September 3rd, 2013

When workplace bullies infiltrate, stall and kill organizational anti-bullying efforts


“When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers … we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Workplace bullying is sustained through indifference, providing tacit support for bullies, or deliberate decisions that kill anti-bullying initiatives. Let’s start at the top of organizations and work our way down the levels exploring how bullies kill anti-bullying efforts.

At the top. When the perpetrator-bully is a privileged resident of the C-suite, as a Chief X Officer — e.g., where X is Executive, Information, Nursing or Financial, he or she can void any well-intentioned initiative devised at lower levels. And everyone is ranked beneath the C-suite dwellers.

CXO’s can overturn findings from complaint-driven investigations that pin responsibility on a bully manager. It does not matter how much the investigation cost. It matters even less that the perception of fairness is undermined by executive reversals. It is the way executives act — protecting their buddies and sycophants.

Typically, anti-bullying efforts begin at the HR level. HR is not recognized as a credible contributor to the C-suite, even if HR has a rep on the executive team. So, even if an enlightened HR devises a strategy to combat workplace bullying, the CXO can kill plans because it either threatens that CXO personally or exposes a sponsored protege of that CXO who is a bully. Principled HR executives are fired for daring to propose terminating costly high-ranked perpetrators.

CXO bullies prevent change efforts. No one who wants to keep working has the courage to confront the CXO about his or her personal conduct. Traditional, but not our, advice compels targets to confront their bullies. It’s hypocritical that this standard is not suggested when the CXO is the bully. It’s obvious to everyone that that confrontation will be unsuccessful. Research shows that confronting is ineffective at stopping the bullying at any level.

Within management. Manager-level bullies have the power to sustain bullying at ranks below them by failing to intervene and protect the bullied target. Through the lens of a bully, differences between workers should be stopped by those who can “work it out between themselves.” The reality is that the manager is abdicating her or his responsibility to maintain a safe workplace for all. Discounting abusive conduct as simply “personality conflict” justifies inaction.

Managers are also reluctant to challenge peers when they see them bully others. Unwillingness to endanger a friendship trumps doing what is right for the organization and the bullied target, regardless of rank. Managers pass up a golden opportunity to informally stop bullying without relying on a policy or public law. Of course, when managers are bullies, they do perceive what they witness as being out of the ordinary or routine. It is not bullying; it is simply being “tough” on those who deserve it.

Within anti-bullying task forces/committees/coalitions. Anti-bullying initiatives are unique because they address themes of psychological violence, abuse and the severe consequences for individuals’ health. Contrast them with “change” programs launched by and for management that employees are expected to embrace. Team members charged with eliminating bullying will be necessarily different than teams attempting to teach staff methods for cutting costs.

There are two types of initiatives: (1) bottom-up, worker-driven groups that demand bullying stop for the sake of employee health populated by bullied targets and compassionate individuals, and (2) groups “blessed” by administrators who fill the group with HR staffers. Group type #1 is doomed to be denied by the CXO. Their proposals threaten the status quo and might expose buddies as perpetrators. Group type #1 will either be shut down or discouraged at every turn until they voluntarily disband.

Group type #2 teams can last much longer because of CXO “approval.” In fact, the CEO might actually believe bullying should be eliminated but underestimates how difficult it is to move the mountain that is the organization’s tenacious adherence to old norms and a bureaucracy. More typically, executives allow teams to proceed never expecting them to actually accomplish the stated goals. Mid-level bullies who get themselves assigned to the anti-bullying task force or committee find it easy to delay, or kill, the change process.

When bullies are on the task force or committee:

• Labor relations staff are adversaries to unions and their members. They cannot shed the perspective of distrusting workers and be effective task force contributors.

• HR-related functionaries have a long history of ineffectiveness as organizational change agents (that improve the health and well being of employees vs. decades of initiatives that management wants implemented) — labor relations, ombuds, diversity, EAP, and HR itself. Administrators trust this cast of usual suspects to show a flurry of action but deliver little to no change. They are masters of CYA whose careers trump helping victims of abuse in their workplaces.

• Union officers who have personally refused to help members who were bullied. Now they sit on a team tasked with dealing with something they believe does not exist.

• Task force bullies, regardless of rank or role, will do some or all of the following:

- ignore empirical, scientific research on bullying

- deny aspects of interpersonal abuse and resultant stress-related physical and psychological injury (depression, PTSD)

- limit their perceptions to what they have seen or heard about bullying (dangerous given they themselves are perpetrators)

- insist that targets have attributes or flaws that elicit their own mistreatment

- state that bullied targets falsely claim harm or discount the harm as easily reversed

- refuse to acknowledge that the impetus for the initiative is to protect workers who cannot protect themselves, not to help abusers

- insist that there are always two sides to every incident equivalent in morality and veracity

- argue that the bully is victimized, too

- preserve HR’s role in investigating bullying claims

- in the name of “fairness,” argue for processes that protect bullies more than victims, lest the bullies be stigmatized

At the interpersonal level. Bullied targets, cooperative people and non-aggressive workers outnumber the people whose style is to dominate others. Perpetrators banish targets. Perpetrators survive. That is fact. Bullying with impunity demonstrates to all witnesses that the bully is protected and to be feared. They are left to tell lies about the departed high-quality target they managed to fire or encouraged to quit. It is a truly upside-down world where the wronged ones suffer while the power-hungry, politically motivated fools prevail.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 at 11:53 am and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. TwylightZone says:

    Eliza,
    Not all is lost for co-workers who come after you. It sounds like you raised awareness of the problem and even if it fell on deaf ears at the time, it inspires future targets to speak out. If more people come forward, there is a higher chance of something being done about the bully. No guarantees of course but the bully is more likely to be put on notice. Even if there is no liability for general abuse at work, the bully is still costly to the employer because of high turnover, unemployment pay outs, worker’s comp claims, and EEOC complaints. Eventually the employer will have to deal with a serial bully when he or she becomes too expensive to keep around.
    Don’t regret fighting back even if the battle was lost. You did the right thing.

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