Tag Archives: bullying

Communication and Engagement in the workplace

I learned the hard way that communication in the workplace is all about in-groups and out-groups. I had just got my first proper job as a management consultant in the greed is good 1980s. I entered the office of a colleague (who had been university friend). Our boss was in there with my friend, and looked up and simply said “F___ Off” James” and my friend, in a supine gesture reiterated the instruction in precisely the same terms. Some friend.

Welcome to the world of those in the know and those who don’t matter. On that day I clearly did not matter. However I came to realise that I mattered a little, because the following Monday I arrived at work to find all the desks rearranged in my office and a memo asking me to see the Boss at 9:30am. I soon discovered that I was the last employee to see the boss. Of the 23 that went before me, 12 were sacked. I was given a motivational talk, that essentially said that I would have been sacked if it had not been for the fact that I was “cheap”!!

One of my senior colleagues clearly did not matter, because soon after my interview the boss was personally removing this guy’s name plate from what was his office door with a screwdriver! The colleague was obliged to see out a notice period sharing the general office with the administrative staff. Needless to say, I took the first opportunity to get out of the company and made a vow to avoid working in secretive and bullying work environments where possible.

Despite the torrent of rhetoric about open communication in the workplace over the last 20 years, my observation is that there are still many organisations where information is withheld from people either to bully or manipulate them. In nearly all of the cases I see, there is no good business case for keeping people in the dark, indeed it inevitably breeds insecurity, suspicion and resentment.

In companies that announce sudden layoffs, the excuse for the surprise element is often some vague reference to the market and competitors or management were worried about staff leaving prematurely. Rarely have such reasons got any merit, and often they simply mask a desire to manipulate staff for managerial advantage, to avoid any discussion or justification, or simply because the management is incompetent.

The problem with the “just get on with your job” approach to employees wanting to know what is going on, is that it is often the very job they are being told to get on with that is about to disappear or alter radically. The questions that many ask when kept in the dark, is what are they up to and why am I not being consulted? These are not the questions that engaged and productive people ask, they are the questions that disengaged and alienated people ask.

Communication difficulties are not restricted to management failing to keep staff informed, equally problematic are cultures where feedback is discouraged or it results in over-reaction, personalisation and vindictive reprisals. Sadly, it is not uncommon for overly sensitive managers to use performance evaluations or disciplinary policies as methods of stymying open and frank communication.

Engagement is probably the buzz word of the moment for employers operating in a tight labour market, yet one of the most effective ways of creating engagement is to take the radical step of talking to staff openly, honestly and regularly. When I get called in to help companies with people issues, one of the first problems I typically encounter is a culture of poor or mis-communication. Employment is a relationship, and like all human relationships they thrive on good communication.

Bullying at work

I seem to hit a chord with readers whenever I post on the topic of bullying in the workplace. I have been surprised at the number of people, often clearly in some distress who have taken the trouble to contact me. Many of these people wanted some empathy, some assistance in finding appropriately experienced lawyers, or wanted some guidance about career direction. Some simply wanted to talk and share their stories with someone because no one will listen.

I wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald where I relayed the true story of a person I called John whose boss and a coterie of creeps had vigorously attempted to white-ant him out of his job. It was only through the incompetence of his boss and dumb luck that John was handed incriminating evidence of their deeds and secured a substantial payout. The reaction to that story has made me reflect on the extent of the bullying problem apparently in the workforce and also the significant lack of support mechanisms for victims of bullying.
Getting accurate statistics on workplace bullying is not easy. Estimates range from a low 3.5% of employees; a European Union survey several years ago suggested 9% and the ACTU website quotes estimates suggesting that a majority of employees will experience bullying at work during their career. The very fact that these statistics vary so widely is a testament to how vexed an issue bullying is. There are many reasons why organisations and individuals may feel it is in their best interest to overlook bullying, or to move on or away from the bully.
Bullying claims are messy. Very often they involve allegations made about more senior staff – staff that often have been preferred and promoted by the management team now asked to investigate the issues. The accused holds more power in the organisation, may legitimately point to a superior track record of success, may be seen rightly or wrongly as more valuable to the organisation, and they may be better networked with influential people within the organisation. The accused may also be more articulate than the victim. In effect, management might take the view that the victim is asking them to consider the possibility that they made a mistake in promoting/ recruiting/ shaping or condoning the behaviour of the bully. Overlay the possible loss of face for management with the potential financial implications and the risk that other victims might be encouraged to claim, and you have a recipe for in-built resistance to any claim.
The other aspect to all of this, is that many victims of bullying feel they have little or no support or advice. While unions have traditionally provided access to experienced lawyers and negotiators, what about the 80% of employees who are not in unions? Having been repeatedly asked in recent weeks to recommend solicitors that specialise in this field, it became apparent that many people have little idea where to look for advice. Searching the net can leave you with the impression that many firms are geared more to employers than individuals. Whether or not this is the case, it is not hard to get that impression. If you are a victim of bullying who is feeling vulnerable, such websites may not be that welcoming. There is always the possibility of approaching the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities commission where you can lodge a complaint in writing. However what about those who simply want to talk over their situation, vent, and tentatively explore both their rights and their options?
Bullying is an area that intersects career and legal advice. Very often victims of bullying need to consider their career options as well as their legal options yet this service is hard to find – especially people with expertise in both domains – and evidently many employees are not sure where to start. Perhaps this is an area where the Federal Government could provide some leadership. What about extending the national free careers telephone hotline in Australia to one where people could talk anonymously to an appropriately trained counsellor about their situation, and could get advice about both legal and career options?