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Bullying & harassment : challenging the status quo

The recent CERA case has raised the issue of appropriate behaviour in the workplace. I’m not going to comment on that issue; I don’t have the details and haven’t seen the report. However, the reporting around it highlighted the differences in interpretation of the same behaviour. What one would find offensive another staffer saw as ‘a bit of fun’. This flags up the question of the difference between intent and third party perception; It is not about the intent of the person making the jokes or comments, it’s about how it is received and perceived by others that matters. This difference in interpretation sometimes makes it difficult for people to understand the line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct. Everybody is different and what one person might brush off as harmless fun may have a detrimental effect on another person.

I was recently asked to speak at an academic research forum on a piece of research undertaken by The Healthy Work Group at Massey University. They undertook a study into whether cultural ‘norms’ within an industry influence an employees perception of what constitutes workplace bullying. Taking the same scenarios to two different industries (high school teachers and hospitality) threw up differing perceptions of the same conduct. What teachers took to be bullying behaviour was described as ‘harmless joking around’ in the hospitality sector. This throws up the question highlighted in the study ‘Is what constitutes workplace bullying in the eyes of the beholder?’ (to this I add harassment). Yes and no. Whilst a target may not initially realise they are being targeted often their colleagues do. They’ve seen it before. This suggests that the beholder is wider than the target. If people around them know and recognise what is going on they have a responsibility to do something about it. Here’s the kicker though – the Massey study reveals that people don’t speak up for fear of jeopardising their job. So our workplaces are at risk of maintaining the status quo because people don’t feel safe in raising thorny issues.

Employment law specialist Susan Hornsby-Geluk suggests that standards of acceptable behaviour are partly determined by the context of the work environment. However, there are risks in using prevailing industry norms to explain away offensive and inappropriate conduct. Whilst we have to shape our strategies to suit the environment we need to be prepared to challenge the status quo.

This case has been a timely wake-up call for us all in the workplace, more so for those in senior positions. Higher expectations are placed on people in positions of power, the power imbalance may mean that a subordinate is unlikely to have a free and frank conversation around behaviour that they find upsetting. So what does this mean for our workplaces?

  • Workplaces should reflect on their cultures, consider if bawdy, coarse, offensive and harassing behaviour has become normalised. If so what needs to happen to turn it around.
  • We need to create discussion around what positive and respectful working looks like and what inappropriate/negative behaviours look like. If you don’t have guidelines, policies and a reporting mechanism in place around this then you need to put them in place.
  • Put in place awareness training for people at every level, what bullying and harassment is and isn’t; it’s often an eye-opener for people as they start to hold the mirror up to their own behaviours.
  • Be clear around what harmless joking and banter looks like and what harassment and bullying looks like; when the former starts to creep into the latter step in and put it right
  • Senior leaders set the tone and culture of the organisation and should lead from the top in terms of appropriate conduct
  • We need to develop cultures where it is safe to have an honest conversation, where people don’t feel that their jobs are at risk if they speak up, where a leader says “thanks for sharing that with me” and means it.
  • We need to promote, hire and develop leaders who demonstrate positive leadership behaviours – not command and control.  Do not promote a bully into any level of  leadership role, from supervisor upwards.  I had a senior leader say to me (on the back of a bullying investigation) “I thought I could manage the behaviours, I was wrong” . 
  • We need to upskill people (at all levels) to be able to have those courageous conversations, to say if they are uncomfortable with something, as well as being able to receive similar feedback.

If you’re wondering why some people get targeted over others, check out this post I wrote.   There is a common pattern that bullies take.

Stepping off the soapbox …. What other stuff should we be doing to create positive, respectful workplaces – share your views!

If you need help in any of these areas give me a call.

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“Work Shouldn’t Hurt” – but recent studies reveal a staggering 90% of people experience workplace bullying across NZ

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