Employees without choices will stay silent

The one-size-fits all template for harassment investigations no longer aligns with the growing respect of and desire for self-determination.  Employees would rather stay silent than come forward to be part of an investigation process and the fallout, as we have seen recently at the CBC and in the Houses of Parliament, can be acute.

In both of these highly publicized cases, complainants had few choices. Like many employees, they lack a safe environment and have few choices when it comes to reporting harassment. Is this typical? What resources are employers providing to their staff to help them work through their options when they are feeling victimized? How do current conflict management systems support respondents? Do they have the before, during and after support they need to go back to work if the investigation is unfounded?

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Workplace bullying is prevalent and costly

The following is  guest post from Michelle Phaneuf:

Workplace bullying is prevalent in our workplaces and is a serious issue that costs corporations significantly in lost time and money due to absenteeism, staff turnover, and medical and legal costs. Studies indicate workplace bullying is a result of conflict escalation and instituting a third party Ombudsman office as an informal conflict resolution channel is an ideal way to tackle this issue.

Jorge is working the night shift. Over six months ago he had a conflict with one of his co-workers who insisted that Jorge was taking over his duties. The co-worker involved the manager who decided that the co-worker was mistaken and that he and Jorge were to continue with their present duties.

Because of confidentiality concerns, the manager did not bring this issue forward to Jorge. Since the manager’s decision Jorge began experiencing on-going bullying behaviours by his co-worker and others in the department. They would play demeaning pranks on him throughout the night, call him names and shun him during breaks. Jorge’s manager works during the day and Jorge is reluctant to report the behaviour and decides he will ignore it and it will eventually stop. This is not the case and he begins to dread coming to work, experiences anxiety attacks and his work performance deteriorates. Jorge eventually leaves because he can’t take it anymore, believes he is being weak but saves face by indicating to the organization that he has found another job.

The costs of workplace bullying can be mitigated with an ombudsman

Early intervention through an ombudsman office can address bullying in the workplace and prevent costly escalation.

Studies show that presented with a list of possible triggers of bullying, unresolved conflicts belonged to the top five most indicated causes of bullying (Zapf, 1999). Likewise, departments with many bullying incidents showed an unhealthy work environment with more conflicts as compared to departments with few bullying incidents (Agervold, 2009). Similarly, investigating the relative strength of a broad range of organizational causes of bullying (i.e. job stressors, leadership behaviour and organizational climate), interpersonal conflicts proved to be one of the strongest predictors of being a target of bullying (Hauge et al., 2007). These results align with Ayoko and colleagues (2003) who, by means of a multi-method approach, found that conflict incidents successfully predicted workplace bullying; and with Baillien and De Witte (2009) who observed that bullying among Belgian employees was predicted by a high number of conflicts in the team.

New findings from Baillien, Bollen and De Witte (2011) indicate that organizations can prevent workplace bullying through their reaction to conflicts. Specifically, organizations can establish problem solving behaviours and discourage forcing as a way to solve conflicts. This may, for example, be accomplished by specific training sessions for managers and their employees on how to deal with conflicts and by stressing the importance of addressing conflicts in a collaborative instead of a competitive way.

When does it pay to be indirect?

Consider this list of words: prevaricate, pussyfoot, quibble, shirk, sneak. They resonate with negative connotations. They also all describe what you might call idiomatically “beating about the bush”, another phrase with a negative connotation.  We are acculturated in the western world to believe that the more assertive and direct we are the more effective and business-like we are. We are often rewarded for directness, sometimes indirectly by way of compliance.

When does it pay to be indirect?

We are culturally loaded. Our communication and conflict styles are influenced by our world view, or factors such as:

  • The environment (public/private and intimacy or familiarity)
  • The topic and our commitment to it
  • Our culture (upbringing, religion, sex, age, language, job, community, family environment)
  • Our speaking code
  • Our listening code

Our world view also wires how we speak and listen to each other, and dictates or influences our assumptions.  In our western world view we value the individual, and we value directness.

Indirect communication has a higher value in cultures which also place a higher value on community than the individual. As our communities become more diverse it is becoming increasingly important to question our assumptions and reactions to certain communication styles.

Your EQ will help you respond more effectively.  Consider yourself, the other, and the situation.  Emotional intelligence and self-awareness opens our eyes to how our cultural loading influences how we hear and respond. We can learn to adjust, though at times that adjustment will feel quite counterintuitive. For example it is difficult to practice an indirect gaze when speaking or listening, when we are used to a direct one. Change starts with questioning our assumptions about another’s speaking and listening habits.

Let’s talk about face-saving. In a culture which values direct communication, face-saving may be perceived as negative behaviour. What is it? When we recognize it is happening, how do we respond appropriately and effectively? For a start, let’s recognize that it is not necessarily a negative behaviour.

Face-saving may reveal itself in many different forms. Here is some typical behaviour, what might be behind it, and some tactics which will help to improve communication:

What you notice: quiet, withdrawn behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve privacy and reputation, and secure approval from you or from others.
What to do:

  • Offer your ideas.  “I am wondering if you have ever considered…”
  • Define the topic in neutral, business like terms, and maintain focus in the conversation on the topic.
  • Use positive language.

What you notice: defensive, protective behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to protect others in their community and their and the community’s reputation.
What to do:

  • Be inclusive of others.
  • Provide space and time to allow check-ins with other stakeholders.
  • Be patient.

What you notice: openly agreeable behaviour, compliance.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve peace, and maintain community.
What to do:

  • Build relationships. Take the time to get to know each other in relationship over meals, coffee.
  • Reinforce the value of open communication and transparency.
  • Gently confront discrepancies and apparent discontinuities. “I am confused. Can you help me understand…”

For further reading, check out this article by John Ng on mediation http://www.mediate.com/articles/the_four_faces_of_face.cfm#_ftn14, and articles/interviews by Stella Ting-Toomey http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/stingtoomey/index.htm.