No Good Deed Dilemma: Colleague in a Quandary

The Dilemma du Jour:

I work in a large communications department that was always pretty collegial, until recently when a new manager was appointed. She plays favorites, holds mini-meetings that exclude some, makes nasty remarks and claims ‘just joking' and has been generally unsettling our workplace. She has singled out one fellow in particular and is subtly, ingeniously making his life miserable. I’ll admit he’s a mediocre player – he gets the job done, but without any inspiration or flair, though he’s reliable and pleasant. I’m his friend, so should I defend him with our ‘Cruella’ boss lady? She doesn’t pick on me now, but would this move change her focus? What are my moral and/or professional obligations here?

Signed, Colleague in a Quandary

Dear Quandary:​

Jackie Asante

You’ve outlined a tough situation, although I’m sure the picture you’ve painted is familiar to many. In my opinion, there are precious few great leaders out there, thus, finding yourself in a work environment under the ‘guidance’ of a bad manager – who I will refer to as “BM” – is not that uncommon. Having said that, good for you for caring about the treatment of your friends and colleagues; I admire your empathy, compassion and your moral compass. It’s very difficult to stick up for others, regardless of where bullying may take place. I can’t counsel you on whether you should or shouldn’t ‘blow the whistle’ but if you look in the mirror, and find the person looking back has decided to take a stand, let me share some best practices on how to communicate the issue effectively.  

Before taking any steps, I’m assuming that you’re aware of the possible pitfalls of coming forward. Often, upline executives – who may have reviewed and approved of your nemesis being hired, or moved to your department – are fans, friends or otherwise supportive of the BM. In those cases, pointing out the bad behavior is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the very reason why many companies institute ‘whistle-blowing’ policies – to protect those who come forward to hold more senior executives to account.

In advance of making moves in that direction, I advise taking multiple steps to both protect yourself and to build a compelling case. In order to have any hope of resolving this situation successfully, here are my recommendations:

  • Speak with colleagues. Make sure that what you think you are seeing and hearing has also been witnessed by others in the office. You don’t need anything out of this process other than an absolute reassurance that your judgement hasn’t been clouded by your relationship with your work pal. If others concur with your assertions, or admit to you that they feel like they have been targeted for mistreatment, then that’s important to know. You just may have allies.

  • Gather facts. And I do mean facts. Start to compile dates and times, and the actions that you or others have witnessed, as it pertains to favoritism or mistreatment. Being able to bring forward absolute truths – rather than your own thoughts or opinion – is critically important. The longer you can do this, and the more impacts you can illustrate, the better. It will help you prove a pattern of bad behavior, rather than simply random, unintended, or “one off” incidents.

  • Think about how you would like to see some of these situations resolved. If you are going to bring forward “problems” it’s always very helpful to suggest solutions. Can you think of ways the issues between the BM and staff could be better handled? Document your thoughts on how the issues you’ve seen could have been overcome, or avoided altogether.

  • Take the information you’ve gathered to the correct person. You noted that you work in a large communications department, which indicates your company is likely to have a human resource department (or at least an HR lead). Book a meeting with a human resource rep – perhaps at an offsite location – and use the time to walk through the facts you’ve gathered, as well as your thoughtful suggestions around possible ‘fixes’. You might also point out who else the HR lead could talk to (i.e. one of your allies), as it pertains to certain situations you’ve noted. Also, it’s smart to ask for a follow up meeting, several weeks down the road. Knowing that you are going to seek an update from HR on any steps being taken, may prove highly motivational, in terms of action being taken.

If you’ve had the wherewithal to do all that, then it’s probably time to step back, and allow time for a dialogue to play out. You will have done your part, and should be able to look yourself in the mirror, knowing that you took action to correct what you saw as unjust treatment. Good for you! 

Now, here’s a final thought I’ll share. It’s always a good idea to have your resume up-to-date, key portfolio documents on a flash drive and a good handle on what you might want to take with you, should your current employment change. The world can be a funny place. 

~ Jackie Asante, Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard HighRoad (Vancouver)

Martin Livingston

Being bullied is a soul-crushing experience affecting employee morale, productivity, and turnover with bottom-line implications. In extreme situations, it can lead to high-profile lawsuits, which can be an internal and external PR powder keg.

The bullying boss, unfortunately, is not a rare breed. Survey after survey shows that the majority of reported bullies hail from the C-Suite. The Catch-22 is that most corporate bullies are also high performers – these top salespeople, major revenue generators, and heads of large departments provide value to the company’s bottom line. Getting business leaders to look past the bully’s performance to address inappropriate behaviour is akin to pushing water uphill.   

In my opinion, turning a blind eye to workplace bullying isn’t really an option. If you don’t take a stand on the issue, you’re just condoning the toxic behaviour and giving the bully free rein to carry on. The sensible approach would be to take the perpetrator aside and try to talk some sense into them. Who does the bully respect and confide in? Perhaps that person can intervene and outline the implications of the boss’s conduct on everyone involved and its potential to harm the company’s reputation. However, if the oppressor has been at this for some time, it’s likely the bullying behaviour is ingrained and they’re not likely to change stripes overnight.

The first step I would take: talk to the individual targeted by the bully, make sure they’re okay and reassure them that it’s not their fault. Encourage them to start documenting the incidents with detailed notes, copies of inappropriate emails, correspondence, texts, etc. Anyone else who witnesses inappropriate conduct should also be encouraged to keep a journal of blatant bullying incidents -- who was involved, when, where and what happened in as much detail as possible, including who else witnessed the transgressions.

Identify allies. You can’t be the only person who considers this conduct unacceptable. Without descending into petty gossip, talk to your peers about the situation. If you’re all on the same page, perhaps you can present a united front and share your concerns with HR or the head of the company. It’s infinitely more difficult to dismiss a problem if more than one employee files a complaint.

You don’t want to come across as unprofessional or disparaging, so make a compelling case to fix the situation. Talk to HR or the bully’s immediate supervisor and diplomatically lay out the facts, outline the implications and offer a solution. A lot of companies have processes in place for victims to report bullying. Others promote team-building exercises and ‘lunch and learns’ to address difficult workplace issues, encourage employees to get to know each other and to build camaraderie. And then there’s the lauded company workplace policy, which is supposed to enshrine the business's no-tolerance approach towards bullying. Whether the workplace policy is worth the paper it’s printed on really comes down to how effectively management deals with a bullying boss and whether they take concrete steps to rectify the situation.

Be warned: the reality is that whistleblowers brave enough to speak up are often unfairly pegged as troublemakers and end up leaving a company. If you work for an organization where management simply pays lip service to stamping out inappropriate behaviour, while giving a bullying boss safe harbour, you may want to consider looking for another place of employment.

~ Martin Livingston, Principal, Living Communications Inc.

Karen McCluskey

You’d figure someone in charge of a communications department would have a better-than-average grasp of how to inspire people and foster collaborative success, wouldn’t you? Alas, communications is not immune to the enormous impact a change in management can have on a team, for better or worse. You’ve gotten worse, so what now?

Some managers are nasty because they’re insecure and build themselves up by tearing others down. There may also be the possibility the new manager has lasered-in on the people she thinks are good at their jobs and only wants to work with those people. I’m not suggesting her approach is acceptable, but you say your friend is a mediocre player. There are many business leaders famous for being outright nasty to their weakest links. Could that be the case here? Even if it is, that doesn’t mean you want to work for her, but understanding what makes people tick can be valuable in determining your best path forward.

Your most immediate concern seems to be what, if anything, you should do to support your friend. Has he been venting to you? Has he asked for your help? If not, stay out of it. Frankly, the manager is unlikely to change her mind about your buddy if he sends someone else in to fight his battles for him.

There are a few dramatic options available to you, such as complaining to the manager herself, to HR or to upper management, but none of those is likely to improve your experience at work. Unless a large section of the department wants to collectively revolt, your most realistic choice is between tolerating the change in management style or voting with your feet. There’s a reason staff turnover often follows a significant change in management. Your friend may already be planning his own exit.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

About the Author

Deborah FolkaDeborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.