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.

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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.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/workplace-bullying-a-major-concern-in-canada-says-woman-who-sued-wal-mart-1.2673109

https://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/texas-employment-labor-law/texas-employment-labor-law-lawsuits-9-20146.html

https://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/texas-employment-labor-law/interview-texas-employment-labor-law-2-20034.html

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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?

10 Best Practices in the Workplace Restoration Process

A workplace harassment investigation can be a traumatic event which affects not only those directly involved, but often causes extensive collateral damage.  A healing process which helps staff feel heard and acknowledged is a very important step for re-establishing or rebuilding workplace norms.

Restoring norms following a harassment investigation is an important step.

Restoring norms following an harassment investigation is an important step.

Following a discussion about the role the of the investigation and the purpose and goals of the Workplace Restoration, participants at a recent Workplace Fairness lunch identified 10 best practices.  Whether an investigation is founded or unfounded these are important steps:

  1. Facilitate, when appropriate, a confidential written agreement between the complainant and the respondent that is separate from performance measures.
  2. Provide regular and ongoing feedback to all staff.
  3. Ensure leadership is visible and committed to “say” and “do” accountability.
  4. Support leadership to share and acknowledge ownership of contributing factors.
  5. Follow up with the team and others affected to develop a plan and strategy with common goals and processes for the group.
  6. Facilitate a safe dialogue to re-establish the norms of respect and dignity by asking questions, creating a common language, and ensure the experience is normalized for all affected.
  7. Provide skill-building support for supervisors and those involved through training and 1-on-1 coaching, focusing on listening skills and “I language”.
  8. Maintain a forward-looking aspect to the restoration process.
  9. Appoint a new neutral facilitator who was not involved in the investigation and ensure impartiality in all follow-up dialogue.
  10. Ensure a restorative and healing process which allows all to be acknowledged for their experiences.

We would love your comments! Do you have anything to add? join the discussion below.

A Workplace Restoration is an important step

A Workplace Restoration can help improve employee engagement and productivity following a significant negative workplace event, such as a harassment investigation.

Lately Michelle and I have been thinking about Workplace Restorations. If you live in Calgary, the first thing that may leap in your mind with the word restoration could be flood damage. I am sure there are many households in Southern Alberta watching the waterways and the precipitation forecasts this spring. The word restoration implies that things can be put back the way they were found. If you lost a basement of goods last summer, I am sure you have a visceral knowledge that you can’t put things back the way they were, even once the mud has been cleared.

Following a significant negative event in a workplace it becomes crucial in the workplace to redefine a plan for the future which integrates and restores. Like the damage following a flood, an event in the workplace can leave emotional scars. People need not only acknowledgement for past wrongs and experiences, they also benefit from being part of redefining a plan for the future. Too often following a harassment investigation, for example, remedies that address collateral damage of bystanders is missed.

A Workplace Restoration following a harassment investigation is a critical step in returning to a productive workplace.

A Workplace Restoration can be a significant help addressing collateral damage after a harassment investigation.

A Workplace Restoration is a process which provides a safe comfortable environment for all to express and explore their beliefs, concerns and hopes for a positive workplace future. Through a process with an impartial 3rd-party facilitator, they define their criteria for a positive working environment, and a detailed plan with specific actionable items. A Workplace Restoration can involve individual coaching in addition to large and small group facilitation. Training may be an important desired outcome from a restoration, and will be most effective if staff contribute to the training plan in the restoration process.

To read more about what you can do as a manager towards restoring the workplace, visit these resources from the Government of Canada.

What is harassment?

What is harassment?

Dr. Kelly Williams-Whitt, U Lethbridge professor of labour relations and human resources management, expert in disability management in the workplace, arbitrator, mediator, president of the Canadians Industrial Relations Association, asked us from the head of the table at a Workplace Fairness lunch.  20 blank faces looked back.  This was a well-informed and experienced group, taken aback at first by a speaker who threw the conversation right at them.

The hesitation was only momentary; the audience caught the ball and was rewarded with another question:

Can harassment exist without intention?

Well, now you want to know the answers, don’t you?

Before making decisions the ancients would go to Delphi to consult the oracle. Who is your oracle when it comes to harassment in the workplace?

Dr. Williams-Whitt wrote a case study (from the fictional Fort McMurray U) which was used in a mock arbitration performed in front of a live audience.  One arbitrator ruled yes, there was harassment in the fictional case; one ruled no.  Our audience, reading the same case study, threw back some questions of their own: Where is the line between what lawyers like to call inappropriate behaviour, and harassment?  It is the age old answer: it depends.  It may depend on

a. The context in which it occurred and the culture of the workplace
b. The nature and severity of the harassing behavior
c. Persistence in the face of the knowledge that that the behavior is unacceptable/unwelcome
d. The relationship between the parties, etc.

Would a reasonable person, confronted with the behaviour in question, feel uncomfortable or intimidated?  The law will always take it back to the reasonable person standard.  I also remind myself when confronted with a harassment allegation that this is the complainant’s truth, and both sides of the complaint deserve respect, consideration and fair process.

If a complaint is filed, what are the available avenues for resolution?

Dr. Williams-Whitt pointed to 3, and a half:

1 – Human Rights.  The purpose of the code of human rights is preventing discrimination whether intentional or not, and based on 13 protected grounds relating to personal characteristics of the individual or group (for example race, colour, physical/mental disability, sex, creed or religion, to name a few).   A claim must be related to one of these grounds to be filed in this venue.

Here is a link to a long list of practical resources from the Federal Treasury Board.  And to learn more about the Alberta Human Rights commission, visit here.

2— Collective Agreement.  In a unionized environment, a harassment complaint will be evaluated against language in the collective agreement and will go to resolution through channels defined by the collective agreement, usually culminating in arbitration.

3 – Occupational Health & Safety.  Now interestingly, as Dr. Williams-Whitt pointed out, there are not many investigations or cases under OHS legislation that deal with psychological safety.  Although, OHS legislation in Alberta (and other provinces) requires that employers provide a workplace that is both physically and psychologically safe.  OHS has historically dealt most frequently with workplace accidents or violence, and they have their hands full there.

Here is information about bullying as defined by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.  To read more about the voluntary Standards of Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace, go here.

And a half – court.  Not many employees will pursue their claim in court.

What can you do to be proactive in the workplace and minimize your risks?

Based on the conversation Friday, I have created a checklist for the organization.  Each item on this list deserves due attention.

  • Policies and procedures (comprehensive? current?)
  • Training (Adequate? Available? With follow-up?)
  • Risk assessment (What the psychological risk factors in your organization?)
  • Reporting systems (Maintaining privacy? Safe? With proper records? Accessible? Fair?)
  • Conflict resolution channels (Accessible? Fair? Cost effective? Just?)
  • Investigation expertise (Proper systems in place? Training?)

We wrapped up with a few comments about the role of investigation and the investigator.  I will summarize a few key points here:

  • The investigator’s role is to collect the data, not to make decisions
  • The investigator’s role is to distinguish fact from opinion
  • There are levels of investigation – it may be more appropriate at times to do an informal inquiry before escalating to a full investigation.
  • Privacy of those involved in the investigation is important, but confidentiality cannot be assured. Information from the investigation will be shared, but only with those who need to know about it to address the situation appropriately.

Did you know that the Workplace Fairness Assessment can help you to evaluate your conflict management system? It will address in detail the items from the checklist above.

AND further, if you are wondering if you have appropriate safe channels for employees to bring forward concerns, and have them addressed before they escalate, maybe it’s time to think about the Workplace Fairness Ombuds office?