Culture, Leadership

Confronting Bad Behavior: Can You Step Up and Do the Right Thing?

Photo illustration by istockphoto.com.

“As I opened the door, I saw her with her back turned and shoulders slumped. When she turned around, I could see that she had been crying. I felt bad but it made me realize that I am not the only one who gets verbally abused. The kicker was that she was a senior level person.”

This tidbit was based on a senior level person being screamed at in the conference room by someone senior to her. This happened in front of a room full of people.

When I asked what happened and did anyone intervene, I was told this happens all the time to EVERYONE. They have developed a garden of screamers.

They have developed an organization with a culture that says it is OK to scream, and everyone is tip-toeing around, afraid of their own shadow. My question was: who is in charge? Oh, and by the way, the CEO is also known for getting upset and walking out of meetings.

From what I am told, the engagement level at this organization is, not surprisingly, below water.

Corporate America — what happened?

Have we become so stressed and blinded that we allow these type things to go on? Are we so gun shy that no one steps up to try and get in front of this evolving epidemic? Really, in this kind of workplace environment, there is no need to worry about engagement numbers and why they are so low.

When we think of bullies, we go back to high school. We all knew them, and that they took pride in riding herd over certain people. That is, riding herd over people that they could pull their act on and get away with it. If you watch the daily news, it often highlights schoolyard bullying and some of the dire consequences that go along with it.

But I want to let you in on a little secret: bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and in all kinds of places, including at our jobs. Workplace bullying can include “screaming, cursing, spreading vicious rumors, excessive criticism, and sometimes hitting, slapping, and shoving.”

Subtle behaviors, such as the silent treatment, a blatant disregard of requests, and exclusion from meetings, all count as bullying behavior. We have all encountered this at some point in our careers. If you have not, my father’s favorite saying is, “Keep on living.”

Bully-proof offices

An important step in changing workplace bullying is helping people to understand that it is not OK and that bullying is not just kid stuff. Every leader in the organization must realize and understand that it is NOT OK for this type behavior to fester in the workplace.

Not only that, but bullying could be classified as a hostile work environment which could cause a host of legal issues. The sooner that any incident of this type can be nipped in the bud, the better off everyone will be. If you are in this kind of environment, your organizations is silently calling for someone to step up and be an adult.

Don’t always assume that the bully is a man. According to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, an abusive boss is more likely to be a woman. Woman-to-woman bullying represents 50 percent of all workplace bullying. Man-to-woman is 30 percent, man-to-man 12 percent, and woman-to-man bullying is extremely rare — only 8 percent.

Who do you turn to?

If you are in this type environment, what do you do? If this is your boss, what do you do? If this seems to be about leadership competency, what is the answer?

In this case I related above, this was not her boss that was doing the bullying, but someone higher up from another department. However in her organization, this is part of the leadership culture. Everyone had a tendency to go off at any given time.

Making a workplace that is productive and comfortable for everyone should be a primary goal of any manager.

When I asked my acquaintance whether Human Resources was aware of this issue, her eyes rolled over and her words were, “Human Resources is useless.”

My answer too all this is two-fold.

If you are in HR and you allow this type behavior to fester, why not chose another profession? You are the reason this profession is in the shape it is in today, trying to gain credibility. You — or someone — has to take the lead to stamp this behavior out.

If you are a senior leader and you are allowing this type of behavior to happen, shame on you. Organizationally, this should not be allowed to happen. If you continue to allow this to happen, the livelihood of your business is in jeopardy — maybe not right now, but in the near future.

You must confront this behavior Once this becomes your workplace brand, everyone will look for the exit sign and no one will be looking for the entrance. It is hard enough to get the right talent, and you have just placed an anvil around your company’s neck.

For the leaders on your team that have been getting away with this behavior, step up to the plate and confront them (have a discussion), and let them know that this type of behavior will not continue.

I’ll let you in on another secret: if you take care of one of the major offenders, that may include showing them the exit, and that bold move would stem the drip because then everyone will know that bullying behavior will not be tolerated.

I worked for a company where a new CEO came in and heard about how one of her senior leaders was brutal to everyone. She had a conversation with her to let her know that behavior like that would not be tolerated under any circumstances.

A month later, even after the warning, this leader went off on an administrative assistant. Before the end of the day, she was shown the door. No more discussion.

All the other mini-tremors throughout the company shut down immediately. Everyone lived happily ever after.

There comes a point in all of our organizational lives that we must step up and do the right thing. This type of behavior is calling out for leadership — and for someone in management to step up and be the adult.

Ron Thomas is a human resources officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He formerly was director, talent and human resources solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He's also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He also serves as a faculty partner and executive facilitator at the Human Capital Institute. He has received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence by the World Human Resource Development Congress in Mumbai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.
  • standupHR

    Great article! As an HR professional, I have experienced this multiple times in various work settings, and agree it’s not acceptable.  Although it may appear that HR is not doing anything to address the bullying behavior, often times, they have documented, investigated and made recommendations for corrective action.  But the buck stops with the top…unfortunately, some top leaders prefer to sweep it under the rug rather than risk losing the manager and having to find a replacement.  

  • http://twitter.com/GregMarcus2 Greg Marcus

    Great article Ron.  One of the biggest determinants of ethical climate is how the rules are enforced.  If leaders enforce the rules for everyone equally, bad behavior goes down dramatically.  I especially like the fact that there was no further discussion.  Abusive people also can be highly manipulative, and having a discussion opens the door to let them talk their way out of consequences.

  • CanadianGuest

    What about when it’s the top-level person who is the person “behaving badly”?  Who can you go to then?  As much as I like articles that talk about issues in workplace culture, they rarely address when it’s the CEO or E.D. who is instigating inappropriate behaviour.

  • Bully-Buster

    Please check your statistics. You have incorrectly reported the research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
    Go here for a summary of their 2010 survey results: http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/2010-wbi-national-survey/
    And here for the 2007 stats http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2007/

    Thanks!

    • Ronaldtthomas

      Thanks for the updated survey results.

  • Jo Roberts

    The higher the bully is up the rank of seniority, the less likely they will be shown the door! Administration has to be true leaders and should be supporting their employees, despite their right hand man/woman being the bully!

  • Ladyp2

    I have found that climates that are unapologetically classist, encourage this kind of bullying.  Many people might complain about the behavior behind closed doors, but accept it when it happens.  All organizations should be aware of the hostile environment it causes.  And, even if people leave rather than confront the bullies, you do not want that constant turnover.  And, you can bet the word will spread about what an unpleasant place to work your organization can be!  Great article!

  • Randy Hain

    As a manager, it is important to send the message that bullying will not be tolerated, through a no-nonsense anti-bullying policy. A positive, supportive work environment is the formula for employee retention, engagement and happiness. –Randy Hain Managing Partner at Bell Oaks Executive Search