Is the Road to the Workplace Investigator’s Office Paved with Good Intentions?

For those of you who mean well when you tell certain jokes — or for the leaders among you who manage people whose comments or jokes make you ponder whether or not they crossed the line — this post is for you.

Recently, several people have asked me about the role that “intent” plays vis-a-vis workplace harassment. That is, how important is the intention behind the questionable behaviour?

Say, for example, that you like bringing the latest cheerful ethnic jokes to work. You do so to lighten the pressure on your stressed-out co-workers. Everyone loves and encourages these tales.

Well, maybe not everyone. One teammate is upset by the atmosphere the jokes create and takes the issue to a manager.

Now, hop into the manager’s shoes for a moment. Here’s an employee whose goal is to be helpful, who beams with good intentions. Still, you are acutely aware that comments or jokes based on ethnicity (or race, gender, age, disability, etc.) are prohibited under the laws of the land. Moreover, jokes like this breach the organization’s harassment policy. How much weight — if any — should you place on the intent behind the employee’s behaviour?

Let’s take a step back and scan the bigger picture. When managers (or HR professionals or workplace investigators) tend to harassment-related matters, they inevitably
work through two stages:

Stage 1: Determining if the behaviour actually qualifies as “harassment.”
Stage 2: Deciding on consequences.

In Stage 1, where the organization is trying to determine whether or not harassment occurred in the first place, intent plays no role. The focus here is on the appropriateness of the behaviour in light of legal standards, organizational values, and corporate policies.

It wasn’t always like this. In the not-so-distant past, another element played into the equation. It was common to factor in the behaviour’s impact as part of the deliberations on whether or not the conduct in question met the bar for “harassment.”

The logic was: if no one in the work environment was upset by the behaviour, there was no problem. That’s how behaviours that nowadays are a big no-no persisted in workplaces for decades — think sexually loaded comments, nudie displays, or decision-making based on age or gender…you get the drift.

It was common practice even a decade ago for managers to act on bad behaviour only once there was proven “impact” in the form of a lodged complaint; there was no explicit obligation to do anything without a complaint in hand (except in really blatant instances). Today, managers are expected to take a proactive approach, acting early on emerging issues, sometimes even correcting behaviour in public.

Now, back to your role as the imaginary joke-teller: In all likelihood, your repeated ethnic-based material will be deemed as “harassment” — most harassment policies explicitly prohibit jokes or comments made on the basis of ethnicity and its likes. If you didn’t know your habit was problematic, there still is the assumption that you ought to have reasonably known anyway.

Thankfully for you, it may not be complete doom and gloom. There’s still Stage 2, where your intent might actually matter.

In this stage — when it comes to deciding on consequences — your lack of mal-intent might affect the outcome. For example, you might receive a lighter result such as one-on-one sensitivity training or a frank talking-to rather than, perhaps, a lawyer’s one-more-incident-and-you’re-out letter.

Still, your intent is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s no longer only about the intention behind the behaviour and the impact it has on those directly affected by it. Today’s employers tend to look at a much broader landscape, examining matters such as:

  1. What is the behaviour’s impact on the workplace culture and environment?
  2. To what extent does the conduct erode organizational values such as diversity and inclusion?
  3. Does the behaviour pose a risk to the organization’s reputation?

All this can get quite complicated. But the harsh reality is that good intentions are no longer enough to override questionable behaviours.

So here’s my simple, bottom-line advice:

First, stay out of trouble. Be good to yourself (and others) by avoiding anything that you think could reasonably be perceived as disrespectful. You can also help teammates avoid getting into trouble by becoming a more activeconstructive bystander.

Second, if you’re a manager, help your people stay out of trouble — be proactive. Don’t be like the manager in the above case, who could have and should have taken action on the ethnic jokes well before the joke-teller got into trouble. And don’t forget to always be a great role model and conduct yourself in ways that maintain your own good reputation!


As always, contact us anytime for any organizational help you might need, or just to comment on the above.


What to Do when You Are a Workplace Bystander

December is a great time to ponder how you might become a stronger voice for a better society and healthier workplace.

For example, at work, how can you be an “upstander,” i.e., an individual who acts when they see wrong. Upstanders take action when their inner canary alerts them that a decency line has been crossed.

What might it take for you to be an upstander, rather than simply a passive bystander?

First, try doing something right then and there, on the spot, and not wait until later. If you are silent as things unfold, you are unwittingly endorsing the behaviour. Even worse, the person on the receiving end will perceive the incivility as supported by the community of those around who are mum. MRI research results show that the brain of a person experiencing something like this will register it as if it were actual physical pain.

Like most people in the workplace, you may freeze when you find yourself in the bystander position observScreen Shot 2018-12-13 at 6.30.47 AMing disrespectful behaviour. You may have a fear of conflict or a discomfort with the power dynamics. Or maybe you feel apprehensive about getting entangled in something messy that could turn even messier. You might feel like a deer caught in the headlights. Later on, in the car or the shower, and sometimes days or even months later, you might replay the scene in your mind as you engage in the futile game of should’ve-could’ve.

But here’s some good news: being an upstander does not require heroic deeds or standing on a soap box, preaching away. It can be as simple as using humour to stop things in their tracks. (Ever tried a purposefully conspicuous fake cough? Those can go a surprisingly long way…)

If you find yourself unable to do or say anything, at the very minimum you can still be a force for the good by changing the topic or diverting attention.

So what can you actually say that will convert you from passive bystander to upstander? Consider these thought starters:

  • “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
  • “The fact that we’re all stressed right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice to one another.”
  • “Actually, I disagree with what you just said/did.”
  • “This isn’t right. Let’s not go there!”
  • “Hey, let’s remember that we’re supposed to be an inclusive workplace.”
  • “We shouldn’t be saying these kinds of things. Let’s cut it out.”
  • “Saying/doing that can get you into all kinds of trouble. Let’s move on.”
  • “There’s nothing funny about that joke. Let’s stick with clean stuff.”
  • “That’s not right.”
  • “That’s inappropriate.”

As much as possible, send a clear “stop” message. As you do so, do your best to maintain everyone’s dignity, avoiding inadvertently insulting any of those involved.

Here’s to a wonderful, sweet, and impactful New Year to you and yours. A year of doing better on all fronts. Happy everything, and see you in 2019!

PS a technical glitch prevented any of you from receiving the previous blog post I wrote after a long hiatus. Click here to access it.

Minefield Clearance Tool for a New Era

The #MeToo Movement continues to teach us that organizations must clear respect-related minefields well before a mine has a chance to explode.

If you are a manager, it is your duty and privilege to do so. If you are front-line staff, you have a right to work in a psychologically safe work environment.

A group of leaders I worked with some time ago was recovering from a couple of horizontal (i.e. employee-to-employee) harassment situations that took those leaders by surprise. The leaders were shocked that within their healthy, award-winning organizational culture such things could occur. Upon reflection, they realized they could have uncovered these situations earlier had they been more proactive.

They reached out to us at Bar-David Consulting for help.

Along with leadership training, I developed a simple, three-point scanning tool to help them detect potential respect-related issues well before the problems began to wreak havoc.

Now more than ever this mine-clearing tool we created is relevant. I’m happy to share it with you so managers may start implementing it, and front-line staff may use it as a constructive suggestion to bring to management.

Below you will find the tool and how to introduce it.

At regular intervals (say, severalmonths apart), the manager asks the questions listed below. If the answers yield any hint of trouble, the manager should follow up with additional probing questions. If the answers point to a highly respectful environment, explore what is working well, how, and why.

So here goes:

“It is my role, and the organization’s role, to ensure that we maintain a respectful work environment where everyone can work without fear or concern. To that end, I’d like to check in with you…

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how respected do you feel these days?
  2. How would you rate the overall respect in the work environment (team, division, organization)?
  3. Over the last while, has anyone said or done anything that made you feel uncomfortable or disrespected? If they ever do, please let me or Human Resources or anyone else in management know, so that we can fix things without delay.”

So, how are you, in your own organization and team, faring on these fronts?

A Man and a Woman Walk into a Workplace (And Sharing Good News)…

Steve discovered that he loves his new job on HoCal’s sales team right from the get-go. People are so authentic—how refreshing! Nothing like his old stuffy job! When frustrated, people at HoCal use juicy language, and when they don’t like someone, they unceremoniously tell them off. Feeling right at home, he’s excited to settle in.

That very day, Kyshel is dismayed and appalled on her first work day on the same team. It’s the Wild West! People curse when they’re frustrated and are outright rude to colleagues, telling them off at whim. She immediately starts searching for a new job.

Two people, same context, dramatically different reactions.

Academic researchers tend to define workplace incivility as behaviour that is “in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.” In other words, we perceive a behaviour as uncivil when we think it violates the specific workplace’s shared understanding of morality, respect, dignity and community. Steve’s pre-existing mental schema of a desirable workplace aligned with the reality he experienced. Kyshel’s expectations for respect and civility were entirely different, and she reacted accordingly. Chances are that if she chose to remain in that job, her mental schema would over time adapt to the culture and she too would develop a thicker skin and no longer view the behaviours that repelled het initially as problematic. (Has that ever happened to you?)

Norms—and the perception of norm violation—vary greatly across cultures, sectors, geographical locations, and of course the specific nature of any organization or team. For example, some might accept quite readily free-flowing foul language in the context of a mining site, military unit, or on the stock trading floor. Conversely, many might be entirely appalled to encounter that same pattern in the context of an agency providing homecare services to the elderly or at a bank branch.

Truth is, I never felt comfortable tethering workplace incivility so tightly with the “violation of workplace norms”—it implies that if the norms are uncivil in a particular organization, certain behaviours are okay. I therefore did not include that element in my own definition of workplace incivility in my Trust Your Canary: Every Leader’s Guide to Taming Workplace Incivility.

Remember the philosophical dilemma that if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

In a similar vein, if someone dismisses, excludes, belittles, or otherwise mistreats others, and the organizational norms say it’s okay, is it still okay?

My answer is no, it is not okay. First, no one likes to be treated badly, regardless of the organizational norms. (Show me a person who feels good when someone rolls their eyes at their idea or contribution, or one who appreciates others’ gossip about him or her.)

Second, incivility affects performance. I have yet to see a person who can perform at their best, consistently and without even a fleeting dip, when treated in an uncivil fashion. Even our Steve, who expects to have fun and thrive in his new uncivil workplace, could find himself in this predicament.

Third, civility is good for business. Uncivil behaviour amongst employees will affect customer service, force good people like Kyshel to leave, and much more.

Of course, things are far from black and white, and I’m the last person to preach for a Pollyanna-like approach. My point is that while there definitely is a need to consider context as part of the equation, an organization should also keep its eyes firmly on the goal: to create a workplace that is rooted in kindness, showing regard, respect, and trust. Once you start subscribing to “workplace norms” and incivility-enabling beliefs such as in our sector it’s okay, or in our line of work we can be uncivil, it becomes a slippery slope.

On a different note:

Thrilled to share that Bar-David Consulting has received the 2017 Canadian HR Reporter Readers’ Choice Awards. This awards program recognizes best providers as seen through the eyes of the magazine’s readers.

Having collaborated and contributed to the Canadian HR Reporter magazine since 2008, we are especially honoured by this recognition. A special thank you to Todd Humber, the magazine’s Publisher/Editor-in-Chief for his ongoing support, wisdom, and friendship.

Check this web page for links to some of the articles, commentary and webinars we’ve collaborated on with the Canadian HR Reporter over the years. And please join me on September 12 on my Canadian HR Reporter webinar, The Challenge of Abrasive Leaders: Finding a Better Way.



A Woman Walks into a Subway Car…

Torontonians’ shoes in winter are a messy sight: wet, muddy, and filled with the salt used to melt the snow. So when Miel Vasulka, a fifty-six-year-old Torontonian, walked onto the subway last week, she was not pleased with what she saw: A much younger man was sitting with his shoes right on the empty seat in front of him.

Ms. Vasulka decided to teach the man a lesson in civility: she placed her body on that seat, right in front of his feet. (Initial reports claimed incorrectly that she sat on his feet.)

Well, the man did not like that, not one bit. What happened next is captured in the video below, now gone viral. And, apparently, Ms. Vasulka has become a folk hero of sorts.

Now, these types of encounters unfold very rapidly. You have to make instant decisions about your overall approach and demeanor, what you’ll say or do next. And while this specific interaction is not workplace-related, I invite you to consider, while you are watching, the parallels to similar workplace dynamics that you may have experienced.

Furthermore, as you watch, it might be worthwhile to ponder:

  • Could Ms. Vasulka have achieved a better result had she used a different approach?
  • Would your reactions to the video be different if the roles were reversed—if Ms. Vasulka was the one with her feet on the seat, and it was the man who approached her? How and why would your reaction be different?
  • When (if ever) is it appropriate to take an approach of “teaching someone a lesson”? What might be constructive ways of doing so?
  • What advice would you have offered Ms. Vasulka that would have prevented the escalation and open the possibility for a genuine learning moment to happen?

As always, please drop a line, anytime.


New Year Confessions

I have a confession to make: I’ve never quite bought into the value of New Year’s resolutions. Seems that much of the time they serve as a predictable path to failure and self-blame: start grand and starry-eyed, then invariably feel lousy about not having lived up to your goals.

But last week, as we were trying to fix a techno glitch that made most of my blog posts over the past ten years disappear from our website, I came across an old one from 2007, titled ”The Art of Apologizing.” Reading it made me ponder: Why do we have such difficult apologizing? I mean, it should be really straightforward to just go to someone and offer a sincere and effective apology, right? It sure would help us enter the new year light-hearted and feeling good about ourselves!

But life is a tad more complicated than that, and we don’t always do what needs to be done. Perhaps the new year is a good time to reflect on this kind of stuff after all. So here are my top seven observations as to why we don’t offer an apology when one is in order:

  1. You don’t recognize that there was a problem in the first place
  2. You realize you weren’t perfect but don’t grasp the impact on the other person
  3. You’re held back by a sense of shame that makes you try to forget the whole thing
  4. You truly intend to apologize but when other things hog your time and attention, you forget
  5. You’re concerned that if you apologize you’ll make it worse
  6. You’re afraid that the other person will get defensive and/or aggressive
  7. Your good ol’ pride is getting the upper hand!

Allow me to ask: As you scan your relationships at work or home and realize that maybe you messed up somewhere (yup, you’re human), which of these reasons is currently holding you back from fixing something that should be fixed? And what could and should you do next?

Fee free to contact me anytime. 



When Reality Trumps Civility

In a recent workplace civility training workshops, as we were reviewing the list of behaviours that are considered workplace incivility, a manager exclaimed, “Are we now teaching people in the workplace basic manners? Is this what we have come to?!”

Great question, especially as the holiday season and new year are about to descend upon us.

So many of our training sessions’ participants lament the seeming loss of basic decorum in the workplace. Truth is, nothing really changed—people are not much different than they used to be. By and large, they do have basic manners. Yes, there are some variations in how these manners are expressed, as anyone who’s ever set foot in a multicultural or multi-generational workplace can attest. And yes, there are the few who are uncivil on a persistent basis. However the vast majority of people come to work and practice what they perceive to be essential decorum and civility.

But here’s what sometimes happens: you arrive at work and you truly, authentically intend to be a positive player. You sincerely mean to live up to your core values—decency and dignity, consideration and kindness.

But then reality hits. And it’s fast and furious. You get sucked into a powerful vortex of incredible demands, lethal deadlines, people who seem unreasonable, faster-than-lightning change, difficult clients, demanding bosses, stubborn room thermostats, budget cuts, doing “more with less”…you name it. (And did I mention personal pressures and even global stressors, all humming in the background?)

So you forget. You forget to be nice. You forget to keep your judgmental thoughts to yourself. You neglect the little niceties. Instead, you become tunnel-visioned—focused on getting through your day and coming out the other end in one piece. You’re a tad curt, dismissive or impatient. You’re not as good with your hellos and thank-yous and a juicy swear word might sneak out here and there. You don’t show the regard for others that you otherwise would have demonstrated.

An observer who doesn’t know the “real you” might say that you are, well, uncivil.

So it’s not about not having manners. It’s about remembering who we are and living up to our values and higher self even when we are pushed, squeezed, stretched, and compressed.

As the year 2016 is about to come to an end, my heartfelt wish for us all is that we become more resilient in navigating our complex lives, so that we can fully and truly be the person we aspire to be, day in and day out.

Best of the holiday season and happy new year!

Please drop a line, anytime.

Do You Too Strike Back in the Afternoon?

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Does experiencing incivility from a co-worker in the morning lead to you behaving in an uncivil fashion in the afternoon? New research suggests that this is exactly the case.

The researchers asked a group of employees to fill in a questionnaire three times during their workday over a period of ten consecutive days. In each questionnaire they were asked to rate the extent to which they experienced incivility from co-workers and the extent to which they themselves engaged in incivility towards coworkers. They were asked things such as, “In the time since I completed the last survey, one or more of my coworkers has put me down or been condescending to me,” and “In the time since I completed the last survey, I have put one or more of my coworkers down or acted condescendingly toward them.” The researchers (Christopher Rosen, Allison Gabriel, and Joel Koopman) also measured participants’ self-control levels.

The results? The research found that “experiencing incivility earlier in the day reduced people’s self-control, which in turn resulted in increased instigated incivility later in the day.” In short, when someone is uncivil to you in the morning, you are more likely to be uncivil in the afternoon.

This latest study adds an interesting layer to current knowledge about the dynamics of incivility. I’ve already shared previously how the “spiral effect” plays out: someone is uncivil towards you and in your frustration or upset you too engage in incivility. For example, a co-worker makes a dismissive comment about your work in a meeting and you in turn vent to others about it (=gossip), or give the instigator the silent treatment for a day or two, or perhaps you knock down their idea during a subsequent meeting in an effort to exact justice and balance the ledger.

What this study highlights is yet another way in which the spiral effect manifests: experiencing incivility from person A might lead us to be uncivil to a totally unsuspecting and innocent person B.

With this in mind, I would like to offer a personal exploration question: When we (you, me) experience incivility, how can we manage the potent cocktail of emotions that is likely to emerge in such a way that we do not resort to retaliation, or to being uncivil later toward an innocent third party? What do we need to do or think right then and there so that we can hold on to our own civility, equanimity and resilience?


On a different note: due to a technical glitch at our end, many of you experienced difficulties in accessing the previous blog post, How to Look for Civility in Job Interviews. So here’s the proper link. Enjoy!

And as always, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly to discuss our workplace civility training workshops or how to help an abrasive leader, anytime.

How to Look for Civility in Job Interviews

How do you make sure that you are hiring people who will not only be civil themselves, but also contribute to the work unit’s overall civility? And what questions might you expect in future if you are on the interviewee side of the table.

Last week I delivered a webinar for the US-based HRDQ—a great organization offering learning and training resources that now distributes our Respect on the Go toolkits. (You can watch the webinar here for free.) One of the participants inquired about civility-focused guidance for the hiring process. Since this is a question I get asked from time to time, I thought I’d share some tips.

  1. Describe a scenario where the interviewee would be on the receiving end of incivility. Ask how they would respond. A desirable candidate is one who would address things constructively—directly, professionally and respectfully.
  2. Ask for an example where the person was treated in a rude or discourteous manner by a manager or colleague. What was his or her internal reaction? What was his or her response on the ground? What transpired—did it go well or perhaps not—and why? What did they learn and how did they apply it? Explore the details. You’re looking for candor, and for an ability to reflect on their own reactivity and take mature action.
  3. Ask for an example of when the person had been themselves uncivil (you may want to provide a loose definition of the term, and emphasize that anyone can be unintentionally uncivil—let the interviewee feel it’s okay to “admit” his or her own flaws.). If they can’t come up with an example then they are either not human or not truthful. If they do describe a situation, explore the details and learning, and how they would apply that in your workplace.
  4. Did they ever work in an uncivil environment or team? What did they observe and experience? In hindsight, what part did they play in contributing to this environment either positively or negatively? You’re looking here for a capacity for insight about the effect that the incivility had on them personally, on the team, on collaboration, and of course on clients and stakeholders.
  5. Describe a situation where the interviewee would be a bystander, observing a colleague being uncivil toward another colleague. How would they respond? How would they analyze the situation? A desirable candidate is one who is able to listen to his or her inner canary, demonstrate insight into the complexities of the dynamics of incivility, and a capacity to move beyond their internal mental barriers to step up to the plate.
  6. If your organizational values include a “respect” value or the like, share that with the candidate and ask them to describe what “respect” would mean to them: Why is it important to them? How specifically would they live that out if they were to get the job? What would they do if they encountered behaviours that are not in line with this value? What have they done in the past?

There are numerous advantages to a civil work environment. Hiring the right people will save you lots of future headaches and challenging experiences.

As always, contact me directly, anytime.

Micro-Inequities, Bias, and Incivility

I sometimes get asked about the relationship between micro-inequity and workplace incivility. With current racial tensions and police bias in the USA in the background, let’s take a look at this question.

Micro-inequity refers to the subtle, often unconscious ways in which individuals are devalued, overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender—through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, choice of words, nuance, and syntax (Wikipedia). Workplace incivility, for its part, refers to low-intensity, seemingly insignificant behaviour that is rude, inconsiderate, discourteous, or insensitive with ambiguous or unclear intent to harm.

Clearly, there is a significant chunk of workplace interactions that would readily qualify as both uncivil and micro-inequitable. Think, for example, about a person affected by Asperger’s or one with a strong accent whose contribution in a team meeting is overlooked or ignored as people move impatiently to the next person’s idea. Or consider the young female whose work is continuously dismissed by a middle-aged male colleague. Do these comprise plain old incivility activities or are these actions propelled by (conscious or unconscious) bias that is based on the group to which they belong?

Well, we will probably never know. In fact, the perpetrator might not be aware of his or her own bias. We don’t always know our own heart, particularly the darker parts of our hearts. And there are so many variables in a situation that it is close to impossible to decipher the extent to which prejudice and bias are at play. This is especially true when based on a single interaction.

I consider incivility an “equal-opportunity offender.” That is, we can be uncivil to people anytime, anywhere, and regardless of who they are or what they did (or didn’t do) that may have triggered our uncivil conduct. However, incivility certainly can be rooted in some ingrained bias related to particular groups. And it is precisely in that junction that it converges with the concept of micro-inequity.

We humans have a tendency to feel more at home with those who are like us, and less comfortable and possibly suspicious or even fearful of the “other.” We possess an inclination for bias, even if we truly and wholeheartedly want to be unprejudiced and enlightened and treat everyone as equal. The true challenge is: How do we deal with these internal biases within ourselves, and, more importantly, how do we make sure that we do not act on them, even if only in subtle ways that might show up as micro-inequities?

(Before going further, I feel compelled to comment briefly on the impact to the person on the receiving end of these micro-inequities. They might seem minute to an observer, but for those being affected, there is nothing “micro” about these seemingly insignificant behaviours. They hurt and sting and upset and humiliate in ways that cut to the core of one’s emotional and physical being.)

So let’s assume for a moment that you and I want to do better and avoid acting on our bias through micro-inequities.

The place to start is by knowing thyself. Below are some questions to ask yourself when you are working with someone who is different from you by virtue of them belonging to a group whose characteristics are unchangeable. These questions offer you ways to recognize that you are possibly under the influence of bias.

Are you…

  • Making judgments about the person based on preconceived ideas?
  • Feeling a bit uncomfortable in their presence for reasons you cannot pinpoint?
  • Avoiding that person?
  • Experiencing inexplicable unpleasant feelings?
  • Having irrational thoughts? What are they?

If you answered yes to any of these, what a gift! You now have the beginning of a thread to work with and grow from. Embracing our fallibility and moving beyond it to true awareness and enlightened action is a lifelong journey. At least for me.

This is the last blog post before the summer holidays. Happy summer!

As always, contact me directly, anytime.


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