The Petticoat Polemic: The Role of the Organisation in Bullying

Human ResourcesWomen and workplace bullying. This continues my series, please see the previous posts: Bitch or Bully?The Pink Elephant, The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs and Mascara Mafia:To Debate or Not?

The role of the organisation
This research project has been eye-opening in many ways. So many interesting and contentious points have been raised that it has taken me a while to synthesise them. What do organisations do about this phenomenon? Answer – not a lot!

Human Shield
Organisations it seems are lucky. If they don’t insist on a gagging order as part of a legal settlement, many of the victims who contacted me wanted to protect the identities not only of the perpetrators, but the organisations they worked for. Repeat offending is therefore allowed to go on. As Annabel Kaye told us, despite workplace ethics handbooks the size of a telephone directory, many bullies are not tackled by organisations until the 6th offence. I expected naming and shaming – but not at all. That surprised me.

Additionally when coaching was sought out some programmes encouraged “moving on” from the experience and “letting go”. Although I can see some logic in that for the individual, it may not be helpful to avoid repetition in the future. So even more indirect organisational protection!

Anger at HR
Another ongoing complaint was about the perceived passivity of HR professionals in any support process, to the point where many felt it bordered on enablement.  One important factor to remember is that HR departments work for the organisation – not you.

To give HR professionals a chance to respond and to let us all know where they all were while this bullying was going on , I started a discussion on LinkedIn. The main charge was specifically the need for a formal complaint before any mediation took place. This also produced interesting feedback. Why? Well it seems that HR specialists have their own challenges.

It would appear that organisations want hard facts before any intervention.

Nicola J, HR Manager with a Fortune 500 company, commented ”women in the workplace are in a double bind, but this also applies within the HR function,which in many companies is now a heavily” female” function. When I did step in to support a female bully victim, I was accused of exaggerating and being too “emotional”.

James P, HR Director of a US Investment organisation, told me in a recent case in his organisation of a woman bullying another woman, his intervention produced 3 words ” heat, kitchen, out ” He too it would seem, was accused of a gender based response of being overly “protective” towards a female employee

Senior level acceptance
However, the one consistent comment was that when there is a tolerance of bullying entrenched at senior levels, it is very difficult to deal with directly. Very often the most effective way of tackling it was obliquely .Manmeet Singh Fox, HR Director at SmithBucklin Corporation elaborates “In some cases it’s a matter of finding the workaround rather than going head on with a bully…”

This is indeed also my own observation. Companies create damage limitation policies, only stepping in when the bottom line is badly hit and key positions remain open for extended periods, departmental goals are not being met or when litigation lurks. In other words when business is negatively impacted.

It is really important for any targets of bullying to de-personalise the situation,  get into business neutral and link their experience to the business and the impact of this situation on their performance.

Ideal World
Manmeet suggests that in an ideal world it is in ” the organization’s best interests to proactively influence stakeholders in the senior ranks with data on the impact of the individual’s bullying behavior (turnover, morale, risk of litigation, etc.), providing org-wide training and demonstrating consistent adherence to existing respectful workplace policies, delivering performance goals, reviews and performance improvement plans which specify expectations and measures of desired behaviors… “.

With the increasing economic influence of women in the market place, there has to be a growing imperative to harness that energy into corporate life, otherwise industry and business will be out of touch with their markets. So corporations are surely ignoring this demographic at their peril. But it seems that they do – until they have to.

Gill Weston adds ” Essentially, both the bully and the bullied need help – whether in the form of guidance and counselling, and/or training and mentoring – and HR should ensure that this isn’t just offered, but taken up. And finally, HR should act to uncover the causes of conflict… this needs to be tackled and a culture of harmony restored“

A maelstrom of confusion
The final theme was one of mixed messages in the workplace, but also a maelstrom of both confused and confusing behaviour. Françoise G,HR Director in a French multi-national shared the caveat about the level of false alarms “Women in corporate life also have to retrain themselves to reduce their emotional reactions to certain workplace situations. I am in no way diminishing the impact of systemic bullying, but while some women rush to the bathroom in tears if their work is even mildly criticised or at some other perceived slight, many genuine cases are not taken seriously, because so many cry “wolf”.

Changing corporate culture
So it seems that a priority must be to start changing corporate cultures.

But how?

Beyond the gender bind
With female graduates storming into the workforce at higher rates than ever before, organisations need to learn how to maximise the performance of this significant demographic and set up training systems and workplace practices in response to this development.

  • These young women also need to learn necessary skills to be effective in the workplace, including strategies to neutralise business situations, a.k.a. no more running to the bathroom.
  • The men and women who are already there, need to acquire the training needed to manage and supervise them correctly.
  • HR need to be allowed the neutrality and given the teeth and trusted to act independently outside expected gender roles.
  • But above all corporate leaders need to learn that they can’t ignore these problems and action is required before law suits appear, or negative quarterly results tell them that something is amiss. By then it is already too late.

What do you think?

14 responses to “The Petticoat Polemic: The Role of the Organisation in Bullying

  1. What about skills to deal with bullying? What might be the most effective strategies for stepping out of the victim role? This is even more important if going to the “authority” will not work in this case. Women bullies (and men, for that matter) are being defensive. Just that their defense is “attack before they attack you”. We should be teaching women effective techniques to deal with aggression in the workplace in ways that disarm it, that empower them and do not put their position or advancement in the organization at risk.

    • Monica -thanks for your comemnt. I agree.

      But I also think women need additional skills. In my own little ideal world, the skills that women would learn either prior to joining the workplace or as an onboarding process ( including constructive communication, conflict resolution and negotiation for women ) would preclude “victim” coaching. I actually think learning these skills should be part of university curricula

      One thing was very clear in this research,we assume that women have innate skills in these areas but it would appear that they don’t. Women who have been trained in these skills are less likely to need ” victim” coaching which I agree is currently vital.

      I would also like coaching programmes to focus on confronting the organisations and bullies as well as healing aspects.

  2. Wow. In my experience, when difficult issues involving human behaviour comes up, it automatically becomes neatly assigned to HR and everyone else gets on with other things. Yes, HR should have a very deep involvement in seeking a solution to this problem but it doesn’t absolve the rest of the corporate population from participating by condemning such behaviour and sponsoring programs that will address it.

    I think one of the challenges for HR is to come up with ways to show that bullying not only impacts turnover, morale, and the possibility of litigation, but also the bottom line. People who are willing to put up with bullying in their workplace will, I’d wager, have a higher tolerance level for high turnover and low morale.
    What gets their attention is anything that directly and negatively impacts the bottom line and shareholder value.
    To be honest, I don’t think bullying by one woman of another is that new a thing. Acknowledging that it exists *is* though. And that allows for it to come out from under the table and be dealt with.
    Perhaps the first step is to convince top level leaders that it is an issue worthy of serious intervention.

    Another thought-provoking, and troubling post Dorothy.

    • Thanks Gwyn – yes the results surprised me too. If HR try and intervene without a formal complaint they are not taken seriously by their line management. By the time they have accrued enough evidence to support the claim, the behaviour has been going on for some months. Bully victims are usually bullied for some time before they even flag it up.

      Yes, there have always been women bullies, but with women making up 60% of European graduates ( 65% in the US) I think organisations need to recognise that things need to be done differently and women have to learn new skills.

      It’s a period of transition – one women should grasp with both hands!

  3. An issue that is challenging to address is related corporate values – I’ve worked in organisations where the very highest value has been put on intellectual ability. Particularly in UK Government Departments – the precious assets are the knowledge and intellect required to advise Ministers. Those who are recruited for their intellect are then ‘hot housed’ to the top. In my experience some of the brightest could not be regarded as rounded personalities! They are then required to manage staff with little experience of people or taste for social interaction on anything but the most superficial level – a severe shortage of EQ. But they are very highly valued by the organisation and they can behave very badly indeed towards others – probably without knowing they are doing and so certainly without corporate action. It is easy to dismiss a bullied secretary as being someone who is ‘always running to the bathroom in tears’ (Board Rooms are surely one the last bastion of the culture that would rather have heart attacks than cry a tear) than to discipline the senior manager (male or female) in whose career development you have invested vast sums and whose advice last year saved the Chief Executive’s career.

  4. Hi Dorothy
    I meant to start my comment with thanks to you for carrying forward this challenging but important subject!

  5. Hi Wendy – thanks for your comments. It’s a complex issue. Yes I would say that tears are found below C level – there are so few women there anyway!

    I agree being good at your job when you are managing teams isn’t just about professional or subject expertise -it’s about making other pepole good at their jobs too.

    That’s why I think men and women managers need training on how to manage the increased number of women in the workplace at junior and mid-level.

    My reasearch is showing confusion on both sides.

  6. Dear All – In my fantasy world bullies are tried and judged by a council or peers. If found guilty the accused wears a bull costume at work for the length of time determined by the court.
    But I also think litterers should have to pick up trash and tape litter to their clothes. Then walk around so dressed in public for several days.

    Let the punishment fit the crime and let the culture make fun of the bull. I think both the accused and future bullies will think before charging.

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  11. We are moving from a Victorian idea of work – it is painful, suck it up and get on with it, to a modern idea of work – we should be able to enjoy some of it and it should not damage us. The behaviours that are required and expected in one environment do not create a good result in the other.

    We all have so much work to do to improve how we deal with other people at work. I know my own techniques and skills are always in need of development.

    If we are working with people in the ‘Victorian’ mind set, we are not neurotic or over sensitive if we find some of those behaviours upsetting or disturbing.

    Just as we have gone (in Western Europe at least) from it is OK to beat our wife and children to, no it isn’t, we need to make a similar transition in the world of work.

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