Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

Workplace bullying: Can a developing situation be nipped in the bud?

(image from thefreedictionary.com)

(image from thefreedictionary.com)

Can a developing, potential workplace bullying situation be nipped in the bud? In my judgment, the answer depends on definitions, the characteristics of the aggressor(s), and in some instances the savvy of the intended target.

So much of the research, commentary, and advice on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse assumes situations that have already elevated into a serious state. However, we know much less about situations that may start as lower level conflicts and then elevate into more serious interpersonal abuse — and whether informal or formal intervention could’ve prevented the latter.

For what it’s worth, here is my sense of the landscape on this question:

When a situation involves mostly incivility, rudeness, or disrespect, it may be resolvable.

When a situation involves an abrasive boss or co-worker, it may be resolvable.

When a situation is still one of conflict, strong difference of opinion, or a personality clash, it may be resolvable.

By “resolvable” I mean informal and formal means of working out differences, even in situations that might involve a perceived dignity violation. Talking things out and informal mediation are among the most common ways of getting to a better place. In more intractable circumstances, a move or transfer may be advisable before a situation becomes sharply acute.

In some, perhaps many, of these less severe instances, the personal traits of the individual experiencing the mistreatment will come into play. In no way I am suggesting that we engage in victim blaming here. Rather, I’m saying that an individual’s interpersonal skill set may play a role in navigating, avoiding, or stopping incivility and disrespect, as well as helping to ratchet down disagreements threatening to go haywire.

And, of course, the overall quality of management and the culture of the organization will feed into these equations, too. Quality workplaces are better equipped to handle these situations and resolve them fairly.

Interestingly, all of these scenarios may be defined — often wrongly, I believe — as bullying. In this context I think it’s vital for us to distinguish between individual bullying-type behaviors and genuine bullying or mobbing situations. The latter are what we most need to be concerned about in terms of personal impact.

The big, huge “however”

So folks, here’s my big however: When someone is subjected to intentional, targeted mistreatment designed to cause them harm or distress, that’s the game changer. Toss out of the window notions of conflict, differences of opinion, personality clashes, bad manners, or general jerkiness. The situation is now abusive, and we’re looking at genuine workplace bullying.

Incidentally, this is where I’ve set the bar for recovery under the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted. It’s about providing a legal claim for health harming, targeted abuse at work.

Once we’re at this point, a target’s strong interpersonal skills will be of less use. The bullying or mobbing has started, it is driven by malice, and the aggressor(s) aren’t that interested in patching up differences and making peace. The eliminationist instinct often has taken over.

In sum, if a situation quickly accelerates into full-fledged bullying, then nipping it in the bud is awfully hard. Other, less severe scenarios may possibly be resolved with only minor bloodshed.

Recycling: Five years of January

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

January 2014: Mental health in the academic workplace — Because mental health issues remain a neglected aspect of the academic workplace, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of websites and blog posts that may be helpful resources for those interested in learning more.

January 2013: A mediator writes about workplace bullying and mediation — Currently in the U.S., applying any [alternative dispute resolution] mechanism to a workplace bullying scenario often would occur under the assumption that the abusive behavior is legal. This automatically tags the situation as one of conflict rather than one of abuse. . . .By comparison, crime victims agreeing to participate in restorative justice practices typically have the power of the criminal codes and the criminal justice system behind them, thus significantly changing the presumptions and power dynamics between them and the offenders.

January 2012: Rats as role models? — The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures. . . . Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.

January 2011: The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations — Let’s say you’re being bullied or harassed or otherwise mistreated at work. . . . Anger and resentment are natural responses to these situations, but is there any outlet to express your emotions at work? Many people — dare I say most people — will keep it bottled up inside them. After all, self-censorship has long been a staple of behavior for the rank-and-file worker. . . . Repressing these emotions can have grave health consequences, however.

January 2010: A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement — As more people become aware of workplace bullying and efforts to respond to it, I thought it might be useful to offer a brief summary of how the American movement got started a decade ago . . . .

 

Bullying and hazing in pro and college sports

On Monday I did a 40-minute interview with the Sports Conflict Institute‘s (SCI) Joshua Gordon on bullying and hazing behaviors in pro and college sports. Our discussion ranged from the Miami Dolphins situation involving Richie Incognito targeting fellow player Jonathan Martin for abuse, to college basketball coaches losing their jobs in the wake of allegations of player mistreatment.

The interview was part of the “SCI TV” series, which includes dozens of interviews that can be accessed on their YouTube channel.

Josh Gordon is a graduate of Suffolk University Law School. He founded the Oregon-based SCI to advance “organizational and individual goals” of pro and college sports entities “through education, research, and service.” It was a pleasure to reconnect with him and to learn more about the important and interesting work he is doing.

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Related posts

Bullying athletic coaches (2014)

Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito: Sports Illustrated declares win for anti-bullying movement (2013)

Nine preliminary lessons from the Miami Dolphins workplace bullying story (2013)

Ethical failure at Rutgers: Abusive coach, bad management, questionable lawyering (2013)

 

Workplace bullying: Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies

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Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a speech on workplace bullying at the 62nd annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic with some 200 of the most accomplished labor relations commissioners, attorneys, and officials in North America.

The ALRA describes itself as “an association of impartial government agencies in the United States and Canada responsible for administering labor-management relations laws or services.” It promotes interagency cooperation, “high professional standards,” “public interest in labor relations,” “improved employer-employee relationships,” and “peaceful resolution of employment and labor disputes.” The annual conference provides its members with continuing education on labor relations topics and opportunities to network and share information.

My remarks

I was part of “Advocates Day” (agenda here), a component of every ALRA conference that invites people outside of the organization to discuss developing labor relations issues. I started with a basic overview about workplace bullying and its effects on workers and organizations, went into a quick summary of U.S. and Canadian legal developments, and closed with a cluster of personal observations about workplace bullying.

The speech was very well received. Despite that my talk came at the end of a long day of distinguished panelists and speakers, the delegates were engaged and attentive, and our conversations spilled over to the reception that followed.

I was pleased about the response at another level, too: This is one more sign that workplace bullying is entering the mainstream of North American labor and employee relations. Ten years ago, this speaking invitation would not have transpired.

The conference

At a time when, at least in the U.S., the very concept of collective bargaining is being challenged by extremist forces, how refreshing it was to be part of a conference that embraces a commitment to healthy labor relations. Multiple speakers shared stories and perspectives about how management and labor can work together toward common interests and attempt to resolve differences in peaceful ways.

In my judgment, the Canadian perspective cannot be overlooked, and it’s good for we Americans to be exposed to it. My Canadian colleagues will be quick to admit that labor relations up north fall short of utopia, but they do manage to practice their craft with fewer sharp elbows than in the U.S.

Many thanks

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Program Committee, with affiliations noted to show the breadth of agencies that are part of the ALRA: Co-Chairs Scott Blake (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, U.S.) and Jennifer Webster (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Canada), and members Ernie DuBester (Federal Labor Relations Authority), Gary Shinners (National Labor Relations Board), Pat Sims (National Mediation Board), Catherine Gilbert (Ontario Labor Relations Board), Jennifer Abruzzo (National Labor Relations Board) and Danielle Carne (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission).

I had not traveled within the circles of the ALRA before this. Thus, it was a leap of faith for them to give me a generous one-hour time slot. (Put it this way: If your sole speaker for a featured, 60-minute slot is a dud, you’ll be hearing about it!) This enabled me to give a talk with real substance, while leaving time for a lively Q&A segment. It was an honor to be a part of the day.

A mediator writes about workplace bullying and mediation

The question of whether mediation should be applied to workplace bullying situations comes up recurrently in discussions about the potential application of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms to this form of abuse.

Dr. Esque Walker, a certified mediator in Texas and an advocate for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, addresses this topic in a paper posted to the Workplace Bullying Institute blog:

Mediation is an inappropriate alternative in cases involving any type of abuse or violence such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, school or workplace bullying.

The victims or targets in these situations are at a disadvantage and are subjected to further abuse.

…The mediation process assumes that all parties involved in the mediation are “sufficiently capable” of negotiating and reaching a mediated agreement with each other as equals in the process. In cases involving workplace bullying or any type of family violence, this is a false assumption….

Esque adds a list of common reasons why mediation in general can fail. Here are the first five on her list:

• Retribution
• The absence of trust
• The imbalance of power between conflicting parties
• Forced or coerced mediations and/or settlements
• Fear of subsequent intimidation and abuse post mediation

These factors would apply to many targets of workplace bullying and underscore why I, too, have generally opposed using mediation in workplace bullying situations.

Restorative justice

Dr. Walker also opposes applying restorative justice (RJ) approaches to workplace bullying. RJ practices have been developed in criminal justice settings, including structured proceedings that attempt to reconcile victim and offender.

As I suggested in a recent blog post, I’m more open to the possibility of applying RJ principles to workplace dispute resolution, which may include bullying situations. However, Esque’s piece has helped me to clarify where I stand on this, nudging me toward my so-called “aha” moment.

First, legal protections, then (perhaps) ADR

Here’s the point: Before we even consider introducing mediation or restorative justice into workplace bullying situations, we need to enact legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Currently in the U.S., applying any ADR mechanism to a workplace bullying scenario often would occur under the assumption that the abusive behavior is legal. This automatically tags the situation as one of conflict rather than one of abuse.

By comparison, crime victims agreeing to participate in restorative justice practices typically have the power of the criminal codes and the criminal justice system behind them, thus significantly changing the presumptions and power dynamics between them and the offenders.

In other words, the power relationships between aggressors and targets in genuine workplace bullying situations will shift significantly once bullying is declared an unlawful employment practice. That will be the time to examine what ADR mechanisms may be appropriate.

Restorative justice and workplace bullying

Law professor Susan Duncan (Louisville) provides some thought-provoking ideas about the use of restorative justice practices in workplace bullying prevention and response in a 2011 law review article published in the Industrial Law Journal.

Restorative justice practices, states Duncan, attempt to bring together victims and offenders to discuss the harms done and “to work to identify ways to make amends and repair the relationships.” They are being tested and applied especially in criminal justice, domestic relations, and educational settings.

Duncan proposes that they be applied to the workplace, especially to addressing bullying.  For employers, she sets out a multifaceted agenda that includes conducting workplace audits to assess “violence vulnerability,” developing “creative methods to build community and help prevent bullying,” implementing written policies concerning bullying and respect, training employees “on restorative principles and practices,” and conducting empirical studies to evaluate the effectiveness of restorative justice practices at work.

A way forward?

Many of Professor Duncan’s recommendations are consistent with ideas advanced in this blog; indeed, she wrote the piece partially in response to an invitation I issued to legal scholars in a 2010 law review article to incorporate therapeutic jurisprudence approaches to the development and practice of employment law.

Unfortunately, the core notion of restorative justice – genuine dialogue over harms done and repairing frayed work relationships — remains foreign to many employers, their HR staff, and employment lawyers representing both management and workers. Adopting these ideas would require a considerable rethinking of how employment conflicts and disputes are resolved.

The possible use of restorative justice practices to address workplace bullying is undercut by the absence of legal protections, giving employers scant incentive to apply them to abusive behaviors that often are completely legal. In the U.S., enactment of the Healthy Workplace Bill could make restorative justice approaches more attractive to employers.

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Professor Duncan’s article, “Workplace Bullying and the Role Restorative Practices Can Play in Preventing and Addressing the Problem,” Industrial Law Journal (2011) may be downloaded without charge here.

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