A recent BCBusiness story on workplace bullying (“Bad boss, bad boss,” Dec. ’06) clearly hit a nerve. We received an overwhelming response from readers, revealing an ugly undercurrent beneath the facade of today’s high-performance workplace.
We decided to explore the issue further by convening a panel of experts to explore the causes, effects and potential solutions to this disturbing trend. First, the bad news about workplace bullying: expect to see a lot more of it. As employers are forced to turn to increasingly diverse talent pools, you can bet there will be resistance from the old guard – resistance that will manifest itself in inappropriate workplace behaviour. The good news? While there’s no silver bullet, recognizing the problem is an important first step. The solution begins long before counselling or legal charges; it starts with training that promotes acceptance and open communication throughout the workplace. Larry Axelrod is a consultant with The Neutral Zone Coaching and Consulting Services Inc., specializing in mediation and conflict resolution. Sue Paish, a lawyer with Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, mediates and investigates human rights complaints, and helps local companies develop and implement workplace policies. Stephen Hill is co-founder of No Bully For Me, which hosts a website and facilitates support groups for victims of workplace bullying. They joined BCB editor Tracy Tjaden and associate editor David Jordan for a spirited, frank and enlightening discussion about a disturbing, but very real, issue haunting today’s workplace. BCBusiness: First, some definitions: what is bullying, and how is it different from harassment? Stephen Hill: I see the difference as harassment being about who you are and bullying being about what you do. So if I call someone a lazy bastard, I’m talking about what they do. If I call them a lazy black bastard, I’m talking about who they are. Sue Paish: You’re right – harassment is conduct that’s based on characteristics we can’t change. The definition of harassment is founded in demographic characteristics that we have no control over, and they’re articulated in legislation. In B.C., they are age, race, religion, marital status, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and the presence or absence of a criminal conviction that would affect your ability to work. But a lot of workplaces have developed policies that incorporate the legal concept and also incorporate conduct that isn’t connected to the legally prohibited grounds, which brings bullying under the harassment umbrella. BCB: How do you know when you’re in a bullying situation, or how does it typically begin? Larry Axelrod: Bullying is often perceived as the schoolyard situation, with the big bully trying to take the lunch money from the smaller kid. In workplaces it takes on a very different dynamic than that, and it’s often more subtle. It has to do with a lot of workplace issues and relationships. It’s psychologically coercive, it’s degrading and it’s demeaning. SP: Bullying is all about power. And it can be very insidious and very subtle. In fact, I think the higher degree of sensitivity around bullying right now has reduced the level of extroverted bullying and increased the level of manipulative conduct, which I call bullying. SH: Did I know the first time I was bullied? No. I had no idea when it was. It was gradual. And the effects it has are very subtle and very peculiar. At first you disassociate what’s going on at work with the odd health symptoms you’re suffering. You don’t make the link, “Oh, I’m having this stuff going on at work but why am I unable to sleep? Why can’t I feel my fingers, my toes? Why is my eyesight going? Why am I shaking?” For me, it was actually finding a page of listed symptoms of workplace bullying and some of the behaviours as examples of workplace bullying. I saw the list on one side and saw the list on the other side and told my wife, and she burst into tears with recognition and said, “Well, okay, let’s move forward.” So, it’s subtle. It’s not like going home with a black eye from school. SP: That’s why a lot of times complaints won’t come forward until a long way into the case. People will rationalize something that is happening at work that is having an adverse effect on them by saying, “This must be something that I have done wrong,” or, “This must be because I have too much stuff in my calendar.” We find ways of rationalizing to a point that people don’t realize that they have experienced bullying or harassment until there are some pretty serious physical indicators. BCB: What are the common causes of workplace bullying? LA: One reason bullying occurs is related to work clashes: the senior executive needs the work to get done and they’re monitoring and bullying the staff to get it done. It might be related to perceived lack of performance or competition for resources or recognition. A lot of pressure exists, coercion exists, and it’s experienced as bullying. Another reason is a dislike of an individual: “I don’t like something about you or who you are, and I’m going to make sure you know it by the way I treat you.” And it starts to lead to more subtle things like being the subject of gossip, negative comments, being ignored, excluded, shunned. These are all ways of trying to diminish the other person and the person ends up feeling devalued, diminished, harmed. SP: I challenge you on the intent, that harassment comes from a dislike. I would be a little more general and say a misunderstanding about a characteristic. Someone might think, “Why do we have these women proceeding into executive positions in the workplace?” The conduct that is characterized as harassment isn’t because the perpetrator hates women; it’s because they haven’t really bought into this idea that girls belong in executive positions. Another person might wonder, “Why the hell should you be given every Friday night shift off? Because we work in a 24/7 shift environment and I don’t care if you’re of a religion that requires that you don’t work after sundown on Friday. It’s not that I necessarily dislike you or even dislike your religion or your ethnicity – I just don’t get it. “So when I’m forced into a work environment with a bunch of people who are older or younger, different gender, different race, different religion and, God forbid, different sexual orientation, I’m uncomfortable. And I react in a way that is inappropriate.” SH: As far as being coerced into a workplace where you felt it wasn’t your demographic, we have some people who say, “I’ve recently arranged a settlement from my employer. I was there for 25 years and bullied for 24.” Well, we have three choices if we’re uncomfortable at work: we can stay and try and improve the situation, we can stay and try to find a new job to move into, or we can get the hell out. Those are the only three choices we have. That’s it. Just like any relationship. SP: I find a lot of bullying and harassment situations arise because people feel that the change they are experiencing has been thrust upon them beyond their control. I hear this a lot: “Well, hang on a second, who’s supposed to leave here? I’ve been here for 25 years. What gives you the right to come in now and tell me…” LA: One of the pieces that’s missing when we look at the choices that exist is that we’re not talking about the choice of improving the relationship. I’m a little less fatalistic about the ability to actually develop a relationship that at first is uncomfortable and not working into something that can actually work. And sometimes you need to have some assistance in doing that, and that’s where you look to the organization or mediators or somewhere else. It’s not about personality, and it’s not about characteristic. In the end, it’s about how we’re treated and we can always change how we treat each other if we find the reasons to do so. SP: I agree. It’s a problem with socialization and a problem with the workplace culture. It is absolutely critical in dealing with harassment and bullying that you create cultures where it is okay for an individual to go into their colleague’s office and say, “You know what? The way you spoke to me in the meeting today was really hurtful. You may not realize that, but I was really hurt.” And not have people run around with their hair on fire. [pagebreak] BCB: Stephen, from your experience of talking to victims of workplace bullying, how often do you think option A – staying and trying to resolve the issue – is successful? SH: One per cent. LA: And I would say it’s successful 90 per cent of the time if it’s done well. SH: Seventy per cent of targets are either fired or are forced to leave. SP: But how often do people who feel that they are a victim of bullying or harassment actually sit down with the perpetrator and have that conversation? SH: Being really hurt, being bullied, causes mental anguish. When you’ve been bullied for a while, you’re nuts; you’re unable to make a decision, you’re unable to concentrate, you can’t speak. What’s the first thing people do when they start torturing someone to get information out of them? Destabilize them. Deprive them of sleep. You wake up every night at three with replays of what happened the day before. Finally you fall asleep, exhausted, at 10 to six. You get up at six, off to work, another day happens, another day to process. Friday night you feel almost normal because you’ve got a couple of days to recover. Sunday afternoon you start having panic attacks again. You start getting anxious. Again you have another Sunday night where you can’t sleep. You start the workweek without sleep. And you expect that person to be a rational, civilized, analytical human being entering into a very, very difficult situation and trying to negotiate and express themselves? LA: I’ve seen that when I end up going into a situation that’s pretty dire, because quite often that’s when they bring a mediator in. But I have two observations. One: we don’t learn early on how to intervene on our own behalf in a more successful way before we end up in that emotionally difficult place. The second is that, when we’re there, there’s still an opportunity to recover from that and recover the relationship, but that quite often needs the support of someone to come in and help them. And that’s where mediators and organizational systems can be in place to help support the person, provide advisers, give them a support foundation in order to go forward. The fear to try it is overwhelming, but if they know they’ve got a structure behind them, and some guidance on how to go about doing it, they can still try and meet their goal because they may still want to stay working where they’re working rather than have to leave. BCB: That sounds a bit idealistic. It’s not always a pleasant world out there. And people do not always walk into their boss’s office and say, “You know, what you said in that meeting hurt me.” SH: I don’t think it’s a question of being ideal¬istic. I think it’s a question of remembering what we know. For example, the most important exchange of the day is “good morning,” the second most important is “please,” the third is “thank you,” and the fourth is “good night.” That’s been trained out of us. And I think some of the language we use trains it out of us. BCB: Can any of you comment from your personal experience on recent trends or developments in bullying and harassment? Has it been more or less prevalent in the workplace? Has it been of a different type? SP: We are about to face a period in our workplaces like no other. With the labour shortage, employers are going to be relying on people who are from very different demographic makeups. We are going to be retaining more older people in the workplace. We are going to be seeing more women in the workplace. And we have to rely on immigrants if we are going to fill the work vacancies that are predicted in the next 10 years. If we thought learning to come to work with two genders in the workplace was tough, just wait until you get the demographic stir-fry that we are about to enter in the next 10 years. That’s one thing. The second thing is: as a society we are starting to learn how to talk about being respectful to people who come from different demographic backgrounds, but we cannot talk about sexual orientation in a productive, respectful way in the workplace. And if we thought learning how to understand different shift scheduling to accommodate people from different religious backgrounds was tough, wait till we start talking about how to really respect and work successfully with people who are not extroverted heterosexuals. We are not ready. SH: Everything old is new again. I’ll pass around a survey that began in 1946 and has been repeated every year since. The results have been exactly the same since 1946. Ask managers what employees want from their jobs, and they say good wages, job security, promotion and growth opportunities. Ask employees what they want from their jobs: appreciation for work done, feeling in on things, sympathetic help on personal problems. The first three things I hear from people who are targeted by bullies in the workplace are, “I’m kept out of the loop, I’m treated differently from other people and I get no sympathy or support.” They don’t say, “Well, for another five dollars I’ll put up with this.” So for employers, this is good news in a way, because it’s not going to cost money, it’s going to cost imagination. It’s going to cost some real education in terms of everybody in the workplace taking responsibility. LA: I see a daunting trend and a promising trend. The daunting trend has to do with the increased accountability that is now being placed in our workplaces. The increased stress for success only continues to grow, and those forces do create a culture where bullying manifests itself. “I need to succeed, and I’m accountable now, so don’t get in my way or else I’m going to have to move through you.” On the promising side, I see examples such as the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. We all know that ¬medical residents have been one of the most ¬bullied groups through the years. But there’s a fundamental change, and the trainers are being taught new skills. The Royal College has gotten involved and said, “Intimidating your students is not a good way to help them learn.” I hope to see that trend continue, realizing that intimidating anybody is not a healthy way to get them to succeed.