No Skin in the Game

Question:

I get along well with “Mitch.” He runs a department that supports my department and so I need his goodwill. I’m well aware that department heads who tangle with Mitch pay for it when their departments need help from his team. I don’t like watching what happens to those who get on Mitch’s wrong side, but I’ve told myself that these battles aren’t my concern.

Last week one of Mitch’s employees came to me and sought my help. I’d been aware that Mitch’s department had a high level of turnover, but again, what happens in a peer’s department isn’t my issue. This employee painted a picture of bullying that was far worse that I’d imagined.

I suggested this employee seek out help from our HR department. He told me he and others had gone to HR but gotten no help. He also swore me to confidentiality, saying that if I told anyone he’d come to me, his work life wouldn’t be worth living.

I decided to seek out HR myself. The new manager there said she hadn’t yet had time to look into any department, but planned an employee survey in 2016, after she’d first handled other priorities. I pressed her and learned she’d already had a skirmish with Mitch. I picked up that she was intimidated by him and I can’t say I blame her.

The employee’s visit weighs on my mind. I’m not sure what to do and also realize it’s not my fight. Still I’d like to offer guidance to the employee who came to me. What can I pass on to him or tell him to do?

Answer:

If it’s not your fight, whose is it? The new HR manager who’s intimidated? The employee who’s fearful? Or yours, a department head who can arrange a meeting with your chief executive officer and who’s seen and hated what happens to your peers who get on Mitch’s bad side? Do you really place the responsibility for fixing this situation at the feet of a scared employee? How isn’t it your issue given that Mitch’s actions tear apart the fabric of your organization?

Now that one employee has painted for you a picture of what is going on, if you remain on the sidelines, you condone bullying. You send a message to the employee who sought you out, and the co-workers he’s told, that you, like the HR manager, offer no help. Your inaction says to these employees that they are on their own and need to put up with bad treatment or quit.

By intervening, you say “I don’t tolerate bullying.” You tell Mitch’s employee that you care. Ask for a meeting with your chief executive officer. Give him any firsthand information you have. What have you seen Mitch do to department heads who cross him? What turnover have you noticed? What have you heard directly from an unnamed employee?

According to the 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey published by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 28.7 million U.S. managers and employees witness bullying in the workplace on an ongoing basis. Regrettably, most witnesses don’t act to fix the situation, because they think it’s not “their issue” or because they fear being caught in the crossfire. Those at senior levels in organizations often don’t see the problem until the situation explodes because many bullies kiss up and kick down and laterally. Also, a bullying manager can produce great bottom-line results. Further, bullied employees hesitate to speak up, fearing they’ll lose their jobs or experience other retaliation if they voice concerns.

If your CEO takes what you say seriously, he has options for assessing and addressing this situation. He can move up the employee survey. He can bring in an executive coach for Mitch and others and tell the coach what he’s heard. He can initiate 360 reviews for all department heads, giving employees a safe forum for describing how Mitch leads, communicates and handles those with viewpoints other than his own.

What can you tell the employee? That you’ll help.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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