As part of my blogging team coverage of the 2016 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition, several weeks ago I conducted a Q&A with Catherine Mattice, one of the conference’s concurrent speakers. The post served as a preview of her session, titled “The Real World: Case Studies of Real Organizations Who Solved Their Workplace Bullying Problems” and gave us some insight into her thoughts on the reality of workplace bullying. You can read that initial Q&A post here.
So naturally at the conference I took the opportunity to attend her session. What was immediately apparent to me is just how passionate Catherine is about this topic. This wasn’t something she was presenting on because it’s trendy or simply a hot topic amongst HR pros right now, she really, truly believes that not only is this a very real issue, but it’s one that can be solved. Her enthusiasm for the topic came across in our Q&A, but once I had the opportunity to see her actually speak on the topic, and how she at times spoke on the brink of emotion, it became very obvious that this is something she is dedicated to educating, addressing, and alleviating in our workplaces. (One point to note: Catherine herself was at one time the victim of a workplace bully, and that is what initially sparked her desire to start talking about it).
After providing attendees with a summary of her own background, experience with bullying, and how she arrived at where she is now with her work against workplace bullying, Catherine described the three characteristics of bullying and the three buckets of bullying behavior.
The Three Characteristics:
1. Bullying is repeated. According to research on the subject, behavior that qualifies as bullying typically happens at least once a week over the course of at least a six month period. Certainly it could vary somewhat from that, but the point is it’s generally not a one-time event (not unlike what is generally recognized as a hostile work environment – it usually has to be severe and pervasive behavior).
2. Bullying creates a psychological power imbalance. The bully uses his or her voice to “squash” the voice of the victim.
3. Bullying causes harm. This may seem obvious, but the behavior significantly impacts the victim. In fact, Catherine cited a fact that often, if not addressed, the behavior continues to a point in which the victim can no longer take it and quits to get away from it.
The Three Buckets of Behavior:
1. Aggressive Communication. In other words, attacking emails, invasion of personal space, harsh finger pointing. Any sort of communication in which the bully exhibits characteristics of that psychological power imbalance.
2. Humiliation. These are behaviors that promote social isolation, pointing out mistakes in public, or even - taken to the extreme – hazing.
3. Manipulation. Perhaps one of the more common bullying behaviors and the most difficult one to identify includes things such as giving impossible deadlines or continually changing deadlines, impossible workloads, and providing (unwarranted) poor performance reviews.
Catherine then went on to describe four real scenarios at real companies in which bullying behaviors were present. I won’t give away all of the details (you just had to be there for that!) but how the behaviors were addressed varied and largely depended on the type of behavior that was present. Was in one specific individual or a prevalent culture of bullying that was being allowed? What was the state of communication within the organization? Was there a distrust of leadership present among employees? Solutions raged from communication and prevalence audits (in the case of toxic workplaces with individual predominant bullies or an overall culture of bullies); engaging peer advisors and a “peer listening scheme” in environments with a distrust of leadership; committees with members from all levels of the organization where a culture of bullying required a social vision and update to corporate values; and supervisory training, coaching, and mediation.
The final thought attendees were left with, and one that is critical for us as HR pros to recognize is this: If someone witnesses bullying and doesn’t speak up, they are not a bystander, they are a reinforcer. We must create environments where our employees feel comfortable and know how to speak up for each other, and we need to train our managers on creating environments within their control where bullying is not allowed, and how to stop it if it in fact appears.
If we focus on creating a positive workplace, the bullying behavior goes away.