results. Many organizations become so focused on short-term results that they ignore how they are achieved. Sadly, this focal point is candy for bullies. If there is one commonality amongst bullies, it’s a gift for whipping up results (and those used to get them). Later on, when organizations see the fallout from the bully, they realize that the price they paid for those results far exceeds the benefits reaped from them.

Misinterpretation of a “Competitive Workplace
Many organizations confuse healthy competition with a “survival of the fittest” model for workplace behaviour. There have been stories (and articles, books, and movies) about Amazon, Apple, and other companies where staff is regularly challenged to out-perform and out-innovate their colleagues using draconian rewards for the winner.

I believe that leaders don’t understand that it’s possible to have both workplace respect and healthy competition. Staff don’t need to be abused to perform to their fullest.

A Belief that Bullying Is a Leadership Style
Bullying is the opposite of leadership. In my opinion, executives that use this excuse to support a bully are likely in denial or afraid to confront the problem. If asked in a moment of unbridled honesty, they likely know exactly who the abusers are. They just don’t have the skills or motivation to take action so they leave the mess alone, hoping it will sort itself out. They discount the level of the problem, rationalize it as a temporary issue, blame it on a very challenging time, or find another excuse to avoid actively engaging.

A Lack of Awareness
As hard as it seems to accept, there remains a small segment of leadership that has yet to become enlightened on the topic of workplace bullying. What’s even more surprising is that their ignorance may be genuine. Rather than judge the poorly informed, it may be more useful to see their lack of awareness as an opportunity to empower them with knowledge.

Employers Are Afraid to Confront Bullies
While most leaders are aware of workplace bullying and that it is a severe problem, they are often afraid to step into the ring with the bully. Bullying is a sensitive topic because it requires confrontation, conflict, and courage as much as it requires tools. Fear often feeds into the ignorance: fear of lawsuits, of the actual confrontation with the bully, of what else might be uncovered once an investigation is launched, of how many other victims might be in the organization.

Having talked with plenty of executives and HR professionals, it is fair to state that fear of conflict is a serious impediment to eliminating bullying. While HR does its best to deal with the complaints, conflicts, and impacts, the result is paralysis, and so the bullying continues.

Lack of Effective Policies and Processes
Most organizations have a respect or harassment policy that outlines what is unacceptable workplace behaviour. However, many organizations don’t have an effective complaints process. Without a fair, impartial, confidential, and effective complaints process, the policy is meaningless. It is also helpful to remember that no alleged bully should be presumed guilty without due process. Thus, the process is essential to defensible and trustworthy outcomes.

Further, it is equally difficult if the human resources department is considered the best place for the complaint management. In my opinion, this is neither neutral nor fair for anyone involved, including HR. Organizations need a complaints process staffed with trained people who understand the challenges of dealing with bullying. That unit requires the authority to create a process that is managed by unbiased, bully-trained investigators who have ample authority to carry out an investigation.

Finally, there must be proper conflict-resolution processes available to effectively manage the next steps. Using standard models for dealing with normal conflicts doesn’t work with bullying. Unless the conflict-resolution process is sensitive to the power dynamic at play and the nature of victim/offender relationships, most interventions won’t succeed.

Lack of Trained Human Resources Professionals
Despite their best efforts and intentions, many in HR are unprepared or lack the authority to address bullies. They also face a difficult choice—they have the organization’s best interests as their priority, but they see what is really going on. Often, they don’t have the training or capacity to take action against the bully. Regardless of their best intention and desire to help, the most common result is that they fail the organization and contribute to the problem.

The above are the main reasons why organizations fail to respond effectively to bullying situations. There are undoubtedly others that I have failed to mention. What is important is that even though the vast majority of leaders acknowledge bullying is a very serious problem and should be eradicated, very few actually do.

Paul Pelletier, LL.B. PMP is principal of Paul Pelletier Consulting (PPC), a management consulting firm specializing in real solutions for workplace bullying, respect and diversity, offering a full spectrum of training, consulting and coaching to address workplace disrespect.

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