Problem People: How to Handle Bullying, Misogyny or Racism in the Workplace
Complaints about bullying, misogyny or racism can derail your business. It’s best to be prepared with a strong and considered policy to guide you through.
What do you do when you have a ‘problem person’ in the workplace? Someone whose behaviour becomes extreme, and you find yourself wondering if you have a bully or misogynist or racist in the house?
Unfortunately, our workplaces are a reflection of broader society and these issues can turn up in the workplace. It’s far better to be prepared for it than to assume it won’t happen to you.
It’s far better to be prepared for it than to assume it won’t happen to you.
I looked at improving poor performance in my posts on A better way to think of performance management and some of the principles for managing poor performance are similar to managing poor behaviour. However, behaviours are much harder to change than performance, and extreme dysfunctional, antisocial behaviours are even more difficult to manage.
Let’s imagine that Sonja comes to you with a complaint. She says that Mick spoke to her in an offensive way, or sent an email or made a comment. So what are the dos and don’ts of handling this?
Here are some examples of things you should not say to Sonja:
- that’s just the way Mick is
- He didn’t mean anything by it
- I’m sure that wasn’t the way that he meant it
- I’ll talk to him.
When we say things like that, what Sonja hears is:
- I don’t care
- It’s not important
- Mick’s behaviour is acceptable
- I’m not going to do anything.
If you say these things, the problem will persist. Good people will leave, and toxicity and poor behaviours will start to creep into your workplace.
What are you supposed to do when you receive a complaint like this? You need to be prepared in advance, before the problem arises. Here are the three crucial elements:
- Develop a policy
- Provide training
- Follow your policy
Below I’ll take a detailed look at the three elements. But first, a quick reminder that you do have legal obligations in this area. Every business has obligations under Work, Health and Safety legislation, and things like bullying, harassment, and discrimination fall into this realm.
As a business owner, you need to do everything that you can to keep your workers safe. And within Australian Work, Health and Safety laws, there’s no grey areas. You’re simply required to comply. So it is really important to have a policy in place.
Develop a Policy
I discussed the joys of policies and how they can help reduce complexity in episode four of our Find Grow Keep podcast. This is very important in the area of problem behaviours because it means that when you get a complaint, you will know exactly what to do because it’s detailed in your policy.
But also importantly, your employees know exactly what to do if they encounter any of this behaviour. And remember they might encounter the behaviour in many spheres, from other employees, customers or suppliers.
Scope of the Policy
Your policy should cover:
- definitions of problems behaviours, including bullying, harassment, discrimination, vilification and victimisation
- practical steps to take if someone experiences problem behaviour.
Any employee who encounters someone they feel has made a racist comment, or has bullied or harassed them should be able to go to that policy and know exactly what steps to take.
Usually, the first step in a policy says something like ‘If you’re comfortable doing so, speak to the person and say “what you just said was really offensive”, or “the way that you just spoke to me, made me feel like X”’. That’s obviously only an option if the person is comfortable.
The next steps will vary, as they’re going to differ across different businesses. The key takeaway is that the policy must define what’s not acceptable, and clearly articulate the steps to take if, as an employee, you experience problem behaviour, or, as a manager, you receive a complaint.
Policies Trigger Action
I have found that sometimes there’s someone in a workplace that has issues, but everyone thinks ‘well, that’s just the way they are, they’ve always been like that’. Then a new person comes on board and they say, ‘hang on, this isn’t acceptable, I don’t like the way that person is speaking to me’. And unfortunately, the go-to response is often to dismiss it, because that person has always been that way.
However imagine there’s a policy in place, and the new person checks that policy. Perhaps they raise the issue with the person and it doesn’t help, or perhaps they’re not comfortable raising it. So they take the next step and bring it to their manager. This means the issue has been escalated and that automatically triggers an action — the manager must do something about it.
Policies Create Process
Another advantage of policies is that they provide clear guidance for everyone concerned. Let’s not forget, if a complaint is made against somebody, they will also want to know the process.
If someone comes to me and says, ‘hey, we’ve had a complaint made against you, someone felt that you made a racist comment’. Then I will immediately have some questions like:
- what does that mean?
- how do I defend myself?
- what’s the process?
- how do I fix my relationship with the person who has made the complaint?
Or if I have been accused of really terrible things, I may have questions like:
- what’s the outcome here?
- am I going to lose my job?
These are the sorts of questions that will be going through my head. So it’s very important to have the answers to all of these questions set out in a clear policy.
There’s no point in having a policy if you don’t tell people what’s in it. That’s where the training component comes in. There are two important components to training — on-boarding and ongoing training:
When new people come in you should train them in your policy within the first month of employment. This sends a very clear signal about your culture, and the kinds of behaviours you accept and don’t accept in the workplace.
For people walking in, this is a huge factor in feeling comfortable and safe to bring up issues if they have them. It also sends a signal to new recruits that problem behaviours will not be tolerated in your workplace.
We also need to make sure that our existing employees are clear on the policy. Training should be held at least once every two years. It doesn’t need to be onerous.
At Amplify HR, we often record a 35-minute training video and provide a case study. Employees can watch in their own time, then answer some questions in the case study. We then check the answers to make sure they’ve absorbed the learnings, and that’s it. They’re marked as having completed the training.
In subsequent training sessions, you might use other methods. I’ll give a shout-out here to Yarno, whose co-founder, Lachy Gray, is the co-host of my other podcast, the Make It Work podcast. Yarno is a micro-learning platform and a great way to build up this kind of learning.
It works by asking people questions that they have to answer via multiple choice. So it’s a ‘flipped’ learning concept where rather than getting a lot of information and then answering questions, you answer questions to develop your learning. And you have access to videos and resources as you go along which cement the learning.
We love using this micro-learning platform with clients, particularly if they’ve done training on a subject a couple of times. It’s really helpful to mix it up with employees.
Another strategy that can be really helpful is using actors, particularly if you’ve had this training in the business for a while, or you have managers that you really want to upskill.
This option is live, and uses professional actors, so it’s obviously more expensive. But there’s nothing like having someone walk into the room crying. Suddenly you’re in a real roleplay with someone crying in front of you and you need to work out what to do in the situation.
Other training options
If you don’t have the resources for these sorts of options, it’s fine to do base level training. There are a lot of online options available. You can also run the training yourself, if you know the content well, or approach your employment lawyer, or HR consultant, to do the training for you.
Follow the policy
The final step is to actually follow your policy. I know that might sound very basic, but it is, unfortunately, all too common for people to fail at this last hurdle. We remember to prepare a policy, and we do a little bit of training. And then an incident occurs and we don’t even think to get the policy out.
The problem is that if things escalate, and the employee takes the issue to the Fair Work Commission, or the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, questions will be asked like ‘what was in your policy?’ and ‘did you actually follow it?’
The policy is there for a reason — it’s there to help and give guidance. It’s there so you know exactly what steps to take when something happens. It makes things easy, if someone comes to you with a complaint. You simply:
- take down all the details
- pull out your policy
- follow the outlined steps.
Listen in for more on handling problem people in the workplace
So I hope this has given you some guidance on what to do if you ever come across that problem person in your workplace. The key is really to take every complaint seriously. And to make sure that you have those three things in place, so you know exactly what to do.
For more discussion: listen to my FIND. GROW. KEEP. podcast episode on problem behaviours with more tips and examples.
If you’ve received value from these posts or podcasts, please leave a rating or review over Apple podcasts so someone else can find the episodes to help with their business.
Have your say
Have you dealt with a problem person?