Thursday, February 14, 2008


Many of us remember being taunted in school or watching others going through the same. At the time, we view those initiating the taunts as bigger and tougher than the rest of us. These people pushed their weight around on the school property and tried to rule the roost, as one might say. Those who were their unfortunate victims were often told to ignore the bully of the bunch, or to throw their fists back at 'em. Some of these victims grow up to recall their childhood years as traumatic in many ways and have developed low self-esteem, eating disorders and trouble forming and staying in relationships due to trust issues. However, most believe they escaped the bullies when they left the school yard; unfortunately, this is not the case.

The school yard bullies (and others who grow up to emulate them) only grow up to carry on their tirade in the workplace. This leads to the newest concept in bullying that is only beginning to gain recognition: workplace bullying. While it is not certain how many workers are or have been subjected to bullying in their jobs, a recent edition of Canadian Business estimated this is a costly enterprise. It is estimated that in terms of annual costs, loss of productivity, reliance on social benefits, legal costs, cost of staff turnover, among other direct bearers of cost, workplace bullies create an annual bill of approximately $24 billion.

How does workplace bullying take place? Workplace bullies can act in a very subtle manner, whereas they target the worker by exclusion, the initiation of rumours, forming an "in group" of workers and colleagues to build an alliance against the worker, as well as providing anything from confusing direction and supervision to outright removal of key job responsibilities. This process is designed to make the worker fail, targeting the worker for even further harassment and victimization as a result of the alleged failure.. These next steps can include forced attendance of the worker at "meetings" at which their performance becomes the target of ridicule and attack, personal criticisms of the worker are aired and encouraged to be aired in front of other co-workers and colleagues. The worker becomes blamed for all real or imagined ills of the organization to such a point where it seems that the worker has no remaining redeeming qualities. This treatment often continues to the point where the worker is isolated from others, offered little or no support and eventually, the treatment given results in the worker either quitting or taking "sick leave". It doesn't usually end there, as often the bully makes it difficult for the worker to access employment insurance benefits, short or long-term disability benefits from the workplace and often times, will try as they might to prevent that worker from obtaining another job.

Most workplace bullies are serial bullies. A colleague they might have counted on yesterday to jointly deride and attack the original worker may be chosen as their next target. Why? Because after they can bully the original worker no more, the bully has to find somebody else to taunt and victimize. Very often, workers, one by one, are taunted and bullied in succession until they are all out of the organization and the bully can replace them with his or her "friends" and "allies" to help them keep their jobs. Bullies are always the winners in 93% of the cases studied by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a think tank organized by Gary and Ruth Namie. That means, the bully is the one that gets to stay in the organization and their jobs often become even more secure, and it is not uncommon for them to even get promoted. If the bully is the chief executive officer or president of the firm, it is more than likely their board of directors is either complicit with the bullying or ignorant of it. Complaints by targets of bullying are too often overlooked or disregarded, as the bully usually possesses enough charisma to continue to manipulate how a situation is viewed.

Who are these bullies? In general, bullies tend to be persons who are generally incompetent in the positions they occupy. They may lack the requisite education or management skills to work successfully with other people or to operate even the most basic tenets of the business. As my husband often reminds me, "They want to wear the uniform, but not take the responsibility". Often, they are jealous of their targets and are constantly fearful that their targets will expose their overall incompetence. Bullies are also often, though not always, involved in unethical conduct - meaning, they may be misusing company money for personal purposes, hiring friends and relatives, operating afoul of environmental or professional regulations that may govern the organization they manage. Non-profit organizations are just as likely as private sector organizations to engage in bullying behaviour, though there are more checks and balances in place for private companies. Bullies bully simply because they can. Because non-profit organizations do not have substantial regulatory authority over them, this invites those prone to behave in this manner to join such organizations and eventually destroy them.

Who are the targets? Those who are most often targeted by bullies are individuals who demonstrate a high level of loyalty and ethical commitment to their workplace. They are usually high performers, higher than average in intelligence and work performance measures. The bullies can readily pick them out because they will not likely engage in a task that may be viewed as unethical, illegal or bordering on fraud. The target may be asked to exercise their signing authority, for example, to write a cheque for an unapproved purchase or to cover questionable expenses incurred by the bully or his or her associates. I've seen this happen in non-profit organizations when it becomes apparent that board members are getting paid, or lavish expense accounts are being covered for activities of a diffuse necessity for the organization. The bully hopes that if the organization gets targeted for review or audit that they can point to the target, esp. if the target -- fearful for their job - complies. If the target does not comply or refuses to participate, the bullying escalates. I've seen situations where a target refuses to sign a cheque for a questionable expense, only to be followed by a quick removal of the target as a signing authority - presumably to be replaced by somebody who will spend the organization's money in the manner the bully prescribes.

What happens to the targets? After the bullying gets to a certain point, most targets end up leaving the organization by quitting, being forced out or by taking a "disability leave". The unfortunate thing is that the bully and the organization are seldom held responsible for their actions. If the bully continues the manage the non-profit, the services may continue to be offered in an albeit mediocre manner. Despite this, the bully may be able to convince a few editors and outsiders that what they are doing is truly innovative and change-driven, when in fact, it is the same old same old. People may be afraid to speak up or complain because of the strong personality of the bully, or because they fear they will be cut off from receiving any services at all. I've seen situations where individuals using the services of an organization chose to spoke up, only to be accused of something outrageous like theft or assault, with only the bully and perhaps one or two of his or her associates to "back it up". Because there is little accountability for non-profit organizations, such organizations can basically do whatever they want to anybody they want. Even the limited oversight provided by the Charities Directorate tends to focus its efforts on fundraising practices, as opposed to how people are treated within and by the organization. Further, evaluation of actual services by the charitable sector tends to be completed 'internally' and has little or no external comparison to truly measure the effectiveness of the services provided.

The reason I know all of this is because I been there. When I worked in the charitable sector, I was always honest in my reporting practices. If I didn't meet targets, I said so. If I did, I provided documentation and external opinions to support it. However, because there is not a stringent oversight program set up by funders or better yet, an independent government agency (as incompetent non-profits can always keep switching funders and rely exclusively on projects that have no measurable objectives, e.g. "consumer satisfaction surveys" tend to be organized for a positive bias) - nobody really knows how well non-profit programs are actually working. In a business, accountability is built in. It's called the "free market". If a business hires and supports an incompetent manager, sooner or later it will pay. When an incompetent manager is a bully and "friend" of the owners, the person's job description usually gets shifted as opposed to having them removed. Many times, the bully will eventually be removed if there is a change in ownership or management or if the person does cause damage to the business itself. But in the non-profit sector, the incompetent person stays forever.

Targets often suffer the ill effects of bullying for a long time. Many become depressed, hypervigilant, anxious and distrusting of their own observations of reality. Many times, this transforms into physical illness, such as bowel complaints, difficulties in sleeping or staying asleep, headaches, fatigue, visual disturbances, arthritic pain, back problems and many have even developed chronic conditions later on after many years of being unable to "get over" the bullying, such as diabetes, heart problems and even in a few cases, cancer. Most targets are reluctant to re-enter the workforce and many do not work again, or they become trapped as "self-employed" perpetually. Those that do work again tend to steer far away from their previous station in the workforce, often accepting jobs that are far beneath their level of skill and education. Workplace bullying substantially increases the demands on the tax dollars for health care, social services and in some cases, emergency housing and prison. Families often split up, leading to more pressure in the courts and impacts on any children of the marriage.

In my practice, I meet with different targets of workplace bullies. Many choose to take legal action, but unfortunately, litigation against the employer may only result in a cash settlement for "time in lieu of notice". Punitive damages against the employer are rare, as the proof rests with the plaintiff to prove the employer acted in a high-handed and deliberate manner in the termination itself. The law may take prior behaviour into account, but the most this will do for a target is to increase the number of weeks owed in "lieu of notice". If the person quit their job because the workplace environment was poisonous and hostile, the worker must prove this fact as well to receive damages for what is known as 'constructive termination'. In these circumstances, it is often better for a worker to hang on until they actually get terminated, unless they can prove 'constructive termination'. However, there is case law, which I will not detail here, that does provide a standard and reasonable "tests" for a plaintiff attempting to prove 'constructive termination'. But nevertheless, the legal process is arduous, slow and by its nature, adversarial. Quite often, the bullied worker has become so weakened by their experience, that re-experiencing the same in a legal setting may be too much for them. Unfortunately, bullies know this - which is why they carefully choose their style of harassment and try to maintain tight control of the workplace (to avoid unexpected witnesses in the plaintiff's favour, for example).

What can be done about workplace bullying? To me, whatever is done must put the full financial and legal culpability on the shoulders of the person or persons responsible for the bullying or who otherwise knew about the bullying but did little or nothing to stop it. Companies and non-profits should not be allowed to hide behind the corporate veil. Bullies should not be allowed to continue in their employment with the company. Financial compensation should be provided to the target for not only lost earnings, but for counselling services, relocation, finding a new job or vocation, as well as any medical care that may not otherwise be covered under OHIP. Targets of workplace bullies should not have to turn to Ontario Works or its disability program, Ontario Disability Support Program, as neither program can even pretend to cover lost wages. Usually what follows going on these programs, especially Ontario Works, is bankruptcy, loss of one's home, loss of one's health and a downward spiral that only makes it more difficult to get oneself back up. Why should a target of workplace bullying be re-victimized after they were forced out of their job, and quite often - their vocation?

While businesses can be more tightly monitored through industry standards and regulatory bodies (and individual bullies be more closely monitored and regulated through the same), non-profit organizations and their management should be licensed and regulated because they do not have the same market pressures that businesses have, thus they don't have an incentive to keep costs down and incompetence to a minimum. At the present time, anybody even with a grade six education can show up and get hired as an executive director. While this sounds facetious, quite often this person has a brother, a spouse or a close friend on the board of directors. While technically this is not accepted, it goes on all the time. The job of executive director goes to somebody they know and like (or can convince people that they do indeed have qualifications they do not in fact possess such as claiming prior business experience), rather than somebody that can do the job.

Perhaps, there can be a law that people vying for this type of work must have a minimum level of education, as well as training specifically in human resources, finance and ethical conduct. Think this is not possible? If people that do what I do can be licensed, insured and have to follow a code of conduct, even though I can honestly say I do not earn anything ... thanks to the present government's meanderings .. so can they! To me there is absolutely NO difference between a worker in a non-profit organization that provides services and looks after money and people, than what I do. If the person is found to be bullying or committing some other offence, they can be subject to complaint and disciplinary process, possibly losing their license or being fined and/or suspended for a period of time. A manager or ED who is not a member of another licensing body can then be forcibly put off the job. If the organization continues to protect them? That organization can immediately lose all of its funding, government contracts and other privileges, such as charitable status.

Some of the above recommendations may sound tough and hard-hearted, but this is what the real world works like in an ethical private sector company, particularly one that is regulated by an outside body such as financial services, insurance, securities, etc. Yes, there are certainly companies in these sectors that do include bullies - but it becomes visible more frequently and can indeed quickly become unprofitable, thus producing the pressure necessary to remove the problem. If somebody is attracting a number of lawsuits to a private firm as a result of being a bully, this hurts for-profit companies more than non-profit organizations. Private sector companies do have other challenges, which can be addressed in other ways (such as tougher employment law enforcement, workplace safety and environmental regulations). It is almost like taking a choice between two evils.

In my view, it is BECAUSE of the lack of accountability and lack of workplace expectations in any organization that invites the abuse of workplace bullies. If a company has a reason to fear consequences for example for keeping a workplace bully or allowing such behaviour to continue, they will be more careful in applying human resource policies and ensuring people are protected as much as possible from this kind of internal strife. If workplace leaders and managers had a reason to fear consequences of poor conduct, then they will be more likely to ensure they perform professionally and treat their co-workers and subordinates with respect. If a bully wants to barge their way into a workplace because they want to wear the uniform, but not take the responsibility, they will think twice about even trying if they know they must be licensed, follow a code of ethics and be insured, etc. before they can even be hired in such a job. This certainly will not get rid of all workplace bullying, but will reduce it substantially enough so that there will be less targets and those that do exist will have real remedies as opposed to what happens now, where they are forced to be re-traumatized again and again as they struggle to basically survive.

Your thoughts?

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