The Business Matters Trust is very grateful to KPMG for hosting this lunchtime talk and for providing a sandwich lunch for those attending.
Brian Donnelly, Director of the anti-bullying charity respectme, gave this talk in which he addressed the issue of workplace bullying from a constructive angle, focusing on positive ways in which we can understand how workplace values and culture can contribute to an environment where workplace bullying will not thrive and so we can take “preventative action” as it were, before a problem has a chance to develop.
The PowerPoint slides he used during his talk and a recording of the talk in two parts can be accessed using the icons at the foot of the page.
Brian started by outlining his own background with a history in Social Work and, latterly, working with a national anti-bullying service focused on children. He has, over the years, developed a package relating to workplace bullying and this would provide the foundation for a very short summary of what is a day-long training package.
Rather than home in on bullying at the start, Brian asked those present to briefly discuss and define what they thought a value was. Comments such as “a measuring stick” or “principles and beliefs which define what we do” came from the audience. Brian summed up as follows:
- beliefs or standards that we hold to
- values reflect our sense of right and wrong – how we feel things should be
- they underpin everything we do
- they affect our behaviours and attitudes
Within our workplaces Brian challenged us to ask if our own individual values are in step with the values of our organisation – this can either help or hinder our enjoyment of, and effectiveness in, our work.
Another challenging question is “are our organisations’ values clearly visible/evident in the workplace? Are they more than just words?” This led neatly into the next topic in Brian’s talk which was “Culture”.
Culture is made up of the norms, routines, stories, symbols, power structure and control systems that an organisation possesses and exhibits – “the way things are done round here”. Brian asked us to think about, and comment on, the culture of our own organisations and the answers were interesting, ranging from “fast-paced, hectic and chaotic” to “blaming” to “stifling and difficult to be innovative”.
Why do values and culture matter and how do they interact? Brian stated that there is a very strong link between organisational culture and behaviour at work. Fast-paced, target-driven cultures tend to de-prioritise relationships while cultures valuing relationships and based on inclusion and respect are less likely to see bullying and harassment flourish. He explored one or two examples of positive and negative workplaces with those present and identified good role modelling and lack of a blame culture as practices to aspire to and implement.
Brian was asked by a member of the audience for a definition of bullying. His response was to provide what he considers is a valid definition which differs from those found in most dictionaries which use terms such as “persistent deliberate behaviour” or “aggressive” or “threatening”. Brian’s definition is this:
Bullying is the combination of unacceptable behaviours by someone and the impact they have on another. The impact of this behaviour is that it strips an individual of the capacity to take effective action. This capacity is referred to as a person’s ‘agency’.
Bullying is about both the behaviour and impact.
This definition means that one-off instances can be considered as bullying and excuses such as “I didn’t mean it” do not provide “escape routes”.
Behaviour does not have to be repeated in order to be considered bullying while, conversely, someone can feel bullied when they have not actually been bullied. The behaviour and impact within a situation both need to be considered and the focus should be on a person regaining their ‘agency’ – the capacity to deal with the situation and to continue to function.
It is easy, but not helpful, to label people a bully or a victim. Whilst behaviour may clearly be unacceptable, it is unhelpful to label someone for life as a bully – they should be given the opportunity to recognise the behaviour as wrong and to change it, allowing them to admit error and to seek to rebuild relationships. The term “zero tolerance” is one which Brian finds difficult to recognise as being applicable in a practical sense – he gently probed those present who nearly all admitted a “little white lie” in their past but would not wish to be tagged as “liars”.
Brian made it clear that this whole issue is not about politically correct language but rather defining boundaries for acceptable behaviour in the workplace. It is much better to define the positive behaviours we would expect at work as opposed to trying to compile a list of proscribed activities.
The key principle is that impact is the issue not intent.
Brian differentiated between bullying and harassment, the latter having a clear legal framework based on behaviours which impinge on “protected characteristics” such as age, gender etc. and requiring a distinct legal process to be followed if it is alleged.
Moving back on to positive territory again, Brian reiterated the need to focus on positive behaviours and quoted some examples from a “code of practice” he has prepared – within the workplace we should expect:
- to be spoken to in a respectful manner
- to speak to colleagues in a respectful manner
- to be listened to
- to be managed fairly
- to be held accountable for our performance
- to be supported with personal development
- to receive training
- to have conflict dealt with
- to have clear roles
He highlighted that it is much better if instances of bullying can be dealt with at a local level – bullying is really a “conduct” issue and most if not all companies will have HR policies already in place which can be used to tackle the problem.
In concluding, Brian returned to the importance of values and culture in creating an environment where bullying and harassment will struggle to survive and urged each of us to play our part in this process dealing with each and every person we encounter in the workplace respectfully.
His talk was followed by a lively Q&A session, after which those present thanked him for his input.
Consultant to business matters