From the Comms Cupboard

Workplace bullying and how comms can help

Workplace bullying and how comms can help
When bullying reveals its ugly face in the workplace, what do we do? John and Shaun discuss stats, signs and potential comms solutions.

Bullying and banter often go hand in hand – it's about our behaviour. But there are many types of bullying, and different ways to interpret what it actually looks like. Business leaders need to prevent good people leaving within a year, so how do they enforce company values? The comms team comes to the rescue!

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Episode transcript

John: OK, as communicators, are we in a good position to support people around bullying?

Shaun: Yes, I would think so. And we’re talking about that feeling of, you’ve just joined a new job but it somehow feels like you're back at school! So it’s bullying, but not necessarily getting smacked on the back of the head with a ruler! 📏

John: Or called out in front of everybody and told off.

Shaun: Although that could still happen, I suppose.

John: Does an organisation’s style come into it? Like you say, you join a new place and it doesn’t feel quite right or it’s not something you’re used to. Maybe it’s more old-fashioned than the places you worked before, and you feel more victimised by it.

Shaun: Well ... victimised or that gentle sense of something isn't quite right and I don’t fit in. And there’s a reason for that, isn’t there? I’ve definitely felt that in certain places. We talk about this because we have a mutual friend who’s a chef, and there's that environment we’ve said: “I could never work there.”

John: No, it’s tough.

Shaun: The banter. I read about the excuse of banter: Oh don’t take it seriously. It’s just banter.

John: Everyone does it.

Shaun: It’s something that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Even if they laugh about it, they’re laughing because they feel uncomfortable. You know, let’s just laugh it off. But actually that’s a form of discomfort. Here’s a statistic I found: In a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personal Development (I didn’t know they existed before this), more than one in four workers who experienced workplace conflict were more likely to quit their job within the next year. So your thing about having a tone; having a culture; having those values, really do have to be set by the CEO or leader. It will have a massive effect on staff turnover, productivity, business growth etc. It’s so important.

John: Cost.

Shaun: Cost, yeah! Can you tell me, what are those costs again ... roughly ... to replace people?

John: I can’t remember. 50,000-something to hire and replace somebody in a role. It’s crazy when you think about it. It all adds up. As communicators then, how do we help change a culture or a style? I would imagine most organisations have values and behaviours that they’re trying to achieve, but perhaps they’re interpreted differently or just ignored.

Shaun: Or not communicated well enough. You’ve been to those places where they have values pinned to the wall, and you say to someone: "Can you read me the values behind your head?"

John: Yeah, they’ve seen it every day for the last two years, but they still don’t know what they are! 😄

Shaun: I think values are often those things that we often … they’re tick boxes. I do know that some good companies really stick close to them and remind themselves. I’ve worked for those companies. But it’s laying that tone of voice: This is how we operate as adults; as grownups. This is how we treat one another with respect. Set that tone.

John: They have to be really clear. Perhaps this is another podcast, about values. They have to be super-clear and not interpreted in different ways by different people. Maybe part of a communicator’s job is to make it clear what we mean by something. If it’s just a word, one person will interpret it differently to another.

Shaun: Oh do you mean if one of the values is get stuff done, and then a manager comes around and says “Get that done, you! It’s one of our values!”

**John: "**You can’t leave until it’s done!" 😠 Exactly. So is there a way we can work with people to help them understand that a bit better? Or to consider that everyone is different in your team. So if you have five people in your team, they all need to be treated differently. You have to adapt to them as opposed to them adapting to you. How do we get that message to people?

Shaun: I would say not how, but how often. The comms team often writes very good messages around values. But it’s consistency – always reminding people constantly about what [the values] are. You don’t want to arrive at a juncture where suddenly the HR team is knocking on your door and saying: “We’ve had a few complaints of bullying in the past few months. Is there anything you can help us do?“ You don’t want that scenario, do you?

John: No. It can’t just be a campaign. It’s just a one-off thing that happens every five years. The figures are up so let’s put something out. It needs to be something that’s constantly worked in, about how we behave.

Shaun: We have to come back to the whole leader thing, because if a leader isn’t aware of what’s going on at base level ...

John: Then they’re not doing their job.

Shaun: They’re not doing their job, but they’re also not quite aware of the tone. It could come as a complete surprise to them when HR knocks on their door, saying: “We’ve got a lot of workplace bullying.“ They might say: “What? I thought we were all a happy bunch.” 😯

John: One other area we could look at is digital. We're seeing a move to different types of communication in the workplace, and the majority of us are working from home. Office workers are working at home at the moment, so we’re using online tools. Do you think they offer an opportunity for bullying to happen?

Shaun: Yeah, I think so. I think they are the good and the evil. Chat apps, social media, intranet comms things are great for creating engagement, but they can also create alienation.

John: Absolutely.

Shaun: You can be excluded from groups and conversations.

John: And it’s no different from when you’re at school. We hear stories every day about the horrible social media ... you know, in the news ... about kids being bullied at school. But it’s the same in the workplace. If you're excluded from something, you maybe do think they’re talking about you. Even worse is when you are included and somebody is talking about you, or making a negative opinion about you to a much wider group than they probably would have gossiping in an office.

Shaun: Or constantly dismissing your idea that you bring. You could be full of ideas, but someone is resentful and more vocal and powerful in their status, and they constantly dismiss your idea. That’s a form of bullying that a leader or manager needs to recognise and have the authority to say let’s do something proactive and let’s set the tone. We are grown-ups here and everyone has a voice.

John: What’s that term you hear a lot lately? Microaggressions in the workplace. This copying you in and then dismissing your idea to a big group of people, or @-ing you in an online message. Those sorts of things take their toll on people just as much as saying it to your face. So what proactive things can we do to help everyone in an organisation, but also managers, to understand that? You know, there are different types of bullying. There are different things that impact people.

Shaun: Communications people like you and I often do the work of communicating for managers and leaders, and perhaps in putting those things together when we are asked to do them, there is some learning going on on their part. There is a legal process in place to handle harassment, but not bullying in the workplace.

John: It’s a hard thing to distil though, isn’t it? How do you define it, because it can be so broad. It can be outright full-on bullying and then these little micro bits that happen between people. People interpret them differently. It’s so tough, isn’t it?

Shaun: Yeah, it is tough. And you don’t want to accuse someone of bullying when they feel like they haven’t done anything wrong. I think that’s the thing we need to step back from. It’s not about handling the bullying – it’s about being a proactive organisation and setting the stall out right so there are things in place.

John: Yes, you can put guidelines in place. If you think about every new channel or way of speaking and communicating comes up, actually think about how this could impact people in a negative way as well as positive way. So, do you need internal social media guidelines to help people? Just to cut out some of those things. Because people won’t know they’re doing it. They just won’t be aware. I think you need to keep reminding people that acting online is exactly like acting when you’re with people. So that’s a real practical thing you could do.

Shaun: So, to summarise, we would say that you should set the tone of voice, be consistent and frequent with your messaging, and as a last resort send your dad in.


FOOTNOTE: If you'd like to read more about workplace bullying, the signs, the statistics and the solutions, check out this Forbes article from July 2019.

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