You’d have to be living under a rock right now not to see all the news stories, social media posts, or media commentary about inappropriate behaviours. Literally every day, there is another story or more commentary about what respectful behaviour is, or is not, and what everyone needs to do.

Given we do see, hear, and support so many businesses with this work, it got us thinking – What are the basics, that you just have to know and get right. What are the myths and what are the facts? In short – what matters most. So here’s our short course on the things you need to know:

The myth – Bullying behaviour is only physical

The facts – Ordinarily, someone will have experienced bullying for around 12 months before they put forward a complaint. There is often a stealth-like way that bullies operate and within the workplace, it’s rarely physical. If someone is being physically bullied, it is often noticeable right away. More often though, the issues are around psychological impact – much less visible but often more costly to both those experiencing it, those around them, and the broader organisation.

You can read the legal definitions in many places but at its heart bullying intimidates and makes people feel small and without confidence. Often it is seemingly small things, adding up. Here’s the list we see most often:

  • Not inviting people to meetings, or inviting them late or without notice
  • Belittling or humiliating comments
  • Running commentary (gossiping) about a person when they are not in the room
  • Micro-managing small things at the end of work
  • Tough or unexpected feedback in a group, with little regard for the person receiving it
  • Micro-aggressions that diminish or mock a person’s contribution

Any one of these actions on their own might, on any given day, seem small, but added together, they wear down a person’s confidence.

The myth – ‘We have policies and processes in place- that should be enough’

The facts – every employer, and their leaders, have a legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace. Setting policies and processes is a great place to start toward meeting that obligation but to get to the heart of why inappropriate behaviours are occurring you have to look more broadly. What sets the tone around here? What is our culture? What is the experience of those that make complaints? What are our expectations, of leaders and employees? Have we spent time on learning and development, supporting people to grow and understand what that means day-to-day?

Quite often the answer is No. We see far too often policies and processes distributed with the assumption that everyone reads them, understand them, and instantly, the policies alone will do the heavy lifting to define culture. In reality, culture is much bigger than policy. Culture is defined by the behaviours of everyone in the workplace, and these aren’t necessarily aligned with the policy, unless they’ve been supported with training and good communication, clear and transparent expectations, opportunities to ask questions, and then reinforced through great examples and leadership.

The myth – ‘That behaviour doesn’t happen here, our organisation only gets a few complaints a year/ we only have a few NDA’s’.

The facts – where there are limited numbers of complaints recorded it can mean a few things including:

  1. You are doing a great job and have a great culture where people can speak up, one where there is psychological safety and respect. (We love this when we see it!)
  2. People are fearful to report. This can be due to a number of reasons.
    1. Organisational structures involved in your reporting process are not trusted (particularly if the poor behaviour is coming from a senior leader)
    2. People are fearful of repercussions if they do report. This is usually based on what they have seen happen to others who have reported in the past.
  3. There is an undercurrent of informal reporting, and the behaviours are swept under the rug. (When this happens though, we have seen that no organisations can hide inappropriate behaviours forever. There’s only so much space to hide them under the rug before they pop out with sometimes disastrous impacts!)

The reality is that inappropriate behaviour happens everywhere – the number of complaints is only one indicator of what’s going on.

The myth – any person who has experienced inappropriate behaviour can speak on behalf of all victims

The facts – there is often a high level of emotion from anyone who has experienced inappropriate behaviour, but each person has a different story, a different experience. While there might be synergies in different people’s experiences, it is important that every person has a voice. It is their story and experience to own and have control over, and for them to express it in any way they choose, not to be lumped in with “everyone who has experienced xyz’).

The myth – it’s all about speaking up and calling it out.

The facts – it’s all about the right approach subject to the context and whether you feel safe. Being a bystander can be difficult. People can feel exposed, and their context can make things difficult. The hierarchy of a workplace, misunderstandings, or not wanting to ‘rescue’ someone who is already feeling disempowered, all play a role in how you respond to a situation of poor behaviour.  If you don’t feel safe in the situation, then you are unlikely to publicly speak up or call out the behaviour.

Sometimes the best a bystander can do is to make eye contact with someone to more subtlety show support, nod to others to acknowledge that you saw what just happened, or follow up with someone after you have witnessed something you are not comfortable with. These are safe options when your own safety is low.

We always encourage you to take some action – even if not in the moment, do something afterwards. Doing nothing sets the example that its ‘ok to behave like that around here’.

And of course, the more power you have – the more hierarchy, the more tenure, or the more influence – the more that will be expected of you – both by the person on the receiving end of bad behaviour and by everyone else in the room. If you have power, it’s expected you will use it for good.

The myth – I only need to provide support for the complainant

The facts – By far the most important thing about inappropriate workplace behaviour is its impact on everyone involved including the complainant.

Inappropriate behaviours (particularly bullying) often take a slow build towards their full impact, and these impacts can be very serious. There can be serious mental health impacts on the individual, but also on their team, and their families. On the individual, there is an initial drop in self-confidence. They may try harder to make things right or win the person over. Ultimately, this gradual build can lead to sadness, depression, sleeplessness, or even suicide. The impact is never to be underestimated.

Aside from the individual, the team may have to deal with building, anger, frustration, and increasing discomfort in their workplace.

Away from work, the person’s family may have to deal with someone who is moody, exhausted, and unable to get things together. It can lead to the breakdown of relationships and friendships.

All in all, prevention is far better than a cure. Ensuring a great workplace culture where leadership and employee expectations are understood and lived is the first goal for any organisation.

When inappropriate behaviours do happen, and they will, organisations need to ensure there is a safe and appropriate process available to resolve the situation, and the right support is provided to everyone involved along the way.