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.

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.

Co-Construction Brings Rewards in the Workplace

Here in Calgary over the past month or two we have been seeing the most amazing skies.  I am fortunate to live in a spot where I can really see them, and almost daily I have been stopping to look up in wonder and take pictures. Skies, like people, can be extremely moody. In the shot below the dark moodiness is contrasted by the sunny yellow of the car hood (in case you are wondering, a 1972 MGB).  The darkness serves as a warning, and the bright hood reminds us to be optimistic.

The darkness serves as a warning, and the bright hood reminds us to be optimistic.

The darkness serves as a warning, and the bright hood reminds us to be optimistic.

If we are collaborating with others in decision making we may have very different perspectives and moods about our circumstances. We must heed the warnings and listen to people’s concerns, and we must stay focussed on our goal and the rewards difficult collaboration can bring. When we are able to learn from all perspectives and work together to reach an innovative goal which meets all needs, we are experiencing co-construction.

Nathalie Feuiltault is a Business Transformation and Human Behavior Specialist. Nathalie is currently pursuing doctoral research about co-construction. We were very fortunate last June to have Nathalie join us a at a Workplace Fairness luncheon to speak about co-construction.

Michelle and I practice co-construction all the time when we finish each other’s sentences – you have probably experienced that. Wikipedia too, could be considered a form of co-construction of learning (as it acknowledges itself). In the workplace, it is beneficial to be more strategic with collaboration so that you can mine the collective intelligence of the group.  At our June luncheon, Nathalie offered us 4 steps for Co-Construction:

  1. Appreciate. Focus on the positive, and strive to make it enjoyable. Practice mindfulness exercises. Be present and positive. Music and movement help.
  2. Dream. Act as If. Describe your outcomes as if they already exist. Visit the future. Imagine a goal met. What does it look like? Feel like? What do you see? Hear?
  3. Construct. Look to the past, and imagine key steps that get you to your goals. Move backwards to explore what you did to get you to the goal. What are the 3 key steps?
  4. Commit & Realize. Look at yourself from the outside to see what you did, and share the outcome. Sharing makes it feel more real.

Nathalie is a very engaging speaker who had us up and about exploring the look, feel and sound of collective intelligence. She helped us explore capabilities of group intelligence:

  • Mindfulness, and the capability to think systemically
  • Innovativeness and the willingness and capability to try different things
  • Connectedness and the capability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally.

We experienced it, saw it and heard it with Nathalie’s expert facilitation.

If you are interested in exploring co-construction and Appreciative Inquiry further, here are a few references for you:

Feedforward, instead of back

You need to use an extra wide trowel. And feather it out.

I heard this feedback from down the hall as I was standing in my bathrobe, silently thinking that the previous day’s efforts preparing the bathroom for painting had gone rather well.

I did use a wide trowel. I did feather it out. 

Giving, and receiving, feedback can be a tricky business.

Giving, and receiving feedback, can be a tricky business.

At our Workplace Fairness lunch recently, Shawn Stratton came to share some harrowing stories about leading teams on the edge, and to talk about Feedforward. Shawn learned about leadership in the trickiest of situations, as a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor in places such the Alaskan Arctic or deep in the Himalayas.

Shawn reminded us that good feedback is actually Feedforward. It

  • is timely
  • is specific
  • shows cause and effect relationships
    • highlights the activity and not the person
  • is owned by the sender
    • presents as a personal observation rather than a directive
  • is growth-oriented
    • focuses on the future
  • preserves dignity
    • suspends judgment
  • inquires
    • explores reasoning, and how it lands with the receiver

Shawn walked us through a Feedforward exercise which really resonated with people. We were asked to pick one behaviour we would like to change; describe the behaviour to a random participant; ask for Feedforward (2 suggestions for the future which might help change the behaviour); listen attentively and take notes; say thank you.

The key to this exercise is not discussing the past at all, and responding to the suggestions only with a “Thank you”.  Hmmm. Thinking about my drywall mudding expertise, I do need some Feedforward. But it might land better coming from a more detached, expert observer.  We cannot separate suggestions from our relationship with the sender. Did I mention it was my husband?

At our Workplace Fairness lunch we tried Feedforward instead of Feedback, and we liked it. If you would like to read more about Feedforward, Shawn provides some references for Leadership Thinker Dr. Marshall Goldsmith and comments on his blog here.

Perceptions may lead to resistance

Your perception interacts with your memory to connect to an emotion, an assumption, a belief, and ultimately an action. When you glance at the image below, what is your first thought? What does it represent to you? You may have seen this image before, in which case you will “know” what it is, and you may have to pause for some time before you see anything new.

What do you see?

What do you see?

Why not show it to someone else now and ask what they see? What would they call it? How does this change your perception? Once an idea has lodged in your mind about what it is, you will never see this image again the same way.

We create stories around our perceptions; those stories become part of our own history and being. They may become part of the way we define ourselves and our view of the world. When the story becomes our truth, we experience resistance when we meet up with a new story that does not connect to our own.

So how does knowing this help us overcome resistance? I believe we have to work to create a new mutual story which grows from the two conflicting stories. It takes time, and trust, and an openness to new ideas.

So now you are wondering, Marjorie, what IS this? Well, I can tell you what it is TO ME — a man in a tuxedo standing too close to elevator doors. What about you? Does it look different now?

This image is  “Droodle”. Thank you Roger Price.