4CATEGORIES OF PROBLEMATIC WORKPLACE BEHAVIORS: 1VERBAL: shouting or swearing at an individual in public
or private; slandering or
ridiculing a person or his/
her family; name calling,
insulting, or offensive
nicknames or remarks.
2GESTURAL: threat- ening or offensive non-verbal signals;
making faces; getting in
one’s face or space.
3SOCIAL: socially or physically excluding an individual from
or during work-related
activities; stopping conversation or giggling when
a person walks by; not
allowing someone to speak
or express him/herself;
spreading rumors or gossip; invasion of privacy.
4PROFESSIONAL: public humiliation or eprimands in any
venue, including e-mails;
interfering with mail or
encouraging others to
disregard the employee’s
input, request, or information, or supervisor’s
interfering with, or sabotaging employee’s ability
to do his/her work, such as
overloading or withholding information; setting
and changing goals, tasks,
tasks; taking credit for
another person’s ideas.
the bullying conversation in your workplace.
Our imaginary ideal manager describes the
specific behaviors complained about, without
pejorative or judgmental language. The factors
surrounding the concern, such as frequency
and intensity, are relevant. Bill is invited to
understand his own motivation, or the function of his behavior, in a non-confrontational
manner that feasibly opens into discussion
regarding potential interventions. Let’s explore
each inquiry in more depth.
Behavioral inquiry turns our attention from
the label of bullying to identifying interactional
behaviors that are inappropriate or causing
distress or concern in the workplace. In the
ideal workplace the group and its leadership will
establish behavioral norms that are consistent
with the organizational culture. In one team, for
example, interrupting during meetings may be
construed as rude, or even as exclusionary; in
another, interruptions may be an acceptable
form of lively debate, brainstorming, or even a
mode of collaboration.
As valuable as group process is for clarifying
and preventing unacceptable behaviors and
creating a culture of respect in the workplace,
we live in the real world of work, where all is well
until it isn’t – and that’s when we conflict resolution professionals are called in. Behavioral
inquiry can be, for us, a viable entry point. When
the stated issue is bullying, we can assist parties to articulate their experience in behavioral
terms, and thus begin the shift: it’s both subtle
Behavioral checklists often divide potentially
problematic workplace behaviors into five categories: verbal, gestural, social, professional,
and psychological. We dig down into a claim of
bullying and tweak out the contributing behaviors. Because offensive behavior is subjective,
and because the perception of the folks we
encounter is their reality, we partner with the
parties to excavate and extract further meaning from their experiences and perceptions. The
sidebar on this page gives a few brief examples
of the first four categories.
Behaviors with potentially psychological
impact can be the most challenging to prove,
or even to articulate. These “micro-aggres-
sions” (often passive-aggressions) are the
subtle or indirect actions or omissions unre-
lated to business or performance necessity
that may leave an employee questioning
his or her perceptions and competence. The
employee feels really bad about him/herself,
and not just because s/he’s received some
rough, but justifiable, feedback.
You may notice at this point the absence
of a large category of behaviors – physically
aggressive or abusive behaviors, including
unwanted physical contact; pushing, threats
of assault to employee or family, damage to
work area or property. Many, if not most, definitions of workplace bullying include these
behaviors. Yet such behaviors are generally
already addressed in workplace non-violence
or harassment or code of conduct policies, and
assault is clearly illegal and actionable. In contrast, the behaviors typically encompassed in
complaints of “bullying” are legal, unless related
to harassment or discrimination based upon
the person’s protected class.
A behavioral checklist and analysis of the
behavior is our first step toward transforming the prevailing bullying paradigm. While
fully respecting his or her perception, experience, and feelings, the behavioral conversation
assists the person expressing concern to shift
their language from broad and loaded terms
to descriptive ones. Exploring any potential
relationship between the behavior of concern
– let’s say, excessive scrutiny, or removal of
certain tasks, or denial of professional development requests – and job description,
performance, or legitimate business need is
part of the excavation, vital to discover with
both parties. And thus we set the tone for our
second evaluation: the situational inquiry.
With the complaining party first, we look
at frequency, duration, intensity, escalation.
Check into the setting and power disparity.
Evaluate if there may be a reasonable relationship to the employee’s job description or
performance or valid business necessity. I call
this the “reality check,” an objective elucidation
of the context of distressful behaviors within
the work relationship. Explore the history: was
the relationship ever positive, in or out of work?
If so, what changed, when, why? These insights
can be positively revelatory.