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Corporate Ethics: Bullying Doesn’t Stop At School, It Happens at Work Too

A million people show that bullying continues into adulthood

This post is based on a TEDx talk given at Gustavus Adolphus College entitled Why Are People Such Jerks?

“My fond memories of junior high school” – said nobody, ever.

Our daughter started sixth grade this week, and as I saw her proudly standing next to her first “big kid” locker, it brought to mind a friend’s quip about his experience in junior high: “Sometimes I also got to see my locker from the outside.”

Gallows humor – it comes right to mind when we think about junior high, and it’s scary to think about what lies ahead for our kids.

Sadly, the very worst of what lies ahead will be repeated millions of times this year, and it will rely upon the presence of two indispensable elements: silence and inaction.  The silence will come from kids who are afraid to talk about bullying and don’t trust the school to stop the bullies anyway.  The inaction will come from teachers and administrators who don’t have enough information to act (because of the silence) and who themselves have reason to be afraid of the repercussions of doing what’s really needed.  With enough silence and enough inaction, many classrooms and hallways will reach maximum toxicity – sometimes toxic enough to kill the culture of learning altogether.

This month, over three million North American households will put a child on the school bus headed for their first day of junior high. It’s a scenario that plays out the world over, heralding the end of pure childhood and the onset of the teen years. The child usually has a backpack, new shoes, and a lot of anxiety about what lies ahead. Sadly, for many – and particularly those with the wrong brand of shoes – these years will intensify social torments that began in the middle of grade school and are likely to continue for several more years.  Parents may console themselves with the thought that at least the bullying will finally end after high school graduation.

The problem is, it won’t.

Bullying, harassment, intimidation, the procurement of silence, and the use of social status to avoid consequences are a painful part of nearly every school environment.  But they are a part of the work environment, too.  Bullying doesn’t end after high school.  It’s a perverse aspect of how people behave in groups.  It’s persistent, and like a social disease, it only grows in hospitable environments.  Hospitable environments are easy to detect: they have silence and inaction.

What it Means for Corporate Culture

We’ve been studying organizational misconduct for over a decade at CEB.  After Enron, everyone knew that misconduct was a high-level corporate risk.  What we didn’t know then was that it looks just like kids bullying other kids into silence, using their social power to ignore the rules.  That’s the sad story in junior high and it’s also the sad story in the workplace.

The research on organizational climate and culture is deep and wide, and much of it has been summarized by CEB researchers in “Organizational Climate and Culture“. Only one thread of CEB’s culture research, using a tool called RiskClarity, has focused on harassment and misconduct.  This work alone has engaged a million employees globally; the research tool has been translated into over thirty languages.

It turns out to be an incredibly important line of research because it doesn’t just explain how companies can manage their risks better – which was the original goal.  To our surprise, it showed us a very consistent structure of how people terrorize each other – millions of times a year – and it shows us how some courageous organizations have made it stop.

At work as in school, there are two key elements to a culture of intimidation and misconduct.  The first is silence, and the second is inaction.  Those two pillars hold up every system of intimidation.  A corrupt culture may build a complicated edifice over time (think Enron), but silence and inaction are the simplest and most necessary elements.

We see silence wherever employees say they would be uncomfortable speaking up and raising concerns – about misconduct, about something unethical, about a problem between employees, or with a manager.  Any work environment with that kind of silence has two predictable characteristics.  First, it has more misconduct, much of which comes in the form of bullying, intimidation, harassment and sometimes discrimination.  Second, of course, employees are much less likely to say anything about it.

This is the first fundamental cycle of misconduct: it happens because perpetrators think nobody will say anything.  When nobody does say anything, the misconduct continues.  When the misconduct continues and still nobody says anything, the culture of silence is reinforced. The similarity to people’s worst moments in junior high is hard to miss.

Second, misconduct grows where organizations don’t take action against the perpetrators.  If we don’t believe that those in power will take action, we won’t take the risk of saying anything.  We’ll suffer in silence instead.  This silence plays right into the bullies’ hands, and worse, it gives those in power the impression that nothing’s wrong.

So – what must organizations do to break the cycle?  The first step is to find out – anonymously, and in very clear language – whether people are comfortable speaking up and reporting problems.  In any large group, there will be pockets of people who are afraid to speak up.  Those pockets are a flashing red light that their part of the organization is in trouble, and it’s an invitation to take swift action to identify the key personalities that are procuring and reinforcing silence through intimidation.  They are there; it’s just a matter of finding them.

The second step is to publicly and memorably take action to put a stop to intimidation and misconduct where it occurs.  Those who would speak up need to know that their voice is heard and that the truth will trump social status, place in the hierarchy, or short-term business (or, let’s say, varsity sports) considerations.

The solution here is not complicated but that doesn’t make it easy.  Whether we’re talking about the health of our schools or the health of our companies, we need to create an environment where everyone knows that their voice will be heard, especially on difficult or painful topics.  And when we have evidence of misconduct, bullying or intimidation, it needs to be publicly stopped.

If we know that, and if we’re willing to act on it, maybe this year can be the best year ever.

3 Responses

  • Cheryl says:

    Bullying leaves many scars and not just for a few years. The lies and unjust treatment can follow the victim like an unwelcome cold or a shadow all the victim’s lives. Inept school officials and cowardly peers create a mix of misery and often a hatred of education past the required 12 years. A lethal recipe for certain.

  • Steven says:

    Top management defines the culture. If top management are bullies, or tolerate and support bullies, then rest assured speaking against top management is dangerous. Most who speak out are exited out of the organization. The problem is that we allow corrupt cultures to police themselves. There needs to be support from outside the organization; unions, laws, etc. that allow targets recourse to compel top management to play by THEIR rules and follow their policy and value statements. Currently companies can use shareholder monies to maintain secrecy and corrupt management.

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