Four Key Nuggets from the Workplace Bullying & Harassment Conference

by Jun 20, 2018

I just returned home from the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment conference, held this year in Bordeaux, France.  

As always, I got to hob-nob with some of the big-name academic researchers, such as Charlette Rayner and Eva Gemzoe-Mikkelsen, who have conducted many ground-breaking studies in this area.

I also got to taste some great wine, eat French food, and tour Saint-Émilion, where they have apparently been making wince since 42 A.D.

But enough drooling over thoughts of croissants and wine, I’d like to share four key take-aways I gleaned from the conference:

KEY TAKEAWAY #1: True harassment prevention = eliminating the risks that allow it to thrive

According to Carol Agocs, from the University of Western Ontario, many organizations have structures that allow harassment to thrive, including: long standing male leadership; segregation between occupations (e.g., most of the females are receptionists and most of the males are executives); little accommodation for women’s needs and family obligations; and many more.

This got me to thinking about the training and policies we’re currently using to “prevent” harassment. Training and policy are compliance, and true harassment prevention is eliminating the risk factors.

So ask yourself if there are things happening around your workplace that could be risk factors, and then eliminate them.

For example, have you done a pay audit to examine gender discrepancies? Do women (and men, too) have the flexibility to go pick up sick kids during the day? Are men and women doing equal types of work tasks?

KEY TAKEAWAY #2: Sexual harassment is about power, but also sex

We’ve all heard that sexual harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power. But I heard a presentation from sexologist Willeke Bezemer, a consultant in The Netherlands, who had some interesting thoughts on this.  

Bezemer noted (as Amy Cuddy did in her TEDTalk) that people with power have more testosterone and therefore take more risks. The testosterone serves to assist one’s brain in perceiving sexual willingness in others and motivates belittling “less powerful” people.

The testosterone also helps the brain forget about mistakes and bad behavior, because that’s important to do if you’re going to be a risk-taker (from an instinctual physiological point of view of course).

Finally, the testosterone tells the brain, “You are entitled to get whatever you want.” Useful if you’re a reindeer vying for the leader’s spot, not so useful if you’re a powerful person in the workplace.  

Please note these aren’t excuses for people who engage in sexual harassment, the speaker was just offering some explanation for a behavior many of us really don’t understand.

In the end, your key takeaway is take heed to her research, which has found that companies made up of 30% of women or more seem to have a lot less problems with sexual harassment. What is the gender ratio at your company?

KEY TAKEAWAY #3: There are many factors at play in successfully ending workplace bullying

Sara Branch, Carlo Caponecchia, and Jane Murray, professors at different Australian universities, conducted a survey of consultants to determine the main tools being used to resolve bullying around the world.

They found the most common intervention tools are investigations, creating and relying on codes of conduct, mediation, implementing a zero-tolerance policy, using employee assistance programs (EAPs), and creating bullying awareness programs (e.g., training).

They also found that success of these interventions will require some key ingredients: a competent professional, willingness of all individuals in the organization to make change, endorsement and active engagement from leaders, a range of individuals across the organization have ownership of any programs developed, and continuous communication about progress towards change.

I was a little disappointed to see that there wasn’t much focus on culture change, because I truly believe that’s the one true solution.

These interventions felt a little more “one-off” to me – in that implementing a policy or providing a one-time training couldn’t possibly make that much of a difference unless the culture was supporting accountability. But that’s a discussion for another day.

You can see how I end workplace bullying in my LinkedIn Learning course, Handling Workplace Bullying.

Your key takeaway is to think about what intervention steps you’ll need to take if you wanted to truly end bullying, and if you were to implement a policy, for example, how would your culture support it?

KEY TAKEAWAY #4: The conversation around coping with bullying needs to change

My last takeaway is in regards to my own presentation on my research with Jerry Carbo and Stacy Tye-Williams, professors at different American universities.

We collected stories of survival from people who had been bullied in the past but were now in a space of feeling victorious. (Some of the most powerful stories are available in my latest book, Stand Up, Speak Out.)

Interestingly enough, several of the authors had been forced out or fired, while others chose to quit, and still others were still working in a bullying situation. But, here they were, submitting stories of victory.

The takeaway here is that victory is a mindset, not an action; decision is the first step to success.

Some authors made a clear decision to reach out to their God, and described feeling a weight lifted. Others decided it was their mission in life to protect others from bullying, and therefore chose to stay on in their role to fight. Many others had decided, simply, that they were no longer going to allow the bullying to control their life.

The academic world has many articles about coping with bullying, and as I told my audience, I don’t like that word. Coping means to deal with, or put up with; we found our authors weren’t coping at all – they were surviving.

Check out my course on #LinkedInLearning on this: What to do when you are bullied at work.” #bullying

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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