How to Take a Preventative Approach to Workplace Conflict and Harassment

Over the last few months many high profile people in leadership have been accused by people under them of bullying, harassment, and particularly sexual harassment. It’s easy to treat these cases as if they are about bad people misusing their power, but that oversimplifies the issue. People who abuse their power weren’t always in a position to use their power over others. At some point early in their careers, their managers or mentors may have seen signs that they were going down a dangerous path, and could have intervened to address the behaviour before they had impunity or felt entitled because of their position or rank. Whether it be in a political party, the arts sector, or any other workplace, there are ways in which a workplace fosters and creates a toxic culture of bullying, harassment and competition, or a healthy culture where people are included and able to share ideas and give feedback without fear of reprisal. What if people learned early in their careers that harassing, assaulting, and bullying their co-workers and employees was not acceptable, and that there would be consequences? What if the emphasis was on creating inclusive and respectful communities and workplaces right from the start, as opposed to only after a crisis?

There is a great book called Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School by Nancy Riestenberg, which uses a public health framework of prevention, and applies it to a restorative approach to school discipline. She talks about prevention as a pyramid, a metaphor that can also be used when thinking of an organisation’s response to violence and harassment. Currently lots of organisations look like upside-down pyramids teetering on one point. A small amount of attention goes to prevention, culture change, good communication, and feedback about difficult or abusive behaviour. A slightly larger amount of attention goes to dealing with problems as they come up, particularly if there are legal implications, a grievance procedure, or human rights process. Because situations are not adequately addressed in earlier or preventative stages, the biggest focus ends up being on damage control. Conflicts are avoided and ignored, and people stay quiet because of a fear of reprisal or the knowledge that nothing will happen. In the end more time, energy, and money are spent dealing with the aftermath of someone abusing their power. Often the complexity and seriousness of a problem only comes to light after costly and damaging investigations or human rights complaints. This usually happens after the problem has continued for a long time, and at the expense of many people. This upside-down pyramid is out of balance, leads to lots of stress, and can leave people at the bottom to get squished when it tips.

Instead, it would be better to focus on creating cultures in which abusive behaviour is named and addressed before it escalates to that level. It is preferable to have the big part of the pyramid - the part where most attention is paid - being preventative. It’s about shifting the culture to one in which equity, fairness, inclusion, and consent are prioritized, talked about seriously, and taught as appropriate workplace behaviour. This requires developing ways for people to feel safe to both give and receive feedback about difficult behaviour at all levels. The more the focus is on prevention and creating safe cultures, the less work has to happen at the top. As with a pyramid, this creates more balanced, fair, and effective organisations.

Shifting the balance can be a very big project. It may call for larger structural interventions, such as policy and governance review, the development of an ombuds or human rights position, or increased job security to ensure workers have needed protections. It will almost definitely call for an increased capacity on the part of everyone to have difficult conversations (for a blog post on this topic, click here. For a public workshop on this topic, click here). A culture shift may involve workplace-wide dialogues or trainings about harassment and discrimination, equity, constructive communication, and respectful teamwork, as well as specific feedback or intervention about particular behaviours that have caused harm.

Shifting a culture is a complex and long-term process. Here are a few tips to make the process go a bit easier.

Don’t avoid the problem.

As soon as you are aware there is a conflict brewing in your workplace, act on it. The sooner things are addressed, the less chance there is for the situation to escalate, to become entrenched, or to spread to peripheral people. That being said, this is a very challenging thing to do. Most of us would really love for conflict to just go away on its own, and so it’s a very common reaction to avoid, put our heads down, and hope for a miracle. However, if you are in a position of leadership in your organisation, developing the capacity to intervene in conflict quickly and effectively can make a tremendous difference in the culture and wellbeing of the workplace. If you think you might have a tendency toward avoidance, it can be very helpful to get support to practice new ways of addressing problems that come to your attention (for a free online assessment of your conflict style go here).

Figure out why people don’t feel able to speak up when things happen.

A preventative approach requires that there be safe ways for people to bring concerns forward without a fear of reprisal. If you tend to find out about conflict only when the situation has escalated to the point where serious damage has been done and where costly and time-intensive interventions are necessary, it is likely that work needs to be done to create a safe environment for disclosure. The first step is to develop an understanding of why people don’t feel they can come forward. Maybe the people they are expected to talk to are perceived as biased or punitive. Maybe there are unclear policies and procedures, and employees are concerned they will do something wrong. In many workplaces there is a sense that information will not stay confidential. Often, people fear that speaking out will lead to negative performance reviews, or being ostracized by co-workers or managers. And frequently, workplaces have cultures that reinforce our natural tendency to want to avoid. The first step to encouraging earlier acknowledgment of a problem is finding out the specific reasons people in your workplace don’t come forward.

Believe people.

If someone comes forward with a problem or conflict in the workplace, then there is a problem. While it may not be a good idea to accept everything that someone says at face value, as what someone tells you in anger or distrust is rarely the whole story, it’s also very important not to discount it as untrue, overblown, or a matter of perception. It’s important to acknowledge the person’s distress, affirm that there is an issue that needs to be addressed, and follow up appropriately.

A fair response does not always mean a neutral or equal response.

People in leadership often think that in order to be “fair,” they need to treat everyone involved in a conflict in the same way, regardless of their levels of power or the particular needs of each individual. When there are power differences between the people in conflict, often the person who intervenes needs to find ways to even out those power differences so that any interventions don’t happen at the expense of the person with less power. Leaders in an organisation may sometimes need to think of themselves as multipartial rather than impartial or neutral. It may also be necessary to take an equity approach that recognizes that people do not come into the workplace, and particularly workplace conflict, on an equal footing.

Finally, conflict in any workplace is inevitable. In the end, the most effective route to a resilient organisation is to create a healthy workplace in which people feel comfortable and empowered to raise concerns, share ideas, and talk about difficult issues. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will focus on giving effective feedback as a part of this process of creating a healthy workplace culture.

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Brook Thorndycraft Conflict Resolution Services
Brook Thorndycraft
Mediation, coaching, and training for families, workplaces, and individuals.

65 Wellesley St East, Suite 402

Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 1G7




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