Almost two years ago, Maria, a member of a team of ten, was finding it difficult to deal with one of her colleagues Andrea. Maria said she thought Andrea appeared to not value her or take her seriously as a colleague. They had had a number of meetings with their manager, who tried to help them sort it out but to no avail. Following a routine meeting re work issues between Andrea, Maria and another colleague Margaret, Maria felt that both Andrea and Margaret were ganging up against her and felt she had to make a complaint about this.
Maria reached for the only policy document that governs how people interact and get along in the organisation – the ‘anti-bullying’ or euphemistically entitled ‘Dignity at Work’ policy. She made an official complaint about Andrea and Margaret. It took about fourteen months to run the bullying investigation, which also involved evidence-taking from other colleagues as ‘witnesses’. The complaint was not upheld although the investigator did comment at the level of antipathy between Maria and her colleague Andrea.
One of the investigation recommendations was ‘mediation’ between the parties. However, when I met with them recently, both Andrea and Margaret are too angry, frustrated as well as very hurt about what they view as a spurious allegation of ‘bullying’ against them to participate meaningfully in a mediation process. So all three continue to work in the same team, barely greeting each other and tension which could be cut with a knife.
Damage to Rebuilding Working Relationship
This is a typical example of many scenarios in which I have been asked to intervene to ‘rebuild relationships’. It is a task that I always liken to closing the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. Key challenges in these situations include the amount of time it has taken to investigate as well as the adversarial nature of investigation, both of which polarise the parties’ relationship.
There is however another significant barrier to rebuilding any kind of meaningful working relationships between the parties: Having to overcome the damage done by framing of the situation as an allegation of ‘bullying’ One cannot blame this on an individual who is feeling distressed about a working relationship. After all, the only ‘vehicle’ to deal with workplace conflict of all shapes and sizes in the workplace is a policy that is focused on prevention of this phenomenon known as ‘bullying’.
Language Shapes Reality
While the Health and Safety Authority’s definition of ‘bullying’ makes reference to ‘repeated inappropriate behaviour…undermining…dignity at work’, the commonplace understanding of this term holds much harsher connotations. A typical dictionary definition is ‘…the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others’. Even onomatopoetically, the term is suggestive of behaviour that is quite malevolent and vicious, and not accurate in addressing many of the typical conflict behaviours that can occur where people are in conflict in all workplaces.
How About an Anti-‘Dossing’ Policy?
As an analogy, imagine if there was an ‘Anti-Dossing’ policy and the moment anyone’s workplace performance seemed to fall below expectations, a complaint was launched about them and they then had to prove that they weren’t ‘Dossers’. Of course we wouldn’t countenance such an approach, as well as being unconstructive and contrary to all sorts of positive approaches to people management that current best practice, it is also bordering on derogatory and discriminatory. Yet we tolerate the use of the term ‘bullying’ in a policy that’s used to deal with everything from the relatively rare instances of deliberate and predatory behaviour to all sorts of reactive and ‘normal’ (albeit unwelcome) conflict responses.
Little Benefit to Either Complainant or Accused
Yet in respect to workplace behaviours, the only policy guidance is around ‘anti-bullying’. Forcing the complainant to frame their issues in this way fosters a victim/perpetrator paradigm. In this, the innocent and defenceless complainant is the butt of powerful, targeted, dignity-stripping behaviours ‘perpetrated’ by a nasty and malicious person in the workplace. This seductive narrative reinforces a disempowering identity for the complainant as well as enabling them to avoid taking responsibility for any of their own contribution to the dynamic. Undoubtedly, there are situations where there is a genuine victim and perpetrator but both anecdotal and research evidence indicate that this pertains in the minority of complaints.
Neither is it useful for the person who gets accused of ‘bullying’. A complaint about someone under ‘Dignity at Work’ will be perceived by them as an accusation of ‘being a bully’. This provokes defensiveness and rather than prompting them to perhaps reflect on how they might have contributed, they are more consumed with proving ‘they’re not a bully’. They will also feel unjustly judged and branded which similarly invites a sense of victimhood. In the case cited above, both of those complained about were angry not only at Andrea but also at the ‘system’ because they believe it has facilitated the wrongdoing and doesn’t offer them any way of really clearing their ‘good name’.
While the suggestion of mediation to help them problem-solve and bring a future focus to their difficulties is well-meaning, the bullying–focused complaints policy has greatly limited its prospects of success.
What Could Be Changed?
There is no doubt, there are instances of ‘bullying’ behaviour in the workplace and guidelines to recognise and deal with these need to be in place. However, the overall policy framework needs to be more positively framed. Despite some softer-sounding titles (‘Dignity at Work, ‘Positive Working Environment’) most policies emphasise the negative with long detailed examples of ‘bullying behaviours’ and the impact of ‘bullying’. A more constructive approach would be to build in detailed examples of behaviours that would be desirable as well as information on conflict responses, the dynamics of conflict and tools and tips to help people recognise and deal with such situations.
Policies should focus on supporting people to raise concerns and normalise the fact that working relationships may not always run smoothly. It should also be clear that the term ‘bullying’ refers to behaviours at the high end of the spectrum of ‘unwelcome’.
The term ‘grievance’ and ‘Grievance Policy’ is now frequently used to deal with complaints about terms and conditions as opposed to workplace behaviours. Yet as a relatively neutral and non-threatening term it might better serve as a basis for a complaints framework to address workplace behaviours also.
There is no doubt that people do engage at times in highly inappropriate and bullying behaviours towards one another and workplaces need to guard against this. However blanket application of the ‘bullying’ term to every ‘conflict’ at work is a surefire way to escalate rather than improve working relationships.