Written From The Bully Pulpit

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The new documentary dealing with bullying of school age children is getting a lot of well-deserved press.  The excerpts I have seen and heard evoke my tears, rage and yes, personal memories.  Nothing can justify what these children endure on a daily basis.  There is no rationale, explanation, excuse or defiant bluster that can in any way mitigate the pain – both physical and psychic – to which these kids are subjected.  In these situations there is no such thing as ‘toughening up’ in order to take it.  The only acceptable response to such behavior is that it stop.

The reality is, bullying doesn’t stop with adulthood.  There are bullies in the workplace – different from those who harass others within the context of federal and state EEO and Sexual Harassment Prevention statutes.  There’s time enough to write about the latter; my passion this morning is directed to the leaders and managers who are aware of the bullying that occurs on their watch.  While I agree that education and zero tolerance must begin with and for our youngest children, the fact that such behavior is deeply affecting adults in the workplace suggests that perhaps we need a bifurcated approach.  In more basic terms – we should not condone any hostile or aggressive behavior in our offices – hard stop.

“In a prevalence study of U.S. workers, 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological aggression at work in the past year representing 47 million U.S. workers (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006).  The research found that 13% or nearly 13 million workers experienced psychological aggression on a weekly basis”.  This is inconceivable to me – and I hope you are as enraged as I am.

When I started working at the firm, we had an unwritten (but enforced) ‘no asshole’ rule.  I found this to be part of the firm’s value system that I respected the most.  The vetting process was almost absurdly extensive – potential associates and partners traveled to as many offices as possible, meeting as many people as possible to learn about the firm and vice versa.  Believe it or not there were some pretty impressive business producers who were not pursued after this exercise – they couldn’t pass the ‘no asshole’ rule.  Was the firm replete with only genuine, engaged, gracious, respectful people?  Of course not – sometimes somebody made it through.  Parenthetically, none of these people were put into positions of power; their sphere of influence was limited as much as possible and of greatest importance – they were told why their contribution would continue to be valued in money, but never in leadership roles.

That was then, this is now and I’m not there anymore.  Further comments about whether or not such a philosophy is still in practice is specious and of no value to this dialogue.  But I will always applaud the organization for uncompromisingly articulating its abhorrence of bullying and those responsible for its horrible consequences.

Aggressive behavior in the workplace can range from subtle to overt.  Being the frequent recipient of invalid hostile criticism, receiving continuous unwarranted and/or fictitious blame, being sworn at, experiencing social and professional isolation and/or exclusion are examples of bullying.  I ask that you apply a ‘reasonable person standard’ to this description, for I am aware that an occasional misguided comment or decision doesn’t meet any threshold that is being discussed here.

As a current or future leader, you must be acutely aware of the ramifications of such toxicity.  If you consider the impact purely from an economic perspective, you will find decreased performance, higher turnover, distorted information flow and high levels of distrust.  Bummer for your profitability.  As a compassionate leader, the consequences are equally dire – disaffected employees, higher incidences of medical leaves, depression, misdirected frustration and criticism, dysfunctional collaboration,etc.  Bummer for morale.

To me, the larger issue is the need for us to address this with unrelenting, unwavering commitment in our schools and in our companies.  It is not enough to say that we are anti-bullying – we need to step up and be as unequivocal in our actions as we are in our words.  I realize I do not sound like a compassionate therapist here – the workplace is not the backdrop for working through the long standing issues that plague most bullies.  The bully is hurting your people, diluting any humanistic value system that your organization holds dear and eroding your profitability and reputation.  Zero tolerance policies are truly that – without caveat, rationalization and multiple do-overs.  Your people are entitled to be led by the best you have to offer – and that includes establishing and invoking a ‘no asshole’ rule.Image