Are We Making Progress in Organizational Management of Workplace Bullying and Harassment?
Reflections and Insights from 25 years of Practice
Pat Ferris, Ph.D.
This paper will summarize 25 years of experience providing treatment to targets and perpetrators of workplace bullying and organizational consulting to organizations of all types. I will look back to my beginnings and summarize my publications. I will them examine new and emerging terms and themes, briefly review injury, then look at a model which I have developed to provide a process on how to effectively manage workplace bullying and harassment. In 2004, I wrote a paper titled “A preliminary typology of organisational response to allegations of workplace bullying: See no evil, hear no evil speak no evil.” The paper was a result of my counselling services with targets of workplace bullying and my consulting and training services to organizations. When I wrote this paper, I was working in the Employee Assistance Program field and therefore had access to the working population. I was also providing Program Management services, which meant I had contact with organizational representatives. At the time of writing the paper I had been working in this area since about 1993. My clients presented with the expected range of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. A good portion presented with workplace stress issues including job demands and pressures. Many reported negative interpersonal experiences with co-workers, supervisors and management. As I began to work with clients reporting negative interpersonal interactions I sought to learn more about these phenomena. This introduced me to the terms ‘Workplace bullying’ and ‘Mobbing.’ I began to read early works on the topic and made contact with Gary and Ruth Namie and thus began my learning process.
Some of the treatment reported to me in those early years was beyond my comprehension of what could occur in organizations in this day and age. Clients reported physical and sexual attacks, severe ostracism, exclusion from workplace activities; chronic verbal put downs, degrading pranks and use of the performance management system to undermine their reputation and careers. I naively would tell my clients to confront the person they were experiencing the negative interactions with or talk to their supervisor or go to Human Resources for help. I truly believed they would be provided with support and assistance. I will provide some brief examples of the experiences reported to me:
Physical Assault: Many clients reported being pushed and shoved, having things thrown at them. A memorable client reported he had a co-worker jump across the desk at him and hit him then throw a chair through a glass door. The incident of course was known by the company. They kept the offending employee because he was valuable. The targeted client was sent for therapy to cope with working with an offender who had not been disciplined. This client, at the PhD level in an industry eventually quit.
Sexual: Clients reported touching, grabbing, leering, and being exposed to pornographic material in the workplace. I had more than a few clients who reported “Porn Clubs” at their place or work where employees (and sometimes management) would exchange and post pornographic material or watch on the web or on their cells phones. One male who came for counselling was afraid to approach management about this as his group manager had initiated the process. When another employee complained about it, he was fired. Another female client had been seeing me for years about sexual harassment from her manager. She would not report for fear of losing her career. Eventually her whole group was transferred to another location and she thought this would resolve the problem. She alone was kept behind.
Ostracism/Exclusion: Many clients reported getting the ‘cold shoulder’ from colleagues and supervisors, being left out of work related social events, feeling black listed. One of the most outrageous cases included an employee whose work was taken away and was given a chair to sit on at the end of a work group. This employee did this for six months, wanting to keep his position in a time economic downturn, before the employee became psychologically and physically ill. No one in the company did anything to resolve the situation.
Chronic Verbal Abuse: Employees reported being called ‘stupid,’ ‘failures,’ ‘poor performer’ in front of colleagues. This included an employee with a new supervisor who had won the highest achievement award in the company for two years in a row being put down for being female and Canadian in public and private. She received a zero in her performance rating that year.
Use of the Performance System for Unwarranted Firing of Employees: My most memorable case involved a unit of employees with a new manager. This manager saw their responsibility to ‘clean up’ the performance of the unit. Within two months two long term employees were fired for minor infractions. The manager would take employees in their office privately and put them down, criticize their work and commitment to the company and threaten to fire them. In a small unit 25% ended up on disability leave and 50% accessed the Employee Assistance Program. I spoke in confidence with the higher management about the trends in the EAP. It was years before the company acted. They acted when the senior manager witnessed several incidents of public humiliation and realized the behavior was intentional.
What struck me about these cases was the complicity of the organizations involved. All the cases reported above asked for help, confronted the persons involved and did their best to cope with and manage their situations. Yet all developed severe psychological injuries accompanied by a host of physical ailments. Their careers were derailed, their interpersonal relationships, including home and friendship networks were severely strained.
I began to notice trends in how organizations would respond to witnessed or allegations of workplace bullying and harassment. Clients were told “we don’t’ care – that’s the way it is here, toughen up or leave,” “it’s your personality go get it fixed,” “go out to the parking lot and duke it out,” or more rarely, “we take this seriously and will provide support and exploration.”
Thus my 2004 paper classified organizational responses as:
- See no Evil: organizations would not address bullying and harassment. The behaviors were seen as OK and just part of a tough environment.
- Hear no Evil: organizations grasped the basic concepts of harassment and bullying but often blamed the target who was then sent for counselling/coaching to learn to deal with the situation or change their personality.
- Speak no Evil: these organizations not only recognized the concepts, they acted on managing the situation in respectful way to all parties. The companies invested in training and other resources, monitored their work environments and had policies and procedures that were actually implemented.
The Consequences of Inappropriate Organizational Response
In this section I will discuss the injury the target experiences and the sense of betrayal that develops when organizations fail to respond appropriately. Failure to respond appropriately can impact the not only the target but the perpetrator, teams, and Human Resources personnel.
When bullying and harassment were not appropriately addressed, employees often suffer severe psychological injuries. I find the psychological injury presentation most consistent with Complex Trauma and similar to the experience of Domestic Violence (Hirigoyen, 2011). Some left their organizations; others attended counselling and learned to cope and others because very ill and never recovered. There is ample research now detailing the harm to those who have experienced workplace bullying (see Field & Ferris, 2019 for a review of the psychological, brain, and somatic disorders experienced by targets of workplace bullying). In short, those exposed to workplace bullying experience it as a severe stress that carries physical pain with it (e.g., Eisenberger, 2013) and damages numerous body systems as well as reduces hippocampal volume in the brain. Severe rumination is frequently experienced as targets try to make sense of what has happened to them and why they specifically were targeted. Sleep is disrupted and psychological disorders such as depression develop. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop along with the symptoms associated with this disorder such as avoidance of triggers, hypervigilance, intrusive memories, anxiety, etc. If treatment is not received quickly, these symptoms dig in and chronic embitterment and obsession with justice can develop. At this point, a person may never return to health and work.
When employees witness or are part of workplace bullying the entire team may experience distress through worry they will be next, guilt about not helping, or moral injury due to supporting the perpetrator. I find that Human Resources personnel frequently feel overwhelmed and defensive and those responsible for their teams don’t’ know what to do to manage the aftermath.
Those who have or may have harmed others through bullying and harassment should be entitled to fair hearing and the opportunity to learn and grow. I am finding more supervisors coming to me having been falsely accused (in my opinion) of workplace bullying because someone felt slighted, hurt, disappointed, or angry. There are bound to be difficult emotions in organizations and not every hurt feeling constitutes bullying. Yet many employees do not understand this distinction. Organizational representatives must be clear on the differences between bullying and normal human interaction which includes difficult experiences from time to time. I will discuss this further when discussing training.
The most damaging type of organization I have seen is the one that professes to care about employees and has processes and policies to follow for allegations of harassment and workplace bullying. When these organizations do not respond appropriately by providing support to all, following policy and processes and providing resources to those involved including the perpetrator, target, witnesses, team members and those who must manage the aftermath, a sense of betrayal develops.
Institutional Betrayal and Moral injury
The concepts of betrayal and moral injury are being applied to workplace bullying and harassment when organizations do not respond fairly, with dignity and in a timely manner. Events are considered morally injurious if they violate a person’s deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Kreitlow (2015) discussed human dignity and morality and the implications of workplace bullying ending with this quote:
I would like to end with the words of the socio-philosopher Theodor Adorno: “We may not know what the absolute good is or the absolute norm, we may not even know what man is or the human or humanity – but what the inhuman is we know very well indeed.” (Theodor Adorno Problems of Moral Philosophy, 1963).
When the organization does not protect those involved in experiencing and witnessing harassment and workplace bullying their belief that an organization is safe and will protect them is violated. Such acts of betrayal of trust and safety can be referred to as ‘Institutional Betrayal.’ This concept was developed by Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd (2014) and is applied to numerous settings including the military and sexual harassment. In my experience if the betrayal of dignity and processes is extensive; for example involving a number of organizational representatives such as supervisors, managers, safety personnel, and union, the sense of betrayal intensifies and moral injury develops in the target and others such as witnesses and co-workers (for a discussion applied to bullying see Purcell Elliot, 2012). I find this injury incredibly hard to heal both within the individual and in others in the organization. The target develops severe rumination around justice and will often seek justice through internal and external agencies for years causing themselves extensive stress and depleting organizational energy and funds.
Observations on What Works to Manage Workplace bullying and Harassment in Organizations
As an organizational consultant, I have conducted training and awareness session, policy consultation, coaching to those found to have engaged in bullying. I have also consulted to those managing bullying and harassment situations including Safety professionals, managers and Human Resources Advisors. My 2009 paper “The role of the consulting psychologist in the prevention, detection, and correction of bullying/mobbing in the workplace” (Ferris, 2009) explored the initiatives that psychologist could deliver to an organization. These included: raising awareness, policy development, training, and resolution. Since this publication I have developed further insights and models of managing workplace bullying and harassment in organizations.
Along with my colleague, Linda Crockett of Alberta Bullying Resources, Research and Recovery, we have come to believe that a team approach to managing, intervening, and repairing workplace bullying is necessary. Left alone to make decisions and manage allegations of workplace bullying and harassment, one person often can become overwhelmed and the issues can become clouded. I argue then, for a holistic approach of professionals which includes: Human Resources, Safety Personnel, Investigators, Coaches, Counselling professionals, Advocates, and Union Personnel who have training in: legislative definitions of workplace bullying in their jurisdiction, their responsibilities to law and consequences of ignoring any legislation if available; understanding of the injury involved and how to identify the extent of the injury and the treatment of such injury; understanding of the perpetrator and which interventions are most appropriate, e.g., coaching or counselling, trauma informed investigation, and methods of individual, team and organizational repair. While this may sound daunting, I have found that in the end it is worth it. With an informed team approach there is less trauma to all, less financial burden of law suits, and less reputational damage.
I conceptualize the processes required for a holistic approach to include activities related to prevention, monitoring, responding/investigating and repairing.
Preventing activities include:
- hiring, promoting and coaching for resilience and emotional intelligence
- providing training for the essential skills of resilience, stress management, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution
- policy and procedure development
- employee and supervisor training on Respect in the Workplace
Two of the most important preventative activities are policy development and training. Policy is best developed using employee input – making it a living document. I find that many companies want short policies because they believe employees won’t read through the policies. I find this a short sighted goal. Your policy not only makes public your commitment to a respectful workplace but helps define the range of behaviors considered to be harassment and bullying and those behaviors that are not. A policy needs clear definitions, examples, and well thought out reporting and support procedures to be effective. Shortening any of this invites misunderstanding. The dialogue that goes with policy development and delivery makes the policy and procedures meaningful. Training should spend time explaining the policy and provide discussion and definitions. In discussion with my professional colleagues we are finding that companies are more frequently conducting Respect in the Workplace training via webinars. It is my opinion that no matter how well developed a webinar is it misses the critical component of interactive discussion. We find employees coming out of this type of training often do not understand what is and is not bullying. They tend to believe that every slight, hurt feeling or discomfort encountered in working relationships is bullying, which it is not. I am seeing more supervisors and managers coming to me being accused of workplace bullying for minor personal slights on occasion and performance management. It is of critical importance have face to face training with open discussion that addresses the nuances of workplace behavior. I invite lots of discussion, review landmark and controversial cases, and ask for reactions. I love the reactions I get: some are angry, others shocked, some cases are confusing … but this invites great debate and brings issues of concern out into the open. It also model respectful debate and disagreement. It is my experienced that best practices policy development and roll-out coupled with interactive training and discussion will prevent not only instances of harassment and bullying but also frivolous complaints. For further insight on best practices see Ferris, Deakin, & Mathieson (2019).
Monitoring activities include:
- Exit interviews
- Surveys: annually and short frequent insights to groups
- Results of staff appraisals
- Anonymous feedback from whistle-blower processes
- External Ombudsman services feedback
- Employee Assistance Program statistics
- Sickness and absence data
My hope is that monitoring activities will be frequent and in real time. Short frequent surveys to employees, quarterly Respect Committee meetings reviewing the above data, leader discussions with employees are some examples of ongoing monitoring activities. It is important for have a team to process/digest the feedback with and to decide on what interventions are appropriate.
Intervening/Investigating activities include:
- early intervention – coffee chats, performance discussions
- informal and formal investigations
- supports in the form of internal and external experts
Employees and supervisors should be trained in how to intervene if witnessing negative interactions. Bystander interventions are very effective. Developed in the sexual harassment field, there are four basic types of bystander interventions based on Immediacy and Involvement (Bowes-Sperry & Leery-Kelly, 2005). The model below summarizes options. I find that most bystanders in organizations are fearful to step in for fear of being the next target. Training and culture development are needed to address these fears.
Supervisors should also be trained in conducting an initial exploration of harassment when witnessed or reported. Human Resources personnel should receive training in basic investigation procedures. In cases where there is conflict of interest e.g., the supervisor or Human Resources were involved in a case of harassment or knows the person or where the person alleged to have engaged in harassing behavior, it is strongly recommended that a third-party investigator be used. Support services may be required to assist those managing complaints and investigations to manage their own emotional reactions.
A Human Resources or supervisor can intervene with a perpetrator from an informal or formal perspective depending on legislation, policy and the behavior observed. The following diagram informs of the graduated steps professionals may take with a perpetrator starting from early intervention through to setting consequences when allegations are made or behavior is observed (Hickson, Pichert, Webb, & Gabbe, 2007).
The model starts with an informal conversation and follows to a more detailed discussion of expectations and consequences. A persisting pattern is dealt with by an authority e.g., Human Resources and may result in referral to coaching and written performance management processes. Discipline should result if the behavior does not change. In Canada there have been serious cases of sexual and personal harassment of women in police forces. Members were and still are allowed to continue employment despite lack of behavior change. There is a point where after identification of needed changes, provision of coaching and feedback that such employees need to be either severed out with pay/pensions or have their employment terminated. I find that this does not happen very often and the organization continues to suffer severe consequences.
Poorly conducted investigations will cause further harm and often result in legal actions. Investigations should be timely, fair, and conducted by a trained investigator. Trauma informed investigation training is thought to provide the most compassionate and effective investigations resulting in the least harm to those involved.
For the target, early support in the form of information on rights and supports available within the organization and referral to a counselling professional trained in workplace bullying who knows how to support, educate, connect, and develop strategies to address the perpetrator should be an initial step. Adequate sick leave, disability leave from case managers familiar with the workplace bullying injury is essential to early and effective return to work. My colleague, Linda Crockett describes the sick and disability process as a minefield that often further harms the targeted employee and deepens moral injury and sense of betrayal.
Repairing interventions include:
- restorative facilitation
- team trust building
Repairing interventions refer to activities that occur once behavior has been investigated and other interventions completed e.g., discussions and performance management. Repair may need to occur on many levels including individuals, teams, and organizations. Perpetrators may need coaching or counselling, targets will need counselling. Teams will need interventions to repair trust and respectful relationships.
Some repair interventions between the target and perpetrator such as mediation have been hotly debated. I believe that in some cases mediation can be helpful and appropriate but must be carefully weighed before initiation and delivered by a mediator who has received training in the issues involved in mediating workplace bullying. Mediation may be most appropriate for early intervention before significant injury to the target has occurred. In general I consider the following table a guideline for decision making as to the appropriateness of mediation. If consistent harmful behavior has been found, either through observation and report or through investigation facilitated conversations may helpful. Mediation is one type of conversation and intervention that has been reported to be helpful (e.g., Jenkins, 2011). If bullying is a result of escalated conflict, leader stress or lack of skills; has been of shorter duration where the target is mostly intact and the perpetrator will take some responsibility and both have a desire for resolution; if the power differential can be address, there is trust in the organization, parties consent voluntarily and there is the potential use of advocates or supports (e.g., coaches or therapists); mediation may be an effective intervention. The chart below outlines my suggested considerations in undertaking mediation.
In a somewhat different approach, Thorsborne (2019) has developed a process of facilitated restoration based on transformative justice called the “Workplace Conference” that brings together parties to come to agreement about how to repair the harm and how to go forward. I have used this process with workplace bullying. Like any intervention where individual behavior is examined and responsibility and repair is required, the process can be painful. Nonetheless, I have found that this process, like mediation holds people accountable and focuses on repair in a more productive manner than punishment or dealing with the parties in silos.
Team relationships are often damaged and need repair. I have seen organizations want to jump straight to team events “let’s go have some fun together,” or understand personality or host of other interventions. The first steps to take in my opinion are to establish trust in those managing the situation. Managers must lead careful discussion and provide resources as well as ensuring that the offending party/parties are being well managed as well as supported.
Assessing respect climate/culture
Sometimes just talking about the type of team they want to build can help. I have found the Culture/Climate tool below makes an interesting discussion. Questions that the model can help are: ‘Where are we’, ‘where can we get to’ and ‘what do we need to do to achieve this’: ‘what resources, help, and behaviors do we need from each other?’
At the most basic level, a generalized sense of annoyance is noted about ‘having’ to understand and behave civilly. There is lack of support for training and when attending, behavior is rude and overly challenging.
At this level organizations will provide some training and resources but then attention is lost, behavior is not dealt with, and complaints are often ‘managed’ away; employees are discouraged from proceeding with informal and formal complaints, they are told issues are conflict, or are sent to counselling to cope better or change their personality.
There is leadership buy-in however the approach is rule based “these are rules we have to follow.” There is a more focused approach, policy is developed, training is provided and behavior is (sometimes) punished without a lot of additional support. Comprehensive interventions that provide support and growth to all parties (individuals, and teams) may be lacking.
Employees attend training respectfully and follow processes. There is evidence that leaders and supervisors are acting on complaints and addressing behavior. Employees will express that the company takes the issue seriously.
Employees are taking individual responsibility and will identify to one another when harmful and offensive behavior is experienced and witnessed. Organizational supports such as supervisors and Human Resources will respond thoughtfully, respectfully, will provide support, investigation (informal or formal) and support resources to all involved. Employees express trust in the organization to identify and manage potentially harmful and offensive behavior. Employees can volunteer for committees and make suggestions to leaders.
Some Overall Reflections and Framework for Success
For everyone who takes a role in organizational coping and management of workplace bullying and harassment, the following framework may help. It is clear that early and consistent dialogue about respect is critical. It is needed to keep any program alive and people focused on the behavior valued by the organization. I often use the following framework as a guide.
Of these factors, I love the idea of Psychological Safety Moments where people share their stories of success, learning and hazard identification and mitigation before the start of all meetings.
Nuggets of Wisdom
- Spend time on crafting a thorough policy. Involve employees in the development and roll-out. Make this part of a training initiative
- Conduct face to face training with interesting case examples and discussion- make the training at least half a day for employees and a full day for supervisors and managers
- Ensure that everyone knows the differences between what is and is not harassment and bullying
- Provide mental health, emotional intelligence, resilience and conflict management training – keep at it
- Have properly trained Human Resources personnel
- Monitor frequently
- Establish a Respect Committee and team made up of representatives from various
- Develop a team of trusted, trained and expert consultants and use them to bounce ideas off, receive advice, and to handle issues outside the range of expertise in your organization
- Manage behavior early
Can we eliminate workplace bullying and harassment? The honest answer to the question above in my opinion is probably not. Humans are wired to seek special status in groups, to develop in and out groups and to conform to these, to punish norm offenders and to seek justice, even at the cost of harm to themselves (Williams, 2015). We can however minimize the occurrence and harm and in this regard are making progress. There is a strong research agenda in determining what works to address bullying and harassment in the workplace. Along with insights from practitioners; both organizational and clinical, we can continue the march forward to workplaces characterized by dignity and respect towards our fellow human beings.
Progress will be achieved when organizations develop comprehensive and consistent programs that are sustained over the long term. Such programs deliver services through trained and qualified professionals and committed organizational representatives. Both internal and external resources are required to provide the support, knowledge and interventions required. I truly believe that together we can create organizations where it is psychologically safe to work, where creativity and productivity flow, and where employees are generally content. I come to this conclusion after almost 25 years of hearing devastating stories from targets and disappointing attempts to help organizations develop best practices. Yet I still believe in the decency and power of the moral human mind and rejoice when I work with committed organizations.
Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 288-306.
Eisenberger, N. I. (2013). Social ties and health: A social neuroscience perspective. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3), 407-413. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2013.01.006
Ferris, P. (2004). A preliminary typology of organisational response to allegations of workplace bullying: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 3(2), 389-395.
Ferris, P. A. (2009). The role of the consulting psychologist in the prevention, detection, and correction of bullying/mobbing in the workplace. Journal of Consulting Psychology: Practice and Research, 61, 169-189.
Ferris, P.A, Deakin, R., Mathieson, S. (2019). Workplace bullying policies: A review of best practices and research on effectiveness. In P. D’Cruz et al. (eds.), Dignity and Inclusion at Work, Handbooks of Workplace bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment 3, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5338-2_3-1 .
Ferris, P.A., Tilley, L., Stephens, F. & Tanchak, S. (2019). The roles of the counselling professional in treating targets and perpetrators of workplace bullying. In P. D’Cruz et al. (eds.), Dignity and Inclusion at Work, Handbooks of Workplace bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment 3.
Field, E., & Ferris, P.A. (2019). Diagnosis and treatment: Repairing injuries caused by workplace bullies. In P. D’Cruz et al. (eds.), Dignity and Inclusion at Work, Handbooks of Workplace bullying, Emotional Abuse and Harassment.
Hickson, G.B., Pichert, J.W., Webb L.E., & Gabbe, S.G. (2007). A complementary approach to promoting professionalism: Identifying, measuring, and addressing unprofessional behaviors. Academy of Medicine, 82(11), 1040-1048.
Hirigoyen, M. (2011). Healing the wounded soul. In N. Tehrani (Ed.), Workplace bullying: Symptoms and Solutions (pp. 166-178). London, UK: Routledge.
Kreitlow, C. (2015). Beyond symptoms – Harassment and bullying at work. Paper presented at the International Association on Workplace bullying and Harassment Summer School, Calgary, Alberta, August 25, 2015.
Jenkins, M. (2011). Practice note: Is mediation suitable for complaints of workplace bullying?. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 29(1), 25-38.
Purcell Elliot, G. (2012). Bullying, Mobbing, PTSD and Moral Injury. Retrieved from https://mobbing101.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/bullying-mobbing-ptsd-and-moral-injury/
Smith, C. & Freyd, J. (2014). Institutional Betrayal. American Psychologist 69(6), 575-587. doi: 10.1037/a0037564
Thorsborne, M. (2019). Beyond Punishment – Workplace Conferencing An effective organisational response to incidents of workplace bullying. Retrieved from https://www.thorsborne.com.au/papers/
Williams, K. (2015). Ostracism: The power of silence. Keynote address presented at the International Association on Workplace bullying and Harassment Summer School, Calgary, Alberta, August 25, 2015.