Our team leader remains a bully despite our reports. What do we do?

THE QUESTION

For five years at a large company, we have continually reported the bullying behaviour of our team leader to the department supervisor. She is good for a few days after we report her, then falls back into making us feel an inch tall. HR stepped in once, but the team leader played dumb, as if she didn’t know what they were referring to. A few of us have taken stress leave and some have quit. What are our options?

THE FIRST ANSWER

Bill Howatt

Chief research and development officer of work-force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto

What you appear to be experiencing is a toxic culture in your workplace. Common signs of a toxic workplace culture are that social norms appear to be fragmented and become inconsistent. This can be increasingly troublesome when it’s the leaders who allow inappropriate behaviours. If not stopped, this can reset the culture perceptions around standards with respect to what’s accepted as the norm. This can lead to feelings of being treated unfairly, along with fear and strain that can negatively affect employees’ mental health and productivity.

Most employees look to their leaders to enforce respectful workplace standards that protect employees from bullying. When these are not upheld, research suggests they lead to negative consequences such as increased sick time, staff turnover and increased levels of uncivil behaviour across the workplace.

If you and your peers believe you’re in a workplace that’s not psychologically safe, consider these options. Write out your concerns, describing the behaviours that are happening and by whom. Bring these to the most senior person in your division or to HR, providing the group feels safe to do so. Ontario has occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation that states employers must create a psychologically safe workplace and have reporting mechanisms in place for employees. As well, you can consult a lawyer who can advise on your legal rights.

There’s always the option to look for new employment, but if the bully is confronted, this may put an end to this matter for the good of you and your peers.

THE SECOND ANSWER

Caroline Cole Power

Member of the International Association of Workplace Bullying and Harassment and CEO of Canadian HR Solutions Inc.

With your teammates, document the team leader’s actions, their impact on the team and solutions, such as sensitivity training, which helps to develop awareness of interpersonal sensitivities in the workplace; emotional intelligence training, which goes beyond awareness-building and helps to improve one’s ability to read emotional cues sent by others and use that information to make appropriate behavioural choices; and leadership performance coaching, to improve leadership effectiveness. Another solution your team may propose is termination of the team leader. If you do decide to propose this, understand it is the company’s decision to execute accordingly or not.

As a team, escalate the matter, including documentation and possible solutions, to the leader of your technical function. You work for a large company, so the HR professional who was involved earlier may not be head of the HR function. If that is the case, escalate the matter to the leader of the HR function.

After alerting your functional leader and the HR leader to the bully’s actions, note what they do to address the situation. If you observe they are taking steps to deal with the matter, give them time to turn things around and support their effort as much as possible. If, however, there is no communication back to your team about a planned course of action or you observe no movement to improve the work environment, consider making an exit.