Respect in the Workplace
LISA QUINN O’FLAHERTY
It is tempting for employers to draft a Bullying and Harassment Policy for their workplace, and then sit back in the hope that everyone will play nicely and get along.
Unfortunately, human relationships are complex, and conflict is likely to arise in every workplace. It is the job of the employer to create a working environment where conflict is well managed, and a culture of respect prevails.
A complaint under the Bullying and Harassment Policy is a real headache for any employer. It is necessary to begin an investigation into the allegations, while balancing the rights of both the accuser and the accused. The accuser must be protected from any further bullying, harassment or penalisation as a result of having made a complaint. The accused must be presumed innocent until such time as an investigation finds otherwise. It may be difficult for the two parties to work together, but separating them and making alternative work arrangements could be perceived as pre-judging the accused or penalising the accuser.
The most effective thing an employer can do is take steps to ensure a culture of respect and inclusion in the workplace. This can be done by having effective training, policies and procedures.
Employers should provide training in healthy communication and conflict management techniques. People should not be prevented from expressing a contrary opinion, but they should be encouraged to frame it in a productive manner.
Communication should always be respectful. All levels in the hierarchy need to buy into the idea of respect. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ are necessary communications in both oral and written communications, regardless of the request being a part of a worker’s duties.
Colleagues should actively listen to each other. Regardless of seniority, everyone brings something of value to the table. All those in the room should be entitled and encouraged to ask questions, and share ideas. There should be a focus on looking for the best ideas, rather than always following the lead of the most senior voice or the loudest voice.
Conflict management training will include important communication techniques to ensure that a person can express their view effectively without harming the dignity of a colleague. No personal attacks or criticism should be used by any person, in any circumstance.
Workers should be encouraged to seek formal and informal feedback from colleagues. This shows respect for the opinions of colleagues. Healthy collaboration can only improve processes and outcomes, as well as keeping channels of communication open for when conflicts arise.
Workers should be encouraged to communicate their issues in a clear fashion and focus on the issue at hand, making sure to avoid any mention of historical issues (if there are any). It is rarely productive to use phrases such as ‘you never’ or ‘you always’. These phrases will inevitably make the recipient become defensive and put up barriers.
Vague criticism should be avoided. If someone needs to raise an issue with how a thing is being done, they should offer an alternative method. If they are raising an issue after the fact, they should offer a solution to fix the problem or suggest an update in procedures for the next time. Dwelling on the past is not healthy.
Care should be taken not to correct or call out a colleague’s error publicly. This can lead to an individual feeling undermined and under attack. A colleague can explain the error after a meeting or make a private phone-call to discuss the issue.
Care should be taken as to who is carbon copied on an email. Always ask if it is necessary for the person copied to see that email. If the email points out a colleague’s error or is a reminder to address a particular matter, it is rarely necessary to copy their manager. A look at the carbon copy list on an email can give a real insight into the culture of an organisation. A long list of names on a mundane email shows a toxic and defensive culture. Needless to say, the use of blind carbon copy should be extremely limited.
At the first sign of unhealthy conflict, those in leadership positions should step in to help resolve it. It is helpful to have designated persons to deal with issues between colleagues. They will not necessarily be managers but will be people with a calm personalities and training in mediating workplace conflicts. They will step in where they spot an issue between people or can step in after being notified by third parties or when approached by one or both of the parties. They will create a space where parties can speak freely and confidentially*. While they will actively listen and fully hear the concerns of both parties, they will encourage the parties to focus on their desired solutions, rather than mere complaints and grumbles. The parties should collaborate to find a workable solution.
*I include a caveat in relation to confidentiality. If harm to any person, criminality or activity harmful to the business is disclosed, the parties should be aware that the mediating party will disclose it to the appropriate persons.
If informal mediation does not achieve the desired result or more serious issues arise, these can be progressed through the more formal stages of the Grievance Procedure or the Bullying and Harassment Policy. The aim throughout should be to find workable solutions going forward.
The key take-away for employers is that the first step to avoiding bullying and harassment complaints is to actively foster healthy communication practices in the workplace, to intervene early when conflicts arise and to encourage independent problem-solving among the parties.
A workplace with a culture of respect is a psychologically safe place to work. It leads to happier, more productive workers, fewer formal complaints and fewer legal claims.