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Dealing with Bullying – Why school and work are the same

I have little tolerance for bullies. Whether at work or at my daughter’s school, I simply do not have much tolerance for bullying behaviour. Unfortunately, bullying still occurs far too often at schools and at work, and the parallels are uncanny. Both schools (including school boards) and workplaces have progressed over the past 10 years to developing and implementing various policies around bullying. Schools have anti-bullying campaigns, assemblies and days/weeks devoted to wearing pink in order to bring awareness to and stop bullying. Government departments and workplaces have implemented legislation and policies respectively to address bullying in the workplace. It is common now for many workplaces to have the words bullying captured in their harassment policies. I truly believe that schools and workplaces want to eliminate bullying of all varieties.

I do feel that schools and workplaces have made great strides in dealing with physical bullying. It is overt, tangible, fairly obvious and addressable. That is, if someone physical touches/harms etc. another student/worker, than the school/workplace brings that person into the principal’s office/HR’s office and addresses the physical bullying when it has been reported. They identify how the person’s actions violate the bullying policy and the student is either given detention, suspension or even expelled! The employee is given a verbal and/or written warning and/or even terminated. School boards and courts of law have also shown little tolerance towards proven physical bullying and have supported the schools/workplaces in their decisions in addressing this type of behaviour.

BullyingWhere I believe a lot of this falls short is the verbal/psychological aspects of bullying. Schools struggle mightily in this regard. As the father of a daughter who experiences verbal bullying at school, it is a constant battle to have this addressed. Responses vary from, “well, if we don’t hear it,” or “the alleged bully denies saying those things,” to “well we can’t act on something there is no proof of.” The same goes for the workplace. Many workplaces simply aren’t equipped to deal with bullying in the workplace. Let’s face it, the bullies are smart. They know what buttons to press, how to act in front of the right people and are quite adept at manipulating situations to make themselves look ‘innocent’ (or they even outright lie).

As HR pros, these are difficult situations to investigate and come to conclusions on. It has been my experience (and feeling) that many people that experience workplace bullying are reluctant to come forward to anyone about it. They simply deal with it in silence and eventually move on to another job/company. (How is that for your employer of choice campaign!?) Worse yet, they end up going on medical leave to deal with depression and anxiety, when at the end of the day, if companies acted more swiftly and strongly, bullying could be dealt with. Now, I am not giving legal advice as I am not qualified to do so; however, I feel that as HR pros if we provide the right framework, work with our managers on appropriate behaviours and how to address those behaviours that don’t align with our company values and policies, we can make great strides in this area. Additionally, I believe that if HR or an investigator conducts a proper investigation into alleged complaints of bullying, than we need to have the fortitude to make tough decisions (even on the balance of probabilities) about the continued employment of certain individuals.  Look at your exit interview data, employee survey data and your HR files. What is the data telling you? What are the subliminal messages in the information? You can then figure out if 1+1 = 2 (i.e. there is a problem) or if you get some other number.

In the same vein, I think our schools need to take an equally strong approach to addressing verbal bullying. I know my daughter is reluctant to come forward to tell the teacher about being bullied as she doesn’t want to be seen as a tattle tale. However, we continue to work with her to make sure she does in fact bring this to the teacher’s attention so that she has a positive school experience and that others who may be being bullied also benefit from her actions. Schools need to be tougher on verbal bullying and shift the burden of proof a bit. If a student(s) keep coming forward about the same person(s) bullying them day over day, perhaps the level of diligence needs to be raised? Keep a watchful eye on alleged offenders. Perhaps even a preventative discussion about what verbal bullying is would be in order? Perhaps during these assemblies and campaigns, we also focus on verbal elements of bullying and how it won’t be accepted – actions need to match words.

Stronger messages must be sent, because let’s face it, children know when they being bullies…and when they are being bullied, much like adults in the workplace do. Schools and workplaces need to come to grips with the fact that bullying can’t always be seen and they must be prepared to take the tough steps to address it. Otherwise, I feel all these wear pink days are simply for show as we really aren’t talking about all elements of bullying. So I am looking for HR pros, managers and educators to raise the level of commitment and response to verbal bullying. Let’s stop accepting gossip, rumour mongering, slander,  and personal attacks in our schools and workplaces.  I know I will continue to fight the fight. What about you? What has been your experience? Do you see the parallels between school and workplace bullying? As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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