Been a while since we met here on this blog! Good to be back.
As I reflect on the past decade and what might lie ahead, I wonder about the needle.
In my early days working in the “respectful workplace” space, things were very different than they are now. So much so that some training sessions felt as though I had just walked into the old Wild West.
In that era (it wasn’t that long ago), those of us who were actively trying to push the respectful-workplace indicator needle toward more respect and civility found its movement slow and, at times, frustrating. It was difficult to get buy-in for the idea that respect and civility were good not only for people, but for business, too.
But then the landscape began to shift. The past decade has seen new approaches taking hold.
An emerging focus on workplace mental health drew new attention to civility and respect as cornerstones of employers’ duties and as important drivers of high performance and business results.
A new emphasis on psychological health and safety developed, recognizing that physical safety was only one part of a much larger safety puzzle. So much so, that in 2013 the first-of-its-kind National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace was created. It identified “civility and respect” as a key indicator of a psychologically safe workplace.
As I saw it, the needle indicator was now moving along nicely at a healthy pace.
Then — in October 2017 — the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene, and the needle started moving with exponential velocity.
“Respect” took on a new urgency. Across the board, organizations began realizing they could no longer turn a blind eye to previously-tolerated behaviours. Newly empowered employees awakened to the fact that they were actually entitled to be treated with respect, civility, and dignity. A sharp spike in harassment complaints ensued. Concerned with their brand reputation and liability, many organizations took to showing the door unceremoniously to anyone against whom a complaint was launched.
In a recent discussion with employment lawyer, mediator, and author Stuart Rudner, he shared his view
that this trend has subsided. As he sees it, the situation has gone initially from one where employers are wilfully blind to harassment, refusing to investigate any allegations or suspicions, to one where they blindly believed all accusations and dispatched the accused without any sense of due process. And now, he says, “things are shifting back to the middle, where organizations recognize the need for a fair investigation before action is taken.”
Two years in to #MeToo, at Bar-David Consulting we see a continuous flow of referrals for post-investigation one-on-one “sensitivity training,” i.e., several focused sessions that help a person whose conduct was investigated and deemed as harassment.
My observation is that my Sensitivity Training coachees have a single, prominent feature in common: They failed to notice the speed with which the lines between what’s okay and not okay have been moving. They failed to connect the dots between what they hear in the media and their own behaviour in the workplace. As a result, they don’t see the tsunami coming their way — they don’t realize that nowadays someone is apt to launch a complaint for things that a mere year or two ago would be accepted, and that today’s employers take complaints very seriously.
Big picture: the past decade’s shifting of the lines has reconfigured structures that were long in need of an overhaul.
All in all, where workplace incivility is concerned (i.e. low-intensity behaviours that show a lack of regard), the current trend is highly positive. There’s lots of room for even more movement.
But here’s the problem: when it comes to harassment (higher-level offensive behaviour that demeans, degrades, or offends, often based on a group to which the person belongs) the speed and direction in which the needle is moving is beginning to raise important questions about the risk of its moving to an undesirable extreme. A few troubling signs include:
- Investigations: In the new environment, issues that could be settled through authentic conversation, conflict resolution intervention, or mediation end up in messy complaints and investigation processes, often leading to harsher-than-necessary outcomes with serious — and avoidable — collateral damage. The post-investigation people I see in my office are often practically shell-shocked by the severity and punitiveness of what they had experienced.
- “Appropriating” respect-related terms: The terms “harassment” and “bullying” seem to get tossed around all too often these days to describe another’s behaviour that one happens to simply dislike, or as an implied threat, or as a way to get attention. There is an increased tendency to use these terms as weapons. Or as catch-all phrases to describe behaviours that meet the bar for incivility, but not necessarily worse.
- Diversity: People are becoming afraid to speak with a colleague about anything that could be even remotely categorized as “harassment.” A simple and supportive/collegial query such as how cultural holidays are celebrated or an inquiry about personal preferences or a (respectful, friendly) query about anything that’s not strictly business is now perceived as potentially hazardous. We talk a lot in Canada about the importance and value of diversity and the value of women’s equal participation, but how can we nurture that if people are too afraid to talk to one another?
- Fun stuff: I see a surge in fear that the workplace will become a politically correct farce, where people have no fun, laughter, or closeness. This fear is leading to the stifling of spontaneity and lighthearted ways of connecting.
It’s going to be tricky to prevent the needle from going too far, or from boomeranging back in damaging ways.
Going into the new decade, we’ll all have to make an effort to find the right balance between a multitude of values, factors, and interests. This will require honest, perhaps fierce, conversations.
I fully trust that in Canada, we will be able to have this discourse and emerge on its other side all the better for it.
And so, dear friends, as 2019 draws to a close, I wish you a decade of civility, respect, balance, rational thinking, and growth!
And as always, I’d love to hear from you! find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.