As I send my children off to school adorned in pink shirts and accessories to promote anti-bullying and acceptance, I consider how far we’ve come to limit bullying and promote acceptance in the professional world. The sad reality is when it comes to workplace bullies things only seem to be getting worse.
According to a recent Harris Poll study almost half of all Canadians (45%) feel they’ve been bullied at work. Workplace bullying includes, but is not limited to: being falsely accused of making mistakes, constant criticism, being ignored, belittling, being the target of office gossip.
I don’t need a study to know the problem of workplace bulling is widespread. It’s a topic with which I'm all too familiar, and one that I cover in my upcoming book A Spark in the Dark: Illuminating Your Path to a Brilliant Career in a Reorg World.
Every time I give a talk about bullies, I have a line-up of people waiting to speak with me about their experiences and to get my advice. The sheer volume of people who reach out to me about this issue doesn’t surprise me, but it does disappoint me. I’m disheartened because I know more can be done to reduce the incidence of workplace bulling, and it starts with the culture companies and organizations choose to create, the behaviour that’s tolerated and the types of discussions which are promoted.
When it comes to the success of a business we should be as concerned with "how" things get done as we are with "what" gets done.
The pervasiveness of workplace bullying is affecting employees, businesses and society in any number of ways. It has implications on our health, our ability to care for our families and the quality of our work. Frankly, I don’t see many practical strategies being applied to address the issue of workplace bullying in a meaningful way. If your organization is a bully haven you can be sure your employees are suffering, you are losing good people and it’s affecting your business' profitability.
Here’s a list of strategies for identifying bullies that I recommend to organizations:
CONDUCT THOROUGH BACKGROUND CHECKS
In his brilliant book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker emphasizes the importance of background checks with respect to protecting employees' physical safety. I suggest background checks will go a long way in protecting your employees' emotional safety and well-being. Make sure to speak with previous employers and actively listen for cues that something is amiss. Jokes can be a sign. They are a way for someone to tell you something without actually saying flat out this person is difficult. Go one step further and background check your candidate's references and make sure they are legitimate and not 'made up.'
Validating the authenticity of certificates and diplomas is critical. It doesn’t only happen in movies, more people than we might think falsify documents. A criminal background check is also important – I’ve heard of several cases where a dark past has been revealed through a background check.
Bullies are fantastic and shameless liars, they interview exceptionally well and they can be incredibly charming.
Don’t be afraid to have a thorough look behind the curtain.
LOOK FOR RED FLAGS DURING THE INTERVIEW
The Gift of Fear also includes a list of recommended interview questions and the suggestion to avoid looking for reasons to hire a candidate and rather look for the reasons not to hire them. Do not help candidates to thrive in an interview. Our job as an interviewer is to evaluate, not to help interviewees along and make their point. Closely consider what they say about their previous employers and colleagues. Do they take all the credit and diminish the contributions of others? Are they able get past conflict and take accountability when things go wrong? Did their previous employer listen to their ideas? If not, how do they explain why?
LOOK FOR RED FLAGS ON RESUMES AND SOCIAL MEDIA
It’s a reorg world, yes, and many of us change jobs every few years, but not many of us change jobs within a year or 18 months throughout our entire career. The inability to keep any job for more than 18 months is a huge red flag. Look out for excessive use of jargon, to the point it’s difficult to truly understand what this person has achieved, and watch out for inflated accomplishments that extend well beyond the scope of a role. Check to see if resumes match LinkedIn profiles. Do dates and titles change?
Do a social media search of a prospective employee. What do their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts tell you about them?
MAKE EMPLOYEES COMFORTABLE COMING FORWARD
Do not wait for a bully’s toxic behaviour to cause your team’s work to suffer, or to push valued team members to leave the organization. During your 1:1s proactively ask questions about any concerns, listing examples of concerns they might have about team members. Give examples of the issues you are open to discussing and explicitly mention toxic behaviour with examples so your team members do not feel they are betraying anyone or will be perceived as a complainer.
Speak openly to your team about the fact discrimination and abuse of any kind will not be tolerated and share examples and personal experiences if you have them to demonstrate you are open to listening. Have "1 over 1’s" where you meet with your direct reports' team members individually once a month or once a quarter because research shows the most likely culprit of bullying is a boss.
REWARD POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR
When my children behave poorly I don’t get angry, yell or give them attention, in fact I do the worst possible thing they can imagine. I ignore them. The most attention they will get for bad behaviour is to be sent to their room and left there to sit in silence until they return, apologize and do what they were supposed to do in the first place. When they do things well, behave and treat others with kindness I give them a ton of attention.
Of course, you can’t send an employee to their room, but you can limit their opportunities, put them on a performance plan, and promote the people who are both talented and kind to their colleagues. Bullies may not like to be a part of a culture where their behaviour is scorned and they are ignored. Hopefully that means they will choose to leave before the choice is made for them. In any case your team will see this behaviour is not tolerated, and they will feel confident their good work and behaviour will be rewarded.
As a leader, ignorance is no excuse for fostering an environment where bullies thrive and employees are abused. We are teaching our children to promote acceptance and to identify and eliminate bullying behaviour. It’s time to take definitive steps to prevent bullying behaviour in our workplaces so these personality types stop harming people and hurting business.
It’s time to start doing more to set the example for a world we are asking our children to create.