Notes from the Field: Four Reminders About Preventing and Addressing Workplace Misconduct

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Fran S.

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Hello from the frigid temperatures of Minnesota, where I have a rare day at my desk and time to reflect on what the field is telling me.  It’s been 10 states, 20 cities and lots and lots of workshops and assessments lately, and each experience has been a reminder that while our organizational conversations evolve to discuss the importance of inclusion, civility, and respect, it remains important that we remember our basics. Please feel free to add your basics in the comments!

  • “Filing a Formal Complaint” Should Not be a Thing.

Assume for the sake of this item you are a supervisor, manager or HR professional. When an employee tells you that they feel they are being targeted based on their protected class, or, particularly if the organization has a policy that prohibits abusive and bullying behavior, when they utter the code words, “hostile environment,” or when a person of color says that they don’t believe they can be successful in the organization because of their race, or when an employee tells you that a supervisor is treating them differently because of their gender expression, they have complained.  They don’t need to write anything down.  They don’t need to “file.” They do not need to put a giant flag on their statement that says “complaint.”  They have put you on notice that something is happening that should not be happening, and you have a responsibility to the organization and to them to understand the issue, establish if there is a factual basis for the statement or claim, and to address it.  This applies even if they tell you that they want nothing done.  Why?  In retrospect, the simple reality that you knew and took no action is likely to be a problem.  Why?  Because we should not wait until we have certainty of a policy violation to take things seriously Why? Because these problems do not go away on their own; rather the situation will escalate, be harder to solve and might result in loss of talent, decreased productivity and morale and claims against the organization where applicable.

  • Abusive Behavior, or Bullying is not Illegal but Your Organization Should Prohibit It

It is 2019.  The evidence that being treated abusively costs our organizations the capacity to be excellent and high performing is indisputable. Moreover, the evidence that patterns of abusive behavior wreak havoc on individual mental health, organizational trust, employee citizenship behaviors, and engagement have been around for a long time.  Being harassed for no reason or any reason is traumatic, corrosive and causes effects in bystanders as well as targets.  By retaining and rewarding “good employees” who bully others you damage your employment brand and sabotage your own human resources.

The idea that because bullying is not illegal that there is no need to address it has its roots in the arguments made against making workplace abuse illegal; that somehow organizations and employees lack that capacity to make a distinction between “tough feedback,” warranted discipline or performance management and abusive behavior.  As a thirty-year organizational consultant, my response is, “poppycock[i].”  If we apply the same “severe” and “pervasive” standard to bullying that we do to protected class harassment, and if we make a distinction between feedback given in the spirit of helping someone to be successful versus breaking someone into a million pieces, we should trust our organizations to do the same.  This is not an argument for codifying bullying in law, but instead an acknowledgment that organizations know the difference between someone having a bad day, communicating awkwardly, or enforcing policies, and someone targeting someone for psychological and emotional mistreatment with regularity.

  • Customers, Donors, Volunteers, Event Participants, and Public Officials Can Harass Your Employees and It Is on You.

In a meeting last year with development professionals working in major gifts, I ran scenarios of donors engaging in boundary stretching behavior (asking deeply personal questions, requiring dinner in an unsuitable restaurant) to serious misconduct (showing pictures of sex with their spouse, asking for phone sex, touching inappropriately.) I asked them to identify their “red line,” and how they would react to such behavior.  The majority were able to define their personal red line but were flummoxed as to what they would do or whether they “could” do anything at all for fear of jeopardizing the major donation dangling in these situations.  The message they had received by osmosis (never explicitly) was that the dollars were more important than their comfort.  They not only felt they could not say anything or do anything, but that if they did, the response of the organization would be to remove them from the “account,” resulting in perceptions that they had failed and reducing opportunities for professional advancement.

I spoke with a young professional whose firm expected them to actively engage in aggressive business development.  A potential client and their financial staff invited the professional to dinner.  This was an extraordinary opportunity and the professional was proud of their aplomb and professionalism.  As the dinner ended, the CFO asked the professional to remain, and quickly suggested they go to a strip club.  The professional refused, and the opportunity for business was withdrawn. They were reluctant to tell their leader why and was then presumed to have ‘blown” the lucrative opportunity.

In a retail setting, three employees told me of a customer who shopped daily and made racially insensitive remarks almost as often.  Their complaints to their store manager were met with a frank discussion that the customer “is always right.”

A janitorial employee was among those proudly greeting a public official who was inspecting a newly built facility as part of a public-private partnership.  This public official had tirelessly raised funds and passed necessary laws to bring this moment to fruition.  During the reception, one of the official’s aides approached the janitorial employee and indicated that the public official wanted to hear from him as a beneficiary of new minimum wage laws.  He was led to a classroom, asked a few questions before the aide slipped out and was then propositioned sexually.  He walked out and never returned to work, full of shame and sure that he would never be believed.

These are stories of unlawful, or potentially unlawful harassment.  Each of these stories has but one moral.  The employer is responsible.  The employer must make clear that if there is a problem while someone is doing their professional work,  their employer is their partner in sorting it out, stopping the conduct, ensuring the employee suffers no negative consequences for bringing the concern forward and that the organization assures that others are similarly protected.  There is no asterisk, sub-section, or special provision that makes these incidents any different from harassment that happens from employee to employee.  Be prepared.  Anticipate.  Some organizations are even doing education for their vendors, donors, and patrons.  I recently was in a community center that had rules of interpersonal conduct posted that prohibited any harassing or abusive behavior and told members that their membership could and would be terminated for such conduct.  That should not have been a surprise!

  • Law is For Lawyers

In their wisdom, States like New York and California have required that employees and supervisors learn the law of harassment.  As a very, very busy trainer who focuses on building respect, functional problem solving and creating healthy organizations, I have to say that when I must review each point of law, the energy drains from the room.  Rather than looking at practical situations and what should be done, rather than focusing on supervisory or bystander skills, we get bogged down it what “severe and pervasive” is, or the concept of civil liability.  Don’t get me wrong.  Knowing the law is a good thing – for lawyers and HR professionals needing to make an analysis of liability…but the message to our supervisory employees should be that the line does not get drawn at illegal conduct.  Rather, if it is disruptive, unprofessional, hurtful, counter to our values or interfering with the well being of others, they need to address it.  If we could spend the precious twenty minutes it takes to turn our supervisors into mini-employment lawyers instead focusing on hypothetical cases, expanding their coaching skills, letting them know when they need help, showing them ways to display empathy, and even to just listen, we would be doing our organizations a lot more good and creating a lot more value.  Yes, I use a slide that says, “Law is for Lawyers.”  I want supervisors setting their radar on daily work climate, safety, fairness, and respect.  Building this messaging into our supervisor training also makes clear that supervisors have responsibility when things start going off the rails, not just when they go terribly horribly wrong.  We need to disabuse our supervisors of the idea that they “cannot get involved in personality disputes,” because we know that said disputes often morph into more serious conflicts, including claims.  Let’s skill them up to be able to handle conflict management, to coach those whose behavior is uncivil, and to know when to reach out to advisors for help early in a problem situation.

That’s what I’ve got for you today.  Talk to me!  Agree? Disagree?  Your Basics?

[i] I’ve been looking for an excuse to say this word for a while. Thanks.


Fran S.

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