Bullying and sexual harassment: Is the Emperor wearing no clothes?

Recent issues in our nation’s capital and across the country have highlighted the increasing focus on two key issues within workplaces: bullying and sexual harassment.  The latter, of course, also extends to sexual assault and (typically) the mistreatment of women in the workplace, and generally.   It’s about time everyone stood up and took notice.

But these issues have not just emerged now.  Both bullying and harassment in the workplace have been a standard feature of employment.  It’s almost like it’s been accepted and ‘normalised’ in workplaces to a degree where those speaking out about it are the minority.

It’s a sad indictment in a modern workplace (and society) that those vulnerable are not stood up for. Academics loosely refer to this type of phenomenon as “organisational silence” and describe it as the absence of voice, silence and related to the sociology of the workplace. “Organisations choose to keep silent about organisational matters and silence becomes a collective behaviour.”  In other words, it’s okay to just say nothing if that’s the norm.

Well, as we know (and should have known for a long time), it’s not.  Recent events have highlighted this.

Behaviour becomes normalized, including bad behaviour (in workplace terms: conduct).

Most of us have also heard the story of the “The Emperor’s new clothes” right?   If you haven’t, it’s an 1830’s story by Hans Christian Andersen, where a vain Emperor gets exposed (literally) to all of his subjects.  His followers were conned by the tailors to think that only stupid fools could not see the clothes.  So, no one told him. They were too afraid to be labelled.  Hansen (2011: www.academia.edu/1894486) says that the story is about a situation where “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone believes.”  In other words, everyone is ignorant to whether the Emperor has clothes on or not but believe that everyone else is not ignorant.

Does anyone see the connection between an 1800’s children’s story and what’s happening today?  What does this mean for organisations and you, as a leader?

How long are modern leaders and managers going to be ignorant about what is happening in the workplace?  Ignorant about staff being bullied. Ignorant about sexual harassment. Ignorant about misconduct and toxic work environments.  And what are the implications?

If nothing else, being ignorant is going to cost money.  It’s going to cost in absenteeism, grievances, conducting formal complaints, Workcover claims, even fraud.  It will cost in increased turnover, lack of morale and productivity.  It will cost your reputation.

So how do you minimise the risk or organisational silence and the normalisation of certain behaviour.

Here’s a few things to think about:

  • Have strong, adequately communicated policy and procedures (including codes of conduct, with examples of behaviour). Do your staff know the consequences of misconduct?
  • Have a robust, transparent and effective performance and conduct management/improvement program
  • Develop an effective organisational vision, objectives and communicate these constantly to all staff and all levels
  • Train supervisors and managers to identify behaviour outside of the values of the organisation and on how to address inadequacies. Are your leaders capable of having difficult conversations?
  • Train supervisors and managers what bullying and sexual harassment is! The world has changed, and so have workplaces.

In the end, as Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison said (during a speech in 2013) “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept” has never rung truer.

We all have to raise the standard.   And, it’s our supervisors and managers (particularly middle-level) that are best positioned to do it.

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