The impacts of workplace bullying run deep and wide

We had a great conversation last week at our Workplace Fairness Lunch facilitated by Wendy Giuffre and Marilynn Balfour of Wendy Ellen Inc. We had many different participant perspectives on the subject or workplace bullying coming from the organizational viewpoint, the HR viewpoint, and an Ombuds veiwpoint.   Experience as the witness and the target also provided valuable insight.


Workplace bullying impacts the entire organization.

In Canada, harassment is very well defined as a violation of human rights, protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Workplace bullying is less clearly defined, and is addressed under occupational health and safety. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced Bill 168, an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which places clear obligations on employers to keep workplaces free of bullying.  The Government of Alberta provides resources and services to address workplace bullying though has stopped short of enshrining employer obligations in legislation.

Bullying is psychological harassment affecting an individual’s dignity, psychological or physical well-being.  The test for workplace bullying usually include 2 measures: if the acts are repeated over a period of time, and if the acts are targeted. Acts of bullying can include spreading rumours, intimidation, social isolation, offensive jokes, belittling or inappropriately changing of work rules or tasks.  Some of the acts are obvious, and some are more covert. 1 in 6 people have reported being bullied at work and many of the perpetrators, up to 80%, are bosses with good connections in the halls of power. Targets themselves are shown in research to be confident and intelligent individuals with a strong ethic, but who also are vulnerable.

There are certainly psychological as well as physical impacts to those being bullied. Pat Ferris, a Calgary psychologist who has worked extensively with workplace bullying targets, observes that targets use language similar to those who have experienced domestic abuse to describe the impact. Impact can include shock, anger, panic and anxiety, sleeplessness as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and loss of appetite. One participant at our recent lunch asked a great question about this – What are the psychological and physiological impacts for the bully? We have many assumptions about the intents, actions and motivations of a bully. It is difficult to be sympathetic.

Many questions surfaced from our luncheon participants: How can parties build self-awareness and help bullies understand the impact on others and themselves? How do you help a leader understand the negative impact of their behaviour and motivate them to change their behaviour? Coaching has been used to build awareness. One recommended strategy is to ask questions of the leader around their impacted sphere of influence. Research demonstrates that a great stressor for bullies is a perceived lack of control and lack of self-confidence.

There is a high financial cost for an organization – in turnover, productivity and absenteeism. (You can explore this further with the cost-of-conflict tool on our website.) Even faced with the numbers from the calculator, organizations may be skeptical about the high financial impact. At the organizational level there is often a gap in the culture as perceived by management and by employees. With best intentions, an organization may set out to establish values of collaboration and transparency. However, if that same organization has a structure strongly rooted in hierarchies it may create a disconnect between what employees are experiencing and what the organization is hoping to create. This can become a stressor for employees. The contradictions and uncertainty of such an environment create a perfect petri dish for inappropriate workplace behaviour, including bullying.

Wendy and Marilynn had some good suggestions for addressing bullying in the workplace.

What the corporations can do:

  • Create policies and respectful practices
  • Increase awareness through education
  • Educate leaders to identify signs
  • Provide resources for targets, including counseling
  • Investigate complaints in a timely and impartial manner
  • Improve leadership capability and competence

What individuals can do:

  • Be courageous – intervene if a witness
  • Understand what bullying is
  • Understand why people are targets and the impact
  • Listen to the targets
  • Petition for an anti-bullying policy in your workplace

If you are a target:

  • Keep a diary, recording specifics of date, time and events
  • Continue to do your job to the best of your ability
  • Seek support from your Employee Assistance Provider, your manager, or your union.

Though we ran out of time, Wendy and Marilynn provided some links to news articles about bullying cases in Canada and the US. They illustrate the very real impact, and the risks employers take if they do not treat bullying seriously.

Mentoring for Leadership

When establishing a new mentoring program it is crucial to get buy-in from senior leaders, develop a strong training program for mentors as well as mentees, outline clear expectations and protocols and clearly define your terms of reference.

June Read developed Pacific Western Transportation’s first group mentoring program. She shared her learning, pitfalls and the opportunities with us at a recent Workplace Fairness Lunch.

The peace bridge Calgary

At Pacific Western Transportation, June ran two new mentoring programs which ran for 1 year each with two groups of people. In the first group of 7, she recruited 3 existing employees and 3 new hires, and in the second round, they worked primarily with new hires. In one year, the interns circulated through departments at Pacific Western at a pace and in a program customized for them. While June acted as the anchor, overseeing their year, they were matched with a mentor and coaches in each department.  The goal was to develop leaders by giving them the opportunity to learn the pain points in each department and gain learning through the breadth and depth of the business.

This ambitions program met with great success but was not without it’s own pain-points.  From June’s comments, I gathered the following learnings:

  1. Establish clear expectations, and be transparent at all stages. Setting expectations at many different levels is very important. It includes things like work hours and duties, values and goals, processes & procedures, and appropriate behaviour. Success is based on having mentees that understand and share corporate values and expectations.
  2. Define roles and terms of reference clearly. At PWT they established roles for a coach and a mentor that had different expectations. In this case, the coach was expected to demonstrate skills, observe, and correct. It was the mentor’s role to aid self-reflection, focus on the long term big picture, ask questions, and support with strong emotional intelligence. At times, though not always, the mentor and the coach were the same person. This definition may differ from your understanding of the role of the mentor. In the end, what really matters is a shared specific understanding of the terminology you use.
  3. Establish a recording and evaluation protocol. Mentees were expected to complete and record assignments and assessments which were collected by June and returned at the end of the program. Mentees were pleased to have a record at the end to aid their memory and learning.
  4. Work with business leaders to develop understanding and buyin. One of June’s major challenges was getting buy-in from senior leaders. She initially met with resistance in the form of comments like “I don’t have time for this.” This approach is not unusual with mentoring programs, and is often rooted in a fear – for example of being replaced. Asking patient questions and taking the time to build relationships with staff at all levels of the organization who were impacted by the mentoring program paid large dividends for June and the success of the program. June stressed that a program must be led from the top down.
  5. Celebrate the milestones and acknowledge participants. After each unit finished, participants celebrated with their mentors and coaches. Both mentors and mentees benefited from the experience as it gave them an opportunity to see their jobs in a different light. Mentees thanked all coaches and mentors with personal notes and gifts.
  6. Train mentors and coaches rigorously. 20 mentors and coaches were trained to push out information to 115 people.


The Mentoring Group website contains many useful references, including the Mentor’s Guide, the Mentee’s Guide and New Mentors and Protogees, all written by Linda Phillips-Jones, PhD.

The International Mentoring Association is a source of newsletters and webinars.

Cyber Mentor  is run through the University of Calgary. This program matches female mentors with young women who are interested in careers in science, math, engineering and technology.

Fred Jacques, PhD, of the University of Calgary Haskayne School of Business provides consulting services and information on setting up mentoring programs.

Software for leveraging mentoring and coaching is also available, including Chronus and Riversoft.

June Read is a committed volunteer for a number of organizations like the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association and the Institute of Performance and Learning, as well as the Chair of the Business Administration advisory group at SAIT, to name just a few of her initiatives. She is recently retired after many years working with Pacific Western Transportation Ltd. In her last few years as PWT, June Read was instrumental in establishing a highly successful new mentoring program designed specifically to develop new leaders.

Score your workplace health

You can see through the mask to your workplace health by using our Workplace Health Score Card.

A workplace is like an organism. As humans, our health is often affected by the choices we make regarding diet, exercise, stress and generally the way we choose to live our lives. Poor diet, excessive stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse can often lead to poor health. The same can be said of a workplace’s health. Often workplaces exhibit behaviours which are indicative of poor conflict management, leading to unfair decisions, a high turnover rate, and unproductive workplaces.


You can see through the mask to your workplace health by using our Workplace Health Score Card.

At the top end, the Holistic Constructive organization is proactive in the management of workplace conflict. Structural measures, such as an ombuds office, are in place to provide a breadth of options for employees seeking to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Also, all staff are empowered through training and support to help address concerns.

At the bottom end, Active Destructive, behaviours actively discourage constructive and proactive conflict management. Even structures within an organization can prevent employees from seeking support when it is most needed.

Take a moment to complete the scorecard, and let us know what you think!

To learn more about Workplace Health, you may wish to read this article published by the HRIA on the Six Levels of Workplace Health.

Levels and Layers

Len Nanjad is a fascinating guy. We were fortunate enough to lunch with him the other day at one of our regular monthly luncheon events, and I walked away with my head swirling with ideas.  From my particularly conflict-centric view of the world, I know that clarifying roles and responsibilities is one of the most important things we can do to mitigate team conflict.

Len had some very interesting things to say about roles and responsibilities. Did you know that within the Roman Catholic Church, that very complex multi-national organization, there are only 7 layers of management? And that, says Len, is the optimal number. What is magic about the number 7, you wonder? It is nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and everything to do with the levels of complexity of different jobs.

I like the coffee shop analogy. Your barista has to remember your order and execute it in a timely and efficient fashion so you can get out of there and head to your next meeting. Your barista’s boss has to order the milk and the coffee beans and ensure the equipment is working.  The owner of the coffee shop has to pay the barista, and the manager, and the rent on the space, and ensure everyone has a job to wake up to the next morning. There are 3 levels of complexity in this example.

any moment now . . . .

So as Len pointed out to us, in a hierarchy everyone has work, and work is a thinking process. Depending how much you have to think about, you are in a different level of complexity. Another way to think about it is to consider about how many levels of responsibility you have accountability for.

I am really getting into the swing of this now, and I have visions in my head of all these corporate structures: columns, pyramids, and matrices. But from a very practical point of view, once you understand levels and layers, you can identify a few common places where conflict and problems start. For one, too many layers of management dealing with a single level of complexity (a Jam-Up) is built into 38% of all designs. I can see that it causes inefficiencies. Two, a system can be designed with no workers for one identified level of complexity (a Gap). This is a dangerous situation found in 18% of organizations, according to Len.

Yikes. I can see ensuing stress that leads to conflict. You see it in government a lot – too many layers of management, resulting in frustrated employees and low empowerment. This is a situation that seems to occur with the thrust to collective decision-making. I guess taken to an extreme, it becomes the downside of collaboration?

So many things to think about. If you would like to read more, reach out to Len Nanjad at Core International. There are interesting articles and videos on his website.


Give up Judgment; Dump the need for revenge; and Get Curious

There is a paradigm shift that is required to instill  hope and achieve better decision making.

Marc Lavoie, an independent Leadership Coach and HR Consultant has long been a support of the work we are doing for Workplace Fairness, and when he spoke to our luncheon group on October 23 he provided some tools for helping us shift from blame to accountability and from judgment to curiosity.

HR Consultant, Leadership Coach, Training Specialist, and deep thinker.

HR Consultant, Leadership Coach, Training Specialist, and deep thinker.

To read about the  7 Living Principles of Enlightened Leadership here: Lavoie Culture of Enlightened Leadership.

How do you enter a swimming pool?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Evan Hu and his team from Knelf. A 2014 Calgary startup, the folks at Knelf have a vision – the workplace as a safe and trusting place, and they have started on their mission by developing a highly entertaining game. At the Calgary Institute of Performance and Learning event last night, 20 of us played the game and got a little closer as we shared a few vulnerabilities.

Do you make your bed every morning?

The game challenges you to guess your opponent’s answers to fun and revealing questions, developed in partnership with psychologists and based on the science of the six major dimensions of personality. (One team member is a PhD student working with Dr. Kibeom Lee of the University of Calgary. You can read more about their Hexaco personality tool here.)

Have you ever had a near-death experience?

For now it is a lot of fun to banter with your colleagues – the event last night generated a lot of laughter, and then I brought it home I shared it with my millennial daughter and a friend. They are hooked.

But Evan Hu’s bigger vision is to develop a tool organizations can use to improve team cohesiveness and foster engagement in the workplace. The ethical and practical challenges are interesting and Evan is taking them on with a board of advisors which includes Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself.

You can download a preliminary version of Knelf from the Apple Store to play with, and stay tuned for enhancements and upgrades as they continue to develop this interesting tool.

A Conflict Experiment

For Conflict Resolution Day, we conducted a Conflict Experiment in the halls of the +15 downtown Calgary! Participants commented that they had a lot of fun answering our 5 questions about conflict in the workplace. Now, I wouldn’t say it was particularly scientific, b

When workplace conflict in the workplace remains unresolved where do employees turn?

Employees turn to co-workers even when their conflict remains unresolved.

ut see for yourself the answers!

Workplace Conflict resolution benefits from training.

Workers admit they could benefit from training in skills for managing conflict.

When there is conflict at work, productivity goes down when workers take days off.

Workers do use their vacation and sick days to avoid the stress of conflict at work.

There are many different styles for managing conflict.

When it comes to conflict, how we manage it is all over the map.

Time spent on conflict impacts the work atmosphere and productivity.

Time spent on conflict impacts the work atmosphere and productivity.