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Why bullying and harassment training isn’t the answer

Article by Arran Heal, Managing Director - CMP.

McDonald’s has taken strong action in the wake of accusations there were more than 1,000 cases of sexual harassment among its UK staff in a single year. A key part of its response — a signed, legally binding pledge to the Equality and Human Rights Commission — is a commitment to communicating a zero-tolerance approach and delivering anti-harassment training.

Research has claimed 44% of UK business directors haven’t had training on workplace harassment (as well as 28% of non-managers, according to Navex Global). Media reports at the time called this a “shocking” statistic. But, if anything, doesn’t this sound a high proportion for senior staff training on a specific people management issue? 

What really matters is what HR leaders can do to encourage more trust, confidence and feelings of psychological safety, creating better places to work.

This is the real root of the problem, as pointed out by the union involved in raising the claims, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union: “a system of zero hours contracts, when crew members must depend on the good will of managers to be allocated hours, when low pay is endemic and working women are expected to live pay cheque to pay cheque, when there’s a culture of cover up with the use of NDAs”.

Being pushed into training in what constitutes inappropriate behaviour can look and feel condescending for employees, whatever level they’re at. The issue isn’t so much that people don’t know what’s inappropriate, but what they’re supposed to do about it. We’re all involved with tangles of relationships affected by status and responsibilities and work pressures that make clear-thinking — and honesty — complicated. 

What’s actually needed is better ‘Conversational Integrity’: employees with the skills to speak up in constructive ways about any challenges from an early stage; managers who are able to deal with difficult conversations. As a consequence, that means the ability to avoid conflict and the time-consuming, stress-creating formal processes that typically are the only way organisations know how to respond.

Crucially when it comes to cases of harassment, better conversation skills also mean the basis for more openness. Formal, process-driven cultures lead to more secrecy and the kinds of working conditions where problem situations are able to degenerate. Just pointing a finger at the evils of harassment in itself only encourages secrecy, more people working harder to stay under radar, and more insidious forms of bullying and harassment.

The best response from HR directors would include:

  • looking at a strategic level at how to build a culture of better conversations, how they can encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality – in other words, making constructive challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture. HR need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just, do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward?;
  • encouraging leaders to demonstrate visibly the kinds of skills and behaviours expected by employees. Too often development is only provided for senior teams and managers when there’s an issue – a change programme, reports of poor engagement or cases of bullying. Some managers have the in-built skills needed to manage conflict constructively and keep their values in place, some others need support;
  • management programmes being reviewed to ensure they include the conversation skills used to keep values at the heart of work interactions and relationships, to have constructive, positive conversations no matter what the situation is. The result is more engaged, productive and self-managing teams;
  • giving training to all employees to help them have better conversations, be able to deal with difficult situations, be prepared to be challenging when necessary, to stand up to perceived bullying or inappropriate ‘banter’, not to instigate disputes but to have the ability to raise and resolve issues themselves. In this way employees become accountable and in a position to live out the organisation’s values in practical ways every day, to see and feel their relevance. There is also a fundamental equality in practice, with everyone having the opportunity to use their skills, not to be the subject of them.

    Arran Heal is Managing Director at workplace relationships expert CMP.

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