Defensive Management in a Bullying-Saturated Era
Defensive Management in a Bullying-Saturated Era
Beware, HR professionals! In the next few years there will be a dramatic increase in employee complaints and legal action related to bullying.
Three key trends are directly contributing to this: first, new anti-bullying legislation, already in place in Quebec and Saskatchewan, is sure to launch in other provinces in the foreseeable future.
Second, an increasing number of unions are including bullying-related clauses in their collective agreements, thereby raising members’ awareness and requiring greater organizational accountability.
Third, the issue has become a hot media agenda. To illustrate, in 1986-1987 bullying was mentioned in the Toronto Star only 91 times and in the Globe and Mail 62 times. By 2006-2007 these numbers soared to 358 and to 273 respectively.
These trends suggest a greater likelihood that managers will be accused of bullying, whether they deserve it or not.
The good news is that this heightened awareness will serve as a welcome vehicle for curbing the behaviour of managers who indeed are bullies. The bad news is that it may also result in creating an altogether different kind of risk: Hard-working, decent managers may find themselves unfairly accused of bullying, thereby triggering a set of negative repercussions for themselves and for the organization.
Four High-Sensitivity Situations
There are four particular situations that by their very nature may give rise to bullying accusations even for the non-bully manager. The following are very common yet inherently problematic:
- Performance management. When a manager has to closely scrutinize an employee’s poor performance, the perception of unfair or harsh treatment may readily emerge.
- Situations requiring exercise of authority and power. Even simple decisions regarding vacation or allotment of professional development days can be highly sensitive and open to misinterpretation.
- Time crunches. During high-stakes time crunches, many managers resort to authoritarian or micro-management practices, and their stressed-out employees may experience the demands as bullying.
- Feedback in public. Any situation where a manager provides public feedback that is critical or points to the need for improvement is by definition problematic and sensitive.
Management must be equipped with skills to avoid any perception of bullying in these situations. HR professionals can demonstrate true leadership in assisting managers in developing best practices that will protect them from bullying accusations. Specifically, they can help them avoid the hazards associated with these highly sensitive situations.
Unfortunately, organizations are at risk because most managers are not trained to navigate these situations with an eye to their potential bullying-related ramifications. Without proper guidance, even the best manager can fail.
Avoiding the Traps
Good risk management involves procuring specialized training that will improve managers’ skill levels in general respect –related practices, and specifically in handling highly sensitive situations. The ROI on training dollars spent in this arena far exceeds the cost of legal and other costs associated with even the simplest of bullying complaint.
A good training program will explain the concept of perceived justice and describe its elements. The term ‘perceived justice’, as developed by social and organizational psychologists, refers to the degree to which employees perceive that they are treated fairly by the organization and its leaders. Distributive Justice, Procedural Justice, Interpersonal Justice and Informational Justice describe the perceived fairness of distribution of rewards, the fairness of the procedures used to make decisions, the interpersonal dynamics between decision-makers and recipients of these decisions, , the ‘voice’ that people had in the process, and the explanations made regarding those decisions.
As a manager, practicing the four types of justice makes good sense anytime, any day. From a proactive perspective, practicing the four types of justice also provides a way of shielding you from inadvertently being accused of bullying.
An effective program will also include key strategies for navigating high-sensitivity situations, including:
Performance management. To decrease the potential danger in a situation where you have to monitor someone’s performance very closely, involve your own manager in advance. If your actions are ever questioned, this will demonstrate that the steps you took were legitimate in the course of routine supervisory activities. It is also important to be gracious and respectful even when you have to closely scrutinize an employee. As well, extremely detailed note-taking is an absolute must.
Situations requiring exercise of authority and power. Before making a decision, get the employee’s input, ideas and suggested alternatives. Once a decision is made, convey it in such a way that the person understands how the decision was made and why it is fair.
Time crunches. Even when everyone is under tremendous pressure to meet a goal or deadline, the four levels of justice must be followed. Take the time to explain right at the outset why the deadline is necessary and why the demand level will increase over the next while. Make sure you ask about and respect people’s limitations and workload. Ask them how as a team and as a leader you can make the situation more tolerable. And finally, keep your calm and manage your emotions even under the stress of deadlines.
Feedback in public. Follow the golden rule, “praise in public, correct in private”. There rarely exists a legitimate need to highlight someone’s mistakes in public.
Looking at the trends ahead, is it imperative that HR take a critical role in preparing organizations and managers for the potential hazards associated with unwarranted bullying accusations. Managers can be taught how to navigate their daily responsibilities as well as high sensitivity situations in ways that will help them steer clear of unfairly being accused of bullying practices. The time to start is now!
By Sharon Bar-David