Workplace Harassment and Bullying

Discussion surrounding sexual harassment and assault in Canada

There has been a great deal of discussion in the Canadian media about sexual harassment and assault as of late; even The Economist has published an article about the subject.  This discussion stems from formal and informal allegations from a number of women who say that they were assaulted and/or harassed by Jian Ghomeshi, the recently fired host of the CBC Radio show “Q”.  Prior to this, I learned that over 300 current and former female RCMP employees were pursuing a class action lawsuit against the RCMP over issues regarding gender discrimination, harassment and bullying.

Also making headlines these days is the controversy over Justin Trudeau’s suspension of two male Members of Parliament (MPs) within the Liberal Party’s caucus; some are viewing his decision to suspend the Members for personal misconduct as politically motivated — done to gain favor of female voters at the expense of the alleged victims’ privacy.  Two female MPs claim that the two now suspended male MPs engaged in harassing behavior towards them.

I read an article in the Globe in Mail recently about a female journalist who was fondled by a drunk male colleague while at a Christmas party, early on in her career.

Sheila Copps, the former deputy Prime Minister of Canada, also came forward recently explaining that a male colleague attempted to kiss and fondle her when she was starting out in her career as well.

When I learned about the RCMP cases coming forward, I felt that the women coming forward were finally taking a stand to say that their experiences were unacceptable, but I didn’t feel as if the issue received enough attention.  Was it because of Ghomeshi’s “celebrity” status that the discussion surrounding sexual harassment and assault has finally gotten some steam?

Regardless, it is positive that many people are thinking about and dissecting the issue. In particular, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of how society engages in “victim blaming” when people come forward with allegations, which plays a big role in deterring victims from reporting these events.  People are also discussing the fact that many instances of assault or harassment become a “he said/she said” scenario because there are often no witnesses*.  These two factors compound distress for the victims, and the latter could even create issues for the falsely accused, making for a very complex issue.  Let’s face it though, do women make this stuff up?  With the way society burdens victims and blames them, it’s almost as if we believe that they do.  The most important issue at hand is the under reporting of harassment or assault because of the burden placed on the victims, and how we can better support them.

Better yet, how can we deter potential harassers and abusers from committing these acts in the first place?  This is not a new question, but one solution is for victims to demand respect when formally reporting these events to create a culture more geared to supporting them.  Lately we are seeing women discussing these issues more publicly.  If perpetrators knew there was almost a guarantee of victims reporting I imagine inevitable consequences could be an effective deterrent.  I realize this is easier said than done, however, as part of the male power dynamic of engaging in this type of activity implies that the victim’s will during and after the fact is manipulated by the perpetrator.

All of this said, I hope all of this discourse means that we are at a crossroads where awareness will help us to make systemic changes to how women are treated both in and out of the workplace.

By the way, where is Jian Ghomeshi anyway?  Is he still in Canada?

* I realize that the instigators of harassment/assault are not always men, and that the victims are not always women, but this is frequently the case.


Academic Mobbing and Scientific Misconduct

Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, has a few websites including Workplace Mobbing in Academe as well as which discuss various cases of workplace mobbing, as you may have guessed from the website titles.

After viewing these sites, I came across the Scientific Misconduct Blog, authored by ethical scientist Aubrey Blumsohn, who openly expressed his distaste when Procter & Gamble, a research “partner” at Sheffield University, decided it would be responsible for analyzing Blumsohn’s scientific data and for ghostwriting his publications.   Blumsohn experienced mobbing from the university administration after bringing forward his concerns with these practices and as a result he chose to speak to the media about his experiences.   Blumsohn eventually left his position with Sheffield, although he reached a legal settlement with the university.  This happened a number of years ago, but I thought it was an interesting case.

Since most scientific research has been and continues to be funded by private sources of dollars — I can only imagine how easily these types of scenarios could arise.  These ethically challenging situations likely occur more frequently than we think.


Robyn Urback: University of Saskatchewan president needs a lesson in Free Speech 101

University of Saskatchewan professor Robert Buckingham was fired for criticizing a university cutback plan, given the corporately branded name “TransformUS”.  But it’s okay, controversy and bad press have encouraged university CEO Illene Busch-Vishniac, ahem, I mean President Busch-Vishniac, to give Robert Buckingham his job back, kind of.

How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work

David Yamada of “Minding the Workplace” has posted an excellent article on bullying and psychological abuse at work.  This article was also reblogged extensively, including a reblog by James Pilant of Pilant’s Business Ethics Blog (I recommend following his and David Yamada’s blog; lots of fascinating reading!)

Minding the Workplace

A recent blog piece by psychologist Kenneth Pope explaining how reports of torture can be easily denied, discounted, and dismissed strongly resonated with my understanding of the dynamics of bullying and abuse at work. I thought it worth sharing and discussing with readers here.

Three cognitive strategies

Dr. Pope identifies “three common cognitive strategies for denying, discounting, dismissing, or distorting instances of torture and for turning away from effective steps to stop it and hold those responsible accountable”:

First, “reflexively dismissing all evidence as questionable, incomplete, misleading, false, or in some other way inadequate.”

Second, “using euphemism, abstraction, and other linguistic transformations” to hide the abuse.

Third, by “turning away: ‘I’m not involved,’ ‘There is nothing I can do about it,’ ‘I have no authority, jurisdiction, power, or influence,’ ‘This is no concern of mine,’ etc.”

Applied to workplace bullying

I quickly thought of workplace bullying when I read this blog post.

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Recognizing Bullying at Work – My Experiences…

A recent article from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), “The Street: Recognizing that you are being bullied at work” is interesting, as some of the forms of behavior outlined in the article were very common occurrences in my former workplace.

I think if you are a self-aware person who generally is concerned with treating others with dignity and respect in the workplace, and you feel that someone has often done or said things to you that you suspect are wrong, trust your own instincts, in particular if you feel upset by the behavior.  Unfortunately, as the WBI discusses, there isn’t much that will be done to protect you, and if seeking a legal remedy, this requires very thick skin and a penchant for major uncertainty during the process!

Many of the ‘subtle signs’ as outlined in the aforementioned article happened to my coworkers and I, as we had the privilege of working with a manager who had a number of narcissistic tendencies.  Through the complicit support of human resources and other members of management, we were retaliated against for openly complaining about this particular manager.

The behaviors we experienced included, but were not limited to management/HR doing the following:

  • Ignoring e-mails from coworkers and I;
  • Attempting to isolate my coworkers and I from one another through various means (including eventually firing people);
  • Announcing “model employee”* promotions in front of the group;
  • Minimizing or ignoring harassing or bullying behaviors from other coworkers, and directing blame towards the victims.  Retaliation occurred when we called out these behaviors as inappropriate;
  • Taking credit for good work done by others;
  • Omitting information, such as limiting people from interaction with clients, or discussing at the minimum (or not at all) industry conferences which were attended/presentations being given by management;
  • Inappropriately calling my coworkers and I into irrelevant meetings, and discussing one coworker’s personality traits and personal life in an inappropriate way during one meeting (since this person’s work was of high quality, it was difficult for management to provide constructive feedback); and,
  • Manipulating the workload of my coworkers and I so as to provide too much or too little work.

So, according to the examples above, my coworkers and I worked in a subtle bullying environment and even at times an overt one.  The overt stuff is easier to identify, but the subtle stuff is not fun to deal with.  No matter how you slice it, it’s always about manipulation and control, but it is never appropriate or necessary.

*by “model employee” I mean an employee who never openly complained about managers.   In the context that the promotion was done, it was one form of publicly ranking employees in order to create a competitive work environment.  This created hostility when it was obvious that the person being promoted had quite a bit less education and experience than my colleagues and I.





Advice on escaping a bad boss

“Zombie bosses and colleagues are everywhere”, says career expert Alaina Levine.  According to Alaina, these “zombies” are programmed to eat your brain.

This is your boss on Monday morning (from

This is your boss on Monday morning (from

Zombie colleagues suck, but zombie bosses are worse.  Unfortunately many of us have had at least one lousy boss.  In my experience, the only real way to get away from a bad boss is to leave.  Run far, far away.  Learning to recognize narcissistic and/or even sociopathic personalities very quickly is a sure way to avoid prolonged pain.  Of course bad bosses can still be bad without necessarily possessing these traits, but these types are the worst of the worst.

There is no way that the bad boss will change because he or she is a repeat offender (I can put a 99.9% guarantee on that), so you have to change your job.   Odds are your coworkers won’t acknowledge the problem, and if they do, they certainly won’t take any action since they are chicken and think it’s easier or better for their careers to remain neutral.  The upper management knows about it too, but don’t care because they haven’t bothered to calculate the external costs of having a jerk or many jerks in charge, e.g. due to high employee turnover.  It is much easier to sweep problems under the rug and is even easier for jerks to hide in places where higher employee turnover is considered “normal”.

Would you stay in an abusive relationship?  No.  So why would you allow yourself to stay in a job where this is happening?  You have to spend many hours at work so if you care about your career and overall happiness (which I imagine you do), start an exit plan with or without the support of those around you!