Hanging out with my grandson the other day he told me about a neighbourhood bully who makes ‘bad choices’. We had a great conversation about people who make bad choices, particularly bullies. In his vast wisdom of nearly 5 years, my grandson told me ‘Bullies are people too but its not OK when they hurt other people and if they do, then a grown up has to give them a time-out.’
What a thoughtful leadership lesson in this little statement. After all, we use time-outs with children to make them think about their actions, they must apologize and we expect them to do differently so they learn from their experience. So why don’t we tackle bullies in the workplace with the same energy - especially people in a power position over others?
What Would You Do?
You know the headlines these days are dominated by allegations of sexual harassment; victims are speaking out about their nasty experiences, almost daily - a topic seldom talked about before. Women everywhere have been emboldened to speak up and share their personal stories of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in work situations. With every news story, it triggers another woman's courage to speak out. Rest assured, there will be more to come.
Will you know how to manage an allegation at work if someone in your company or organization turns to you for help?
Policy and Practices Start with YOU, not HR!
Lets face it; dialogue about sexual harassment makes most of us uncomfortable. Anything ugly is difficult to speak about, but open discussion is vital to bring about improvement. It really concerned me when I read the Globe & Mail article that '94 percent of Canadian's leaders believe sexual harassment isn't an issue.'
Given harassment has become such a hot topic, every company should recognize that sexual harassment IS a real problem. It is time for leaders, or anyone in a position to help, to stand up, call out and follow through with discipline for inappropriate behaviour. No one should ever feel harassed at work, particularly if it is unwanted and sexualized in nature. It’s just not ok, regardless of how you qualify or explain it away as ‘that is how it is here’.
Turning a blind eye to anyone’s harassment claim can make worldwide headlines within a few hours through social media when they don’t get the help they need. So #Time's Up on covering up transgressions of anyone, especially senior level leaders or officials.
This is tough stuff to handle but there are steps you can take, immediately, to prevent all forms of harassment from happening at your work. Lets look at how you can create work environments where both men and women feel safe to bring forward concerns and get support rather than feeling they have to go public or leave the company.
Think ‘METALS’ - Leadership Steps to Say #Times Up
1. Model. Everyone is watching you whether you know it or not. Don’t speak inappropriately about women (or men); leave any form of sexual innuendo out of the workplace – sexual dialogue does not belong in a work environment. Help your team remain respectful in every interaction, show them how you manage with respect. You are the one your team will imitate, so show people the right way to treat others.
2. Enforce. The basis for change at work begins with having policy as a guidepost. No matter the size of your business, you need policies in place to fall back on to enforce. Ensure your workplace has a clear harassment policy in place with specific actions to take should any disrespectful behaviour occur – regardless of level or position in the company. Check to see that your company has a policy, become familiar and communicate it. If they don’t have a policy, suggest it be implemented ASAP. You can be the catalyst for ensuring a harassment policy is in place, communicated and enforced.
3. Talk. Talk about harassment with your team, long before an issue occurs. When opportunities arise to reinforce, discuss behaviour openly, highlighting what is acceptable and what is not at work. Openly share stories about past personal experiences and state how you would handle it now. Immediately discuss any sign of disrespect you observe or hear about so your team know you will not tolerate it. Make your team aware that they each have a role to play in keeping the workplace safe, people who stay silent are complicit; give them the courage to speak up. You create the environment of open dialogue.
4. Act. In the best work environments ‘respect in the workplace’ is a foundational training piece for all employees so they understand what behaviour is expected of them and what to expect in return. Many people go through training but notice when management doesn’t consistently follow through when something occurs, so they clam up. Be the one who acts swiftly. People want to work for leaders who readily step up and take responsibility for the wellbeing of their people. They will know you care enough about both the ‘bully’ and the bullied to deal with bad behaviour head on. Any form of bullying or inappropriate behaviour should be investigated and acted upon with appropriate discipline, without delay. Action begins with you, not HR.
5. Listen. Treat any form of harassment claim with urgency, seriousness and respect by hearing out those who have the courage to speak up, suspending your own judgement. Ensure a proper investigation is done while taking steps to protect the complainant from any form of retribution. Active listening shows them you care, understand and can be trusted to help. Listening with empathy is a key leadership trait.
6. Speak Up. By respectfully speaking out for those who feel harassed at work, you quickly become a powerhouse leader of tomorrow. Inappropriate behaviour at work is not OK; it is never to be tolerated. By speaking up and supporting others who speak out you will be the leader everyone wants to work for.
Take a Stand
You make choices everyday for how you treat others, we all do. If someone chooses to be a jerk or worse, an aggressor, then they should face appropriate consequences for their actions, regardless of their position in a company or organization. But it takes strong leadership to follow through with these people and take deliberate action. Take a stand!
As a leader you have the ability to choose what your team’s workplace should be like, irrespective of the culture or industry you’re in, or whether you have an HR team. YOU can be the shining example to others in management. YOU count to the people who report to you and how you act during the toughest times will be a key differentiator to their lives.
I’m here if you need guidance to manage tough leadership situations. Send me an email if you want support to develop policy or practices to enforce a respectful workplace or you’re struggling with a difficult issue and want a coach to talk it through.
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By now, you’ve surely read the news that Steve Bannon, the ever-controversial White House Chief Strategist was let go after just 7 months in office. He joins Anthony Scaramucci who was fired (or removed from office) after a mere 10 days on the job as White House Communications Director. The ‘Mooch’, as he liked to be referred to, was quick to show his true colours within a few short days on the job with inappropriate comments and bombastic tirades.
While the White House may have substantially different hiring/firing practices than many businesses, these departures underscore why ANY company should act fast when an employee–particularly those who hold a position of trust - damage the reputation of a business, or presents them with ‘cause’ to terminate.
But did you know, you can actually fire anyone, anytime–with or without cause?
Yes, let that sink in for a moment…
You can fire anyone. Yes, even in Canada! BUT don’t get ahead of yourself…there can be consequences and ramifications for doing so, depending on what led to the decision and how well you managed it.
If you fail to treat the employee appropriately, you could face all sorts of trouble and/or additional expense. For instance:
I’ve worked with many leaders in different industries (both big and small) to plan terminations, and in most cases they were extremely conflicted about making the final call. Let’s face it; this is not an easy thing to do. You wonder if you have enough information to back yourself up, you question if you’ve ever said or done anything inappropriate that could later ‘bite you in the butt’ and you worry about what to say on that dreaded day–the day you actually let them go.
Whether it is a directive from the top of corporate to downsize your team or it is a lingering performance or behaviour issue, letting someone go is one of the hardest actions you will ever have to take as a manager. And so it should be. I always say if you don’t feel a little sick inside when affecting the life of someone else then you really shouldn’t be a people manager.
That said, there are times where you know very well that somebody needs to go – and as aggravating or grueling as it may seem to be, there are some very important things you should consider before you ‘pull the trigger’. Lets call it CYOA! (cover-your-own-ass)
So how do you CYOA?
Long before you have that tough conversation, it’s important to consider if you’ve covered yourself properly. Have you:
1. Been fair?
Do you have favourites on your team, or are there people who you don’t really like? If I spoke to others on the team, would they tell me they’ve observed a lack of fairness with this person? How did you arrive at a decision for this person to leave and how fair did you apply these selection criteria across the team? Have you let others with the same performance level or behavioural issues remain on the team or did you provide all of them with the same type of feedback and given similar chances to improve but this one individual hasn’t measured up? If I can find out you were not fair in treating this employee, you can bet the court can too!
2. Been consistent?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard how terrible an employee’s performance is, only to read their previous reviews–all of which were glowing. Do not assume an employee just ‘knows’ when they are not performing because you think you’ve told them. It is your responsibility as the manager to ensure the issues have been clearly expressed, both verbally and in writing with a clear-cut plan to improve. This plan becomes your supporting ‘back-me-up’ information. At the very least, be sure to document stern conversations by sending a follow up email after your meetings to reinforce what you’ve spoken about and include the steps required to improve. Now, I have a test for you… pull out all of your notes/emails or reviews to this person over the past year, and re-read them as though you’re the lawyer defending this case. Does your evidence support the termination? Have you been consistent with your feedback and directions; will this information reinforce your case? Or is it wishy-washy and non-specific? When you say one thing verbally, but record it differently in performance reviews and/or emails, the written information will be taken as the truth every. single. time!
3. Provided ample opportunity to improve?
Everyone deserves to be given a chance to improve–yes, everyone! I have heard many leaders tell me somebody ‘just has to go’, but when asked, it becomes apparent no one gave the employee clear feedback with an opportunity to improve within a realistic time period. If challenged legally, you’ll have to show the proof that you gave the person helpful, specific feedback on what needed to change, and how to improve--within a reasonable timeframe. So ask yourself–did you give them adequate feedback? Did you provide clear actions they need to take within realistic time period – did you create a performance improvement plan? If not, now’s the time to do it!
4. Provided training or progressive discipline?
If the issue is a ‘skill gap’ you need to show that you’ve provided the employee with adequate training to acquire the right skill level.
However, if it is a behavioural/attitudinal issue, the only way to help someone change is to provide him or her with progressive discipline in a formalized way – some may call it performance coaching or corrective action. When I say formalized, I mean well-documented (notice a theme emerging?) keeping track of meeting dates, a summary of each circumstance/situation, and a record of feedback (provided to the employee) so that there’s a trail of the intensifying consequences. In formalized progressive discipline you use formal warnings, beginning with simple verbal warning to correct the behaviour, escalating the consequences according to your company discipline policy (if you don’t have one, you should create one… pronto).
‘Three strikes you’re out’ may not be necessary or on the other hand, it may not be sufficient; it really depends on the seriousness of the wrongdoing, the situation, the history of the individual and whether there were any justifying circumstances or not. Most progressive discipline practices use these culminating stages: verbal warning, formal letter of warning, suspension and then termination. It is really important you follow through with an action each and every time they act inappropriately. And again, you have to conduct yourself the same way with all employees.
Tip: The test I use to know the difference between a skill gap or a behavioural issue is to ask, “If you paid them a million dollars, could they do this correctly?” If the answer is no, then it is likely a skill gap and training is required. If the answer is yes, then chances are you have a behavioural/attitudinal issue on your hands.
5. Treated them with respect?
Of course, you likely know this is important while they work for you to treat them with respect, but did you know it’s equally as important after they no longer work with you? If after someone leaves an organization they can prove you were talking disrespectfully about them or their performance to someone who had no right to know, the organization may face defamation claims in addition to wrongful dismissal suit. Limit discussing negative qualities about any colleagues or team members at any time–the less said, the better! Only management/HR of the employee should be involved with these discussions. This kind of gossip can not only cause legal issues, but also trust issues with other team members, as they begin to wonder if you talk about them in the same way behind their back.
The bottom line is this–you can avoid most wrongful dismissal lawsuits and/or Human Rights violations when:
It may seem onerous to have to complete performance improvement plans, provide verbal and written warnings, have performance/behaviour coaching sessions, keep desk notes and provide follow up emails, but these are your best tools to help you CYOA. It’s absolutely critical that you be in control the information that could be used against you.
When you’re dealing with an employee with difficult behaviour or you’re at the end of your rope and are about to let someone go, book me for a consultation. I have tips and tools to help you get organized and I have 25+ years experience helping leaders plan and prepare for the ‘dreaded meeting’–including their follow up discussions with the rest of the team.
And to help make sure you properly CYOA, I will challenge you with tough questions to help you move forward. After all, wouldn’t you rather it be me asking as opposed to the courts?
You’ve been there–it could be a pain-in-the-butt colleague, a troublemaking employee, or worse, a devil-boss who makes your workday torture! Regardless of who they are, they all have one thing in common…nasty bullying behaviour.
Sadly, if you don’t find ways to manage it, the stress may cause your health to decline, you disengage from work resulting in your performance taking a hit or you have the sudden urge to quit because you simply have no other way out.
Dealing with a workplace bully wears us all down. Repeated over time, you may actually believe what they say, sparking self-doubt and eroding your self-esteem. They yearn for this power and as such, once they’ve set their sights on you, they do what they can to take you down.
I’ve helped several clients rise above these difficult people. It takes a little bit of work but in the end, they feel a sense of accomplishment once they triumph!
It’s important to note that if what you are dealing with is an extreme case of bullying or a possible harassment case, there are Human Rights laws to protect you. Handling those situations requires a formal process. The Ministry of Labour (Ontario) provides guidance to both employers and employees regarding these laws in my province.
What I’m talking about today are the scenarios where someone is staying within the bounds of the law, but making it unpleasant for you to work with them. These people know how to get at you but management may not see it, may choose to ignore it, or it just may not be bad enough for you to want to raise a big fuss.
The ‘Bully’ Profile
These nasty people often share similar characteristics, they:
So what CAN you do to battle this kind of unpleasantness? Lets look at some simple tactics to disarm these bullies and take back your own power:
1. Let them shine
It may seem counterintuitive but people who are problematic are typically seeking some kind of attention.
Take time to assess this person’s underlying insecurity; ask yourself the following questions to become aware of what is really going on:
With this information in mind, look for a moment to praise them when they do something you can comfortably acknowledge: “Jane had a good point”, “Jane was absolutely right, ‘Thank you Jane for xxx” “Jane I quite liked xxx”.
These comments begin to neutralize their need to be nasty because their own esteem rises.
However, it’s important that you approach this genuinely. Don’t do it if you don’t really feel it or it will come off as disingenuous and inflame them further.
Giving them the limelight is a powerful tool and it works in most situations.
2. Use the power of Aikido
If you haven’t heard of it before, Aikido is actually a form of martial arts. Yet, it is non-threatening and doesn’t use force.
In fact, what makes Aikido so effective is that it removes aggression from an adversary by yielding to his/her force in a way that they end up only hurting themselves. For instance, imagine stepping out of the way as someone tries to strike you–the attacker would likely fall down, hurting only themselves.
Mean people are easily unsettled when you DON'T react the way they are expecting. Because most of these people have very low self-esteem, their actions come from a place of insecurity; they lash out or belittle to make themselves feel better.
To use an ‘Aikido-like’ reaction:
3. Find your inner comic
Instead of letting these people get under your skin, find a way to make light of their behaviour. I have seen really great leaders deal with some very annoying people simply by making a quick thinking remark. For instance, in the case of an employee continuously interrupting a meeting, the leader might say, “Slow down there speedy, I’m driving this meeting”.
If it’s your boss who’s pushing your buttons, this can be a bit trickier but you can still make light of their nasty comments. Laugh out loud and say something like, “Oh, for a moment I thought you were calling me an idiot–that’s a good one”.
It may not immediately come to you in the moment, so after an interaction has happened, consider things you could say next time. The AMA has a great article on how to have the last laugh, worth a read! Try to avoid insults as you don’t want to stoop to their level–I’m talking about making light of their comment so you take back control.
4. Call them on the behaviour
We naturally try to defend ourselves or strike back when mean people put us down or make a condescending comment. These people have become experts at making others look second-rate so that they can feel superior. That is where they draw strength.
If you can’t ignore their comments, respond firmly with a response that exposes the behaviour, “That sounded like a put-down”. It usually holds a mirror up to the individual and catches them off guard.
Most of these people won’t want to ‘look bad’ in front of others and a public call-out will make them uncomfortable enough to switch gears.
Over time, this tactic can actually help them with their own self-awareness.
5. Nip it in the bud: stage an intervention
This approach takes a great deal of courage and I recommend doing this with support. Book a face-to-face meeting with the difficult person and address their behaviour head-on when you are cool-headed.
Be sure to have several specific examples at the ready. Make sure your discussion is done in a way to help them understand the affect they have on others. Conduct this meeting in private; clarify what the issue is as factually as possible and set out a plan to fix the problem offering support and guidance.
Let them know how these behaviours are making you or your team feel. Use ‘I’ or ‘I feel’ messages. For instance, “I feel embarrassed when I’m called out in a meeting in front of others”, or, “I feel disrespected when I am constantly interrupted in meetings”.
‘I feel’ messages usually resonate better because the other person is not put on the defensive–no one can deny your own feelings. If you have internal HR support, they can assist you in this discussion. If not, then consider bringing in external support to help you plan this discussion and to be present during the meeting.
Don’t let nasty people ruin your work experience. Approach them as though they have a problem and don’t let it be your problem anymore.
Typically they have developed this behaviour over many years but no one has called them on it. It is possible for them to change, but it takes work on their behalf as well as yours.
Most great companies have formal policies to reinforce values for treating people with respect. This is great for employees, but what about you as a leader?
Check out our additional posts that deal with bad behaviour like bullying at work:
- 6 Strategies for dealing with difficult people
- The Constant Critic
If you’re dealing with colleagues or team members who are disrespectful to you, I’m here to help. I can arm you with proven practices to help you manage through the tough stuff. Send me an email or give me a call today!
Elaine Adamson is a leadership consultant with Dots Leadership Solutions Inc. A natural dot connector. Passionate about coaching team effectiveness and leadership development she shares over 25+ years of real-life tips and tricks that really work!
Elaine believes you can discover and leverage strengths to forge a strong team dynamic despite business challenges or organizational change.