A Bullying Problem is a Management Problem

Exclusion is Bullying

One of the more depressing aspects of my work is meeting with people who have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace. I see this impact firsthand: sleepless nights, feelings of being trapped, and stress that invades people’s private and home lives.

According to Harassment in Canadian workplaces by Hango and Moyser, workers who reported experiencing harassment:

  • were more likely to be dissatisfied with their current job,
  • have low motivation to do their best work,
  • are more likely to say they are planning to leave their current work,
  • have a weak sense of belonging to their workplace,
  • have worse health, higher levels of reported stress, and a less hopeful view of the future.

And I also see the impact for the organizations involved: constant turnover, good employees out the door, high rates of absenteeism and sick leave, and low engagement among those left to carry on.

Why do I insist that a bullying problem is a management problem? It is very tempting to look at workplace harassment and believe that the problem is individuals who – for whatever reasons – ignore or flout norms of respectful behaviour. But a bullying problem is a management problem in disguise. Consider these factors:

  • Who hired the bully?
  • Who fails to set out clear expectations for behaviour in the workplace?
  • Who repeatedly overlooks inappropriate behaviour?
  • Who fails to give supervisors the tools to identify and address disrespectful behaviour?
  • Who creates a climate in which people fear reprisal if they report harassment?

Perhaps the most depressing thing of all about workplace harassment is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Workplace harassment is a consequence of bad management. And bad management can be improved, if organizations have the will.

Here are some first steps:

  1. Have a Workplace Harassment Policy. (In Ontario, and in many other jurisdictions as well, this is a legal requirement.) The Policy should say what behaviour counts as harassment, how to report harassment, and outline the consequences for engaging in harassment.
  2. Follow your own Policy and take all complaints seriously. This doesn’t mean that all complaints are well-founded. However, if someone makes a complaint, hear them out and investigate promptly. An employee should never feel that they came forward with a complaint and “nothing happened.”
  3. Make sure that anyone in a supervisory position knows how to identify workplace harassment and is able to address it in the moment.
  4. Tone at the top: An organization’s leaders have to set the right example. They must be especially scrupulous about treating others with respect.
  5. “Will I be next?” Recognize that the ill effects of workplace harassment extend beyond the person making the complaint. Witnesses, by-standers, and those who aren’t present but hear about it from others are all affected. A single incident can have a profound impact on morale.
  6. Everyone deserves a second chance. However I’ve seen too many organizations in which repeat offenders never suffer consequences for their actions. This sends the terrible message that harassment is condoned.

I have seen workplaces turn around so I know it is possible. If eliminating bullying is a priority, and organizations are prepared to invest the necessary resources (and perhaps take some hard decisions), then workplace harassment can be a thing of the past.