Conflict in Start-ups

Mongolia Naadam 16

Young jockeys sprint from the starting line of a Naadam horse race. Ugtaal Soum, Mongolia. By Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project

One-size-fits-all advice has its uses, but also limitations. Anyone who wants to lose weight must consume fewer calories than he or she expends in energy. Yet the person who is responsible for feeding a family, the person who travels extensively and often eats out, and the very active person will each have different challenges in maintaining a healthy weight.

From one perspective, conflict in a start-up should not be different from conflict in any other similarly sized organization. And to be sure, some of the same factors that cause conflict in any organization – whether it is a family business or a partnership or a non-profit – can contribute to conflict in a start-up. Yet start-ups also have some unique challenges, and I’ve seen some rather bad advice targeted to them.

Here are some reasons why conflict in a start-up might be different from conflict in a more established organization.

Start-up founders frequently have to make a lot of decisions about a wide variety of things in a short time. They tend not to have established practices and routines to fall back on because, well, they’re just starting up. So decisions about personnel, about purchasing, about corporate culture, about priorities and about the product itself may have to be made in a relatively short time, often without a clear understanding of who should be making these decisions and on what basis.

Start-ups tend to have limited Human Resources support and may not have any. This might be understandable, as HR is a cost center and start-ups with a small staff may not see it as a priority. Yet no or limited HR support might mean that no one in the company has the skills necessary for dealing with difficult employees. Without an HR specialist on hand, founders may not understand their legal responsibilities to employees or the legal liabilities that employee behavior can subject them to. It can also mean that founders spend an inordinate amount of time managing conflict, as employees who are in dispute with one another have nowhere else to turn.

A culture of accepting inappropriate behavior at the top. In the tech world, there are far too many stories about “demanding” bosses like Steve Jobs who inspired employees to do great things and made wild profits. Yet a reluctance to confront abusive behavior can have far-reaching consequences. For every successful abrasive leader we hear about there must be a dozen who demoralized everyone around them, caused high-value employees to leave, became the target of expensive lawsuits, and generally spread misery. We just don’t get to hear about them. If the founders or key members of the management team can only motivate employees by intimidation or do not know how to give constructive feedback, then there are likely to be problem down the road. Everyone charged with managing the work of others – especially highly skilled or creative employees – should be trained to do this effectively and respectfully.

Take all of these factors and throw in a reluctance to ask for help. It takes intelligence and grit to launch a successful start-up. Unfortunately, there can be a tendency among people who are smart in one or several areas of their life to believe that they are smart in all areas and to falsely assume that they do not need to ask for help. This is unfortunate. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to call for outside help when you recognize that you need it.

Finally, the costs of conflict can be greater for start-ups than for more established organizations. Conflict among founding partners has caused promising start-ups to fold before it was clear whether they could be successful businesses or not. Investors are leery of putting their money into dysfunctional organizations. No one wants to invest in a relationship that is already broken.

Investigations Gone Wrong!

One of My Favorite (or "Favourite") London Pubs
What do these situations have in common:

  • Sally, one of your employees, accuses her co-worker Bob of sexual harassment.
  • A warehouse inventory reveals that supplies are missing.  You review footage from the security camera, and it looks like Mike has been removing company property without permission.
  • Jessica and her boss Mary never hit it off.  Now Jessica comes to you in tears, with a doctor’s note, requesting a leave of absence for stress.  She attributes her ill-health to Mary’s persistent harassment.

In each situation, the employer must undertake an investigation, and bungling the investigation could have serious legal and likely financial consequences.

A couple of recent decisions highlight the need for a fair investigation carried out by a neutral party.  (Please note that I am not a lawyer and none of this is intended as legal advice.)

Here are some things to keep in mind:

You must inform the respondent (i.e. the person who is accused of harassment, etc.) of the accusations against him or her.

In Elgert vs. Home Hardware Stores, Elgert was accused of sexual harassment by a young woman he supervised.  The investigator (more about him later) interviewed the alleged victim and some of her associates, and on that basis, fired Elgert, without ever telling Elgert what he was accused of doing.  Instead, the investigator repeatedly told Elgert, “You know what you did.”  Elgert was escorted off the premises and not allowed to return to collect his belongings.

If the investigator had done a little more digging, he might have found that the complainant (the woman who made the accusation against Elgert) had been heard to say that she would “get even” with him after he gave her a negative performance review and moved her to a work area away from a young man in whom she had a romantic interest.  I can’t provide every detail of Home Hardware’s bungling of this case, but suffice it to say that an Alberta jury awarded Elgert two years’ pay in lieu of notice and substantial damages.

After informing the respondent, you must give him or her a chance to tell their side of the story.

Home Hardware is not the only employer who failed to realize that there might be another side to what looked like a clear case.  Allied, a maintenance company, terminated five employees after a surveillance video seemed to show the men removing cans of soda from a vending machine on a client’s property by reaching up into the dispenser.  Allied argued that its policy of zero tolerance for theft justified the firings.

However at the hearing before the Labour Relations Board of Quebec a representative of the soda company testified that the machine in question was known to be faulty and that cans of soda would sometimes get stuck in the dispenser or not be released at all.  Moreover, the amount of money in the machine corresponded pretty closely to the cost of the missing cans.  The Labour Relations Board overturned the terminations.  No word yet on damages for the employees.

Hat tip:  I first read about this case in a blog post by Diana Theophilopoulos who is a lawyer with Stikeman Elliot in Montreal.

It is not enough that the investigator is a neutral party.  The investigator must also be perceived as being neutral.

Back to Elgert vs. Home Hardware Stores:  The executive who was given the task of investigating the complaint against Elgert had no training in investigating sexual harassment complaints.  What’s worse, he turned out to be an old friend of the complainant’s father.

Even if the executive were a thoroughly trained and highly experienced investigator of such claims, he should not have been selected for the job.  Many reasonable people would argue that, as an old friend of the complainant’s father, it would be difficult for him to remain neutral.  This is not to say that such a relationship would inevitably mean that the investigator was biased.  It is enough that the relationship raises a reasonable doubt about his neutrality.  In other words, it doesn’t pass the “smell test.”

Think carefully about the investigator’s mandate.  Is this primarily a legal issue, or is the organization’s reputation also at stake?

You may have read about Mike Rice, the university men’s basketball coach at Rutgers who was filmed behaving in an abusive manner towards the young men on the team.  It turns out that Rice had been investigated for abusive behaviour before the video surfaced.  But the investigators’ mandate had been to discover whether Rice perpetrated a “hostile work environment.”  (The answer was no, largely because student athletes are not “employees”).  The investigation focused on a narrow, legalistic question, rather than on wider issues of whether Rice’s conduct made him appropriate as a representative of the university and a suitable role model for young athletes.  Rutgers has had legal costs in getting out of the mess; more importantly, its reputation has suffered.

The main lesson for employers:  Investigations are serious matters.  Personal reputations are at stake and the stress level – even for those not directly involved – is likely to be high.  If an investigation is warranted, do it properly to avoid future legal hassles and costs.

Related Posts:

Bill 168 – Investigating Complaints under your Policy

Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Problem for Management 

Bill 168: A Recent Arbitration Decision

Note:  I offer investigations of complaints related to workplace harassment, bullying, sexual harassment, and other matters covered under bill 168.  See my website for more information, or contact me directly to discuss the situation in your workplace.


Defining Workplace “Harassment” – Another Decision

at least i'm not a bully In Ontario’s Bill 168, “harassment” is defined as a course of “vexatious” (bothersome) comment or conduct that is unwelcome, or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. But what does this mean in practice and how might it apply to your workplace? I wrote last summer about an arbitrator’s ruling that provided some guidance as to the law’s scope and application. That case focused on a nurse’s harassment of her co-workers. Here I summarize another relevant case, heard by the Labour Relations Board. This time the allegations were of harassment by a supervisor.

(I should note: Patrick Kelly, the vice-chair of the Labour Relations Board, made a number of rulings regarding this case. The latest one is here. Many of them have to do with jurisdictional issues. I have focused on his reasonings regarding harassment, and I have omitted and simplified the more technical (nerdy) legal issues. As regular readers of this blog already know, I am not a lawyer and none of this is meant as legal advice! If you are concerned about your rights in the workplace, contact your union representative or an employment lawyer.)

Background:  The applicant (I will call her “Jane”) had been employed as a social worker in a nursing home for about seven months when a new Administrator took over.  (I’ll call the new boss “Mary.”)

Allegations:  Jane alleged two incidents of harassment.  Mary told Jane several times that she was to document every conversation she had with a resident’s family members, for the purposes of any legal actions that might be brought against the Home.  Jane told Mary that she was having trouble keeping up with all of the necessary paperwork (the “Resident Assessment Protocols”).  Mary told her to work harder, and to put in extra hours if necessary, in order to finish everything on time.  She also said that Jane might face a suspension if she couldn’t complete her work on time.

In another incident, Jane alleged that the Home’s Director of Care yelled at her during a meeting to discuss a resident’s treatment plan.  Two days after the meeting she was given a written warning for failure to cooperate with the Director of Care.

After these two incidents, Jane wrote an email to a number of people in the senior management team, expressing concern that Mary did not have a good understanding of the social worker’s role.  She asks for “support” in dealing with Mary.  Shortly after this, Jane’s employment was terminated.

The Decision:  Mr. Kelly found that the two incidents Jane described did not constitute workplace harassment.  The second incident – where the Director of Care yelled at Jane in a meeting – was “rude” but not an example of harassment.  (If you remember from the definition, harassment is a “course” of vexatious conduct or comment, rather than a single incident.)

What about Mary’s requests to Jane to document conversations with residents’ families and her threat that Jane would face termination if she could not finish her work on time?  Again, this does not fall under the definition of harassment, and Mary’s expectations of Jane were not unreasonable.  As Mr. Kelly put it, Mary “made a blunt, unflattering assessment of [Jane’s]  performance and demanded in no uncertain terms that she fulfill management’s work expectations or risk discipline.”  While acknowledging that Mary could have shown “greater tact and sensitivity,” Mr. Kelly stressed that sometimes the exercise of management has negative consequences for workers, but that does not make it harassment.

Lessons for Employees:  Try to work things out with your boss before going over his or her head.  If you do go over your boss’s head, don’t be surprised if senior management sees things differently than you do.

Lessons for Employers:  While the actions I have described here may not fall under the legal definition of harassment, they are not good management practices either.  I suspect that these incidents and the resulting appeal to the Labour Relations Board were bad for morale and an irritation for management.

Note:  I offer investigations of complaints related to workplace harassment, bullying, sexual harassment, and other matters covered under bill 168.  Contact me directly to discuss the situation in your workplace.

What is “constructive dismissal”?

Departure from Wakkanai AirportCan you quit a job, and yet still be fired?  Can an employer fire employees even though they seem to have left the job of their own free will?  These questions are not riddles or zen koans, but refer instead to one of the trickiest concepts in employment law: “constructive dismissal.”

“Constructive dismissal” sounds like it might be a good thing – sort of like “constructive criticism.”  The reality is different.  “Constructive dismissal” may have occurred in the following scenarios:

Susan is employed as a sales manager in downtown Toronto.  Her boss tells her that, due to changing priorities in the company, she will have to re-locate to Inuvik.  Rather than make the move, Susan quits.

Bob runs one of the departments at Acme Co., and has twenty people reporting to him.  After a corporate reorganization, Bob is demoted, his responsibilities greatly diminished, and he is asked to take a 50% pay cut.  Bob quits, deciding to try his luck on the job market instead of accepting the new circumstances.

In both of these cases, the employer has unilaterally changed the terms of employment so greatly that the original employment contract seems to have been violated.  When she was hired, Susan was never told that her job could involve relocation.  Bob was hired into a managerial position and it was never indicated that his responsibilities and salary could be reduced.

“Constructive dismissal” may also be a possibility in the following scenario:

Jane is a receptionist in a downtown office.  Her supervisor, Sally, is very demanding and impatient.  If Jane makes the slightest error, Sally yells at her, even if there are other people around.  Jane is good at her job, but she gets so nervous when Sally is around that she makes errors.  Jane dislikes conflict and the situation is starting to get to her.  The stress is affecting her health.  She has tried to speak with the Human Resources Department, but they said that they couldn’t do anything.  It seems that Sally has a history of this kind of behaviour.  Rather than confront Sally and stand up for herself, Jane quits.

In each of these cases, I have said that constructive dismissal may be a possibility.  This is an important issue because it affects severance pay.  An employee who quits is not usually entitled to severance pay.  But an employee who is dismissed (or constructively dismissed) may be entitled to severance pay.

I am not a lawyer and this blog is not intended as legal advice.  Constructive dismissal is a very tricky area.  If you think that you may be in a situation where constructive dismissal is a possibility, please get legal advice before taking any action.  You can contact the Employment Standards Information Centre, or to get advice about your specific situation, contact an employment lawyer.

If you are an employer, please consult with a lawyer about your obligations under the Employment Standards Act before thinking creatively about how to “encourage” employees to move along.  Fulfilling your obligations under the law might prove costly, but not as expensive as losing in court.

“In any other workplace…”

gressenhall 1When people learn that I work in conflict resolution, they are often eager to tell me about the conflicts in their workplace.  I hear about bad behaviour, bullying, rudeness, and the description usually builds to the following declaration:

“In any other workplace, this person would have been fired long ago!

And at this point I have to smile, and suppress the urge to roll my eyes.

I have heard this claim from people in large organizations and small, unionized and non-unionized, industrial and academic.  Many people are under the impression that their workplace is uniquely dysfunctional and that the person they have told me about – whether a supervisor, co-worker, or employee – is distinctively awful.  The unfortunate reality is that bad behaviour in the workplace is widespread, and no matter how often I hear about it, my heart always goes out to those affected.  Workplace strife and conflict take a terrible toll, not only on the financial well-being of organizations, but also on the mental and physical health of everyone who must deal with it.

While the claim that things would be different in “any other workplace” is not literally true, it does point to an underlying fact about workplace conflict.  Although every unhappy workplace (like every unhappy family) may be unhappy in its own way, certain structural factors in organizations make workplace conflict particularly difficult to manage.  Let me just mention two:

First, the offending person is likely to be perceived as providing great value to the organization.  Maybe he or she is the top salesperson, or has some hard-to-replace set of skills, or is well-connected within upper management.  Whatever value this person brings is perceived as making up for or out-weighing the grief that he or she causes.

The key word here is “perceived.”  It is an open question whether the “value” that a conflict-prone employee brings to an organization really out-weighs their overall cost.  If someone took the time to crunch the numbers, they might be surprised at how they work out.  In his book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton tells the story of a men’s clothing store in which the top salesman was an overbearing jerk and made life miserable for the other employees.  When he was finally let go, the store’s overall sales actually rose.  Although this person was an effective salesman, his incivility and bad behaviour prevented others from succeeding.  Sutton has many similar stories.

Second, there is often a view that, since it is “impossible” to get rid of the conflict-prone person, there is no point in confronting him or her about their actions or in hoping for any kind of behavioural change.

Is it really “impossible” for an organization to discipline or dismiss a conflict-prone employee?  Only your HR specialist or employment lawyer may know for certain.  As for the hope of behavioural change, I will say only that it will not happen if the employee in question is never confronted about his or her actions.  Conflict-prone employees often lack insight into the effect they have on others.  They may genuinely not realize that their behaviour is unacceptable.  If you are the supervisor of an employee who makes coming to work an ordeal for others and you have not discussed this with him or her, then (sad to say) you are part of the problem.

If a person in a position of power really believes that things would be different “in any other workplace,” then it may be time to ask what is holding your organization back from attempting positive change.

Bill 168: A Recent Arbitration Decision

Healing at the Abbey (c.1915)Bill 168 has been law now for just over two years, and we haven’t yet seen many decisions interpreting and applying the legislation.  A recent ruling by arbitrator David Starkman is of interest to labour and employment lawyers and HR professionals because it provides some guidance about Bill 168’s scope and application.  Below I briefly summarize and discuss this very interesting case.

Background:  In 2010 the Peterborough Regional Health Centre, faced with the need to reduce costs, took a decision to replace some of the Registered Nurses (RNs) in the Hemodialysis Unit with Registered Practical Nurses (RPNs).  RPNs have less education than RNs, earn less money, and have narrower scope of practice.  The Health Centre Management planned a 6-week orientation period for the RPNs when they would be mentored by the RNs.  However many of the RNs were unhappy about the introduction of RPNs, which would result in the layoff of RNs, and which they feared would compromise patient care.  Several RNs refused to volunteer to mentor their new colleagues.

Incidentally (or maybe, not so incidentally), the RNs’ concerns were later shown to be valid.  An Independent Assessment Committee found that the hospital failed to plan adequately for the staffing changes, and failed to evaluate whether the changes affected patient care.

Allegations:  Although there seemed to be a great deal of tension and bad feelings in the unit when the RPNs started, one of the RNs in particular was particularly hostile.  (I will call her Sally.)  She engaged in non-verbal behaviour designed to make the RPNs uncomfortable, including rolling her eyes at them, staring and flapping her hands as they walked by her work area, refusing to make eye contact, and on one occasion, walking directly toward an RPN and making contact with her shoulder.  Another RPN reported that, while she was washing her hands at a sink, Sally came behind her, tried to pull her hair in to a ponytail, and made remarks to the effect that, patients do not want hair in the way.

The Employer’s Response:  Reading the testimony presented to the arbitrator, there were clearly many problems on the unit.  Several of the RPNs quit and spoke of an atmosphere of bullying.  Morale was very low.  After a number of complaints abut Sally, the employer met with her to discuss their concerns.  Sally did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.  When her inappropriate behaviour continued, Sally was put on paid leave while the employer undertook an investigation.  The result of the investigation was that Sally was found to have engaged in a pattern of intimidation and harassment and was terminated for just cause.  Sally grieved both the decision to place her on leave and the firing.

The Arbitrator’s Decision:  Mr. Starkman found that the employer had just cause to discipline Sally and to put her on paid leave pending an investigation.  However, they did not have just cause to terminate her employment.  Although the employer had discussed their concerns with Sally she was never formally disciplined.  While Starkman acknowledged that Sally’s conduct was very subtle and therefore difficult to evaluate and discipline, he held that the principle of progressive discipline nonetheless applied, and that termination was too severe a penalty.  However, he also found that Sally’s conduct, her refusal to acknowledge that her behaviour was inappropriate, and her failure to apologize, meant that she should not be returned to the unit.  Instead, he directed that Sally be paid damages in lieu of reinstatement.

(Just an aside – some of you may be wondering, “Can Sally really not have understood that her behaviour was inappropriate?  I’m afraid that this is entirely possible.  For one thing, her co-workers were very reluctant to confront her about her actions.  And trying to understand it from Sally’s perspective, she likely saw herself as a strong advocate for patient care, not as someone who made the workplace a nightmare for others!)

Lessons for Employees:  If you disagree with management’s decisions, don’t take it out on others.  Even if you have a valid point, the organization’s code of conduct still applies.  And if management raises concerns about your behaviour, take it seriously.  If you are on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour, speak up – either raise a concern directly with the offending party or if that is not possible, speak to management or HR.

Lessons for Employers:  Several of the people who spoke with the arbitrator reported that Sally’s behaviour in the workplace had been a source of tension for a long time.  When employers fail to deal directly with inappropriate behaviour, it rarely corrects itself on its own.  Inaction and delay result in greater costs down the line.  (See my post on the costs of workplace strife for more information.)

Lessons for Everyone:  Eye-rolling?  Flapping one’s hands?  Is this really intimidation and harassment, such that discipline is appropriate?  The answer is yes.  It is clear from the testimony that the RPNs felt bullied, harassed, and unsupported in their work.  As Mr. Starkman wrote in his decision, Sally’s actions were “extremely subtle, and in that sense were extremely insidious. Bullying and harassment can consist of a single incident, or a series of repeated incidents both of which can have great impact upon the victim of the behaviour.”

Is Your Workplace “Flourishing”?

our dogwood blooming
There are a number of different words that could be used to describe a happy, productive workplace.  I chose “flourishing” because I want to emphasize the links between well-adjusted employees, dynamic teams, and organizational success.  (And yes, if you know about my philosophy background, you will probably have picked up on the nod to Aristotle!)

Flourishing workplaces share a number of features, whether the work environment is industrial or white-collar, academic or professional, generation-Y casual or established and staid.

These are some of the differences between flourishing and non-flourishing (withering?) workplaces:

In a flourishing workplace people feel free to speak their minds.  They share reservations about plans and projects.  They ask hard questions without fear of reprisal.  In a non-flourishing workplace, people feel they have to “tiptoe” around others and they keep their concerns about workplace issues to themselves.  The whole organization is weaker as a result.

In a flourishing workplace meetings are lively.  Everyone is engaged.  Employees understand that if they speak up, their concerns will be acknowledged, even if decisions do not always go their way. In a non-flourishing workplace, meetings are painful.  They may be boring, with “surface harmony” masking a lack of engagement.  They may be acrimonious and hostile, indicating a lack of mutual respect.  Or meetings may seem continually to cover the same ground, because a consensus about basic issues has never been achieved.

In a flourishing workplace “water-cooler talk” is social.  Employees do not engage in negative gossip about one another or about the organization.  When casual conversation is work-related, it is constructive and in a spirit of problem-solving.  In a non-flourishing workplace, casual conversation is fueled by rumours, back-stabbing, and fear of possible change.

In a flourishing workplace people deal with one another (and with other divisions) directly.  If a conflict arises, people try to solve it face-to-face rather than by e-mail or by phone.  (I’ve written previously about the dangers of email communication.)  They understand how to raise concerns in a respectful manner.  In a non-flourishing workplace, employees may turn to elaborate back-channel strategies rather than confront one another directly, wasting effort and time that could be spent more productively.

Most important of all, in a flourishing workplace employees are engaged by their work and motivated to do their best.  They feel that what they are doing is important and that their contribution matters.  In a non-flourishing workplace, morale is low.  Employees do not feel connected to one another or to the work that they do.  This may be evident in higher-than-average rates of sick leave, unexplained absenteeism or low employee retention rates.

Which better describes your workplace, flourishing or non-flourishing?

Note:  I formulated these ideas with the help of Dr. Pamela Hudak.

Turning Around a Team (in the real world)

Stetson Hatters Basketball team vs JU team.Last week Forbes published a widely read article (over 15, 000 views) called “Ten Ways to Turnaround a Dysfunctional Team” by Eric Jackson.  Much of the piece was solid, if unspectacular advice, such as, “Don’t have too many meetings,” “Hold people accountable,” and “Measure progress.”  Not much to argue with there.  However Mr. Jackson’s first two recommendations  – “Get rid of non-performers immediately” and (in so many words) “Fill the vacant roles with the best people possible” – merit some discussion.

“Get rid of non-performers immediately.”  Sometime hard decisions have to be made and individuals have to be let go for the sake of the company as a whole.  Yet it is rarely that simple.  There are many reasons why it might be nearly impossible (or spectacularly unwise) to “get rid” of a particular person.  Different jurisdictions and different workplace environments (unionized or not) have different rules and conventions around letting people go.  There are other things to think about as well.  What if you are working in a family business and the “non-performer” is the boss’s sister – or your own sister?  What if the person you have identified as a problem is an old fraternity buddy of someone higher up in the hierarchy?

Mr. Jackson writes that you will engender goodwill among the others if you get rid of the “cancerous” members of the team.  But there is a difference between a “non-performer” and a “cancerous” or difficult person who brings down everyone around them.  If the non-performer is well-liked, getting rid of him or her is bound to demoralize the others.  Forget about any “goodwill.”  On the other hand, the difficult, widely disliked person might in fact be your top performer.  Mr. Jackson performs a little rhetorical slight-of-hand when he identifies “non-performers” with “cancerous” members of the team.  (And don’t get me started on his choice of metaphor here…)

A better approach?  Find out why the non-performer or the weak performer isn’t doing better.  Maybe he has problems at home and this is a temporary setback.  Maybe she just isn’t suited to the role and needs some kind of change.  A friend who has worked for several years in the banking industry tells me that over the years she has moved many people from sales into administration.  All of these were good workers who simply weren’t comfortable in sales.  Once you have identified why non-performers aren’t doing better, you might have some idea of how the situation might be turned around.

“Fill the vacant roles with the best people possible.”  Every company wants to hire “the best people,” just as all parents wants their child to be the smartest in the class or the most valuable player on the hockey team.  But we all know that, in the real world, not every company will be able to hire “top talent.”  Your organization might be at a geographical disadvantage; you might simply not be able to afford  to pay the kind of salary that top talent can demand.  By all means, hire the best people you can find and the best people you can afford.  But you hardly need me (or anyone else) to tell you that.

I see another problem with Mr. Jackson’s suggestion.  It seems to assume that the way to have a great team is to make sure it is filled with the “best” people.  This seems like common sense.  If you want to  bake a cake, assemble the best ingredients and you will get the best results.  But a workplace team is not like a cake.  A group of excellent individuals might not be able to form a great team.  They may not be able to work together effectively.  They may undermine, rather than support one another.  They may be hesitant to share ideas or offer necessary critical feedback.  If you are in the position of having to turn around a dysfunctional team, it is not enough to make sure you have the best people.  You’ve also got to make sure that they are interacting in a productive and respectful manner.

Turning around a dysfunctional team is hard.  It is a real test of managerial skill.  If it could be done in ten easy steps, every company would be successful.

Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Problem for Management


This weekend’s Globe and Mail contained an excellent example of how not to handle a sexual harassment complaint:

RCMP Constable Janet Merlo says she felt compelled to respond when a supervising officer made a sexist remark to her in the company of a high-ranking official from the force.

“You know, if I were to make a complaint, I could probably retire on just what you say to me alone,” she said.

“What was that?” her boss replied. “Did you say you want to retire on me? Does that mean you like it on top?”

It was at this point that the senior RCMP officer in the room interjected.

“If you’re going to talk to her like that, do it somewhere else,” he said to the male officer. “I don’t want to be a witness to stuff like that.”

Honestly, I don’t think I could invent a better example of how not to handle an incident of sexual harassment.  First, the remark by the Constable’s supervising officer clearly fits one definition of sexual harassment, which is remarks of a sexual nature which are known (or should be known) to be unwelcome.  It is clear that the remark was unwelcome, as the Constable communicated as much when she referred to the possibility of making a complaint.  Second, the “high-ranking official” clearly knows that the remark was inappropriate – that’s why he told the supervisor not to speak to Constable Merlo in such a way in his presence.  But while he communicated to both that he understood the remark to be inappropriate, he also communicated to both that it was fine for the supervisor to go on making such remarks, as long as he did it “somewhere else”!  No wonder that the Globe reports that the biggest challenge facing the RCMP’s new Commissioner is the history of allegations of harassment by female Mounties.

As I wrote about workplace bullying in my previous post, workplace sexual harassment is a problem for management.  While I believe that women should be encouraged to speak up in the face of inappropriate remarks, expecting employees to deal with sexual harassment on their own is both unrealistic and an abdication of management’s responsibilities.  As is the case with workplace bullying, how management approaches the problem can make the difference between a flourishing and respectful workplace, and a workplace with low morale, low productivity, high employee turnover and a host of other problems.

Happily, I also have an example of an organization that was more successful in its response to an allegation of workplace sexual harassment.  A friend who was at the time in C-level of a flourishing start-up told me that he had a number of complaints by different female employees about a male co-worker who was making sexually-charged remarks.  My friend spoke to the employee in private, told him that the remarks were inappropriate and unacceptable, and that his behaviour would have to change.  When my friend learned that the remarks had continued and that the employee in question had made no effort to change his behaviour, he felt that he had no choice but to let him go.  It wasn’t easy for my friend to confront the employee.  And it certainly wasn’t an easy decision to let him go.  But my friend really felt that he had no choice.  He realized that if he failed to act, that would have been sending a message to his female employees that he tolerated sexual harassment and that he didn’t care about their discomfort.

Dealing with complaints of sexual harassment probably tops the list of things that a manager would rather not do.  No one looks forward to this kind of difficult conversation, but such conversations can become easier with communications training.  Having a code of conduct or other policy document in place is also crucial, as is making sure that all employees are aware of it.


Bullying and Workplace Culture

Bully Free Zone You can find a lot of information and advice about workplace bullying on the internet. Unfortunately while most of the information and advice is good so far as it goes, I find that much of it nonetheless misconstrues the nature of the problem.

Most discussions of workplace bullying start with a definition of bullying. Basically, bullying is “persistent harassment”, and “harassment” is conduct that is unwelcome or ought to be known to be unwelcome. Harassment might include insults and demeaning remarks, comments of a sexual nature, offensive jokes, or intimidation. Most discussions of bullying then move on to advice: “What to do if you are a victim of workplace bullying.” The advice usually amounts to four basic points:

  • Document what is happening – keep a record of the harassment as it occurs, with names of witnesses if applicable.
  • Stand up for yourself.
  • Reach out and let someone know what is happening. Contact a union rep, or the Human Resources Dept, or the Employee Assistance Dept.
  • If possible, try not to be alone with the bully.

As one-size-fits-all advice, this is pretty good. The problem is that the focus is on individuals – bullies and their victims – rather than on the workplace culture that makes both kinds of roles possible. Bullying is problem of organizational structure or culture; it requires management-level intervention and solutions. Expecting the victims of bullying to solve their own problems is both unrealistic and an abdication of management’s responsibilities. How management approaches the problem can make the difference between a flourishing and respectful workplace, and a workplace with low morale, low productivity, high employee turnover and a host of other problems.

I was once called in to a workplace where Mike, a recent hire (and not his real name) was persistently harassed by his immediate supervisor. The supervisor insulted his work, made a big deal out of minor mistakes, denied him information that was necessary for completing work properly, and generally treated him horribly. Mike liked the actual work and seemed to be pretty good at it, but things got to the point where he dreaded having to show up in the morning and had to take an unpaid stress leave. Luckily for Mike, he had the support of his co-workers who could see the supervisor’s bullying behaviour for what it was.

Mike wasn’t so fortunate when he approached management about the problem. The manager and the supervisor had a history together that Mike and the manager did not. The manager assumed that the supervisor’s behaviour was justified, that Mike was a “hot head” who didn’t know the job yet and couldn’t take constructive criticism. You can imagine the messages sent by the manager’s failure to investigate properly. The bully got the message, “Your behaviour is just fine and there is no need to change.” Mike got the message that he was not valued in the organization. And his co-workers got the message that, if they were in a similar situation, management would not support them.

It is unfortunate but hardly surprising that things got worse for Mike before they got better. Eventually, it took all of Mike’s co-workers in the department together going to the manager to let him know what they’d seen. And I have to give credit where it is due: When the manager understood the reality of the situation, he made it clear to the supervisor that the bullying behaviour could not continue. When the supervisor received that message, clearly and in no uncertain terms, his behaviour changed.

The lessons for managers: Bullying is a problem of workplace culture; it is not a problem that you should expect employees to solve between themselves. Everyone, at every level of the organization, needs to know what kind of behaviour is unacceptable. And when someone crosses the line of acceptable behaviour, management needs to be willing to back up their words with action.