In honour of Anti-Bullying Day on February 26th, I am writing to advance what – on its face – should be a simple proposition.
No one has the “right” to be mean.
Let’s move beyond the technicalities surrounding the definitions of “bullying” and “harassment” and focus on this very simple, very basic, very human concept.
No one has the “right” to be mean.
I say this because in every school, organization and workplace, there are those who do not see themselves as “bullies”. They have an “idea” about what a bully “looks like” – and they do not see themselves as fitting within that “image”.
Some of these folks have anti-bullying posters/buttons on their office doors or in their workplace cubicles, encourage the wearing of pink shirts on anti-bullying day and say all of the “right things” when it comes to building a respectful workplace environment.
However, in “real life”, away from the job fairs, school assemblies and anti-bullying campaigns, these very same people are pervasively and persistently feared by many who work or study with them.
The reason for the “fear” is rooted in a history of “hurtful” encounters – those that involve silencing of colleagues/peers at meetings, mocking others’ ideas/commentary, conveying messages through sarcasm/ridicule (often under the guise of “humour”), demeaning others’ work or personalities, admonishing, attacking or isolating others whose views, work practices or communication styles differ from theirs … the list goes on.
The human impact of these behaviours is heart-wrenching. There are folks out there, men and women, young and old, from academics to senior managers to health care professionals to tradespeople to administratieve assistants, who are physically sick to their stomachs each morning at the thought of working with coworkers who “freeze them out” or make fun of them on an almost daily basis, in the name of “team spirit”; employees who avoid lunchrooms, staff functions or business conferences so they won’t be professionally or personally humiliated or drawn into the humiliation of others; brilliant individuals who shy away from sharing their ideas with colleagues or senior management because of the way they are treated by those who feel “threatened” by their input.
The organizational impact of this behaviour is costly at many levels: “mean behaviour” is associated with significant turnover, transfers, sick leave, associated overtime as a result of departures/absences, disability claims, and increased litigation through grievances and complaints rooted in the “mean behaviour”.
What is even more perplexing and concerning than the the “epidemic of mean” itself is the ongoing attempt by many to justify their “mean behaviour”. I call it “looking for the loophole to kindness”.
This “justification” can take many different forms.
Sometimes, the “right to be mean” is associated with personal status, position or achievements within a particular organization.
- I am the CEO/Executive Director/CAO;
- I am the President of the Board, Union, Society;
- I am a senior leader/manager;
- I am a shop steward;
- I am an elected official;
- I have more seniority;
- I am the leading expert in my field;
- I am the only one who holds this ticket/certification;
- I have tenure;
- I have “professional autonomy”; or
- I am the top producer/best performer.
This implies, of course, that as a result, they have “licence” to act as they desire within the organization.
Sometimes, the excuses are based on the history or culture of the organization such as:
- This is how we do things in this industry/profession/office;
- This is how we have operated for the last 50 years and nothing is going to change; or
- This isn’t headquarters … or the head office … or City Hall … or the Lower Mainland – we do things differently here.
And often, the excuses are very personal in nature:
- I am going through personal /family issues;
- I am overworked;
- I am just “passionate”;
- I am stressed out (e.g. “it is budget-time”);
- We have deadlines to meet;
- The other person was rude/disrespectful (i.e. “he/she started it”); or
- This is “how I am”.
The list goes on and on.
None of the “excuses” set out above translate into a legal entitlement to be mean to others – that is, none will act as a legal defence to a claim for damages, constructive dismissal, harassment, human rights violations, Worksafe BC claims, mental distress or otherwise that is rooted in the mean behaviour.
More importantly, none of these “excuses” are required to justify mean behaviour because mean behaviour is unnecessary in order to achieve organizational success.
Leaders can demand excellent performance from employees or students, without being mean.
Leaders can communicate clear, firm standards regarding employees’ behaviour (including employee disrespect, insubordination and otherwise) and hold employees accountable when they fail to meet these standards, without being mean.
Leaders can investigate, discipline, demote, transfer and terminate employees, without being mean.
Colleagues can vigorously disagree and meaningfully debate with each other, on their competing philosophies and ideas or in relation to organizational policies and procedures, at workplaces and on Boards, joint union-employer committees, collective bargaining committees, occupational health and safety committees and otherwise … without being mean.
In fact, organizational excellence, true employee engagement and resulting profitability will come a lot sooner in the “absence of mean”.
Simply put, there is no legal or operational justification for the apparent “need” or “right” to be mean.
So, from this point forward, let’s stop enabling and excusing the inexcusable and commit to putting an end to mean behaviour.
Perhaps you could begin the conversation with the following …
“No one has the right to be mean”.