Category Archives: Communication skills

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Accused of being a bully: “I meant’” vs “They heard”

I have been involved in many bullying cases from the point of view of the target. Interestingly I have been approached twice in the past week by individuals who have been on the other end of the accusation spectrum.   They told me in horrified tones  ”I have just been accused of being a bully.” Both were delivering feedback related to poor performance  to a member of their team.

Charlotte is a confident, vibrant, authoritative and dynamic young woman in her early 30s. Already a Regional Communications Director in an international organisation she has recently taken over responsibility for a small communications unit.  One of the team, only slightly younger than her, has made a series of errors and has been in Charlotte’s view underperforming.  Charlotte believes she dealt with the performance situation in a professional way, drawing the errors to the attention of the direct report by email. This  young woman has now filed a formal complaint with H.R.,  located in the company headquarters. Seemingly the employee took exception to Charlotte’ approach, which she perceived as being micro-managing and bullying. Charlotte told me “I believe it was a straight disciplinary issue and don’t think it would have been dealt the same way, if I was a man, nor would I get accused of being a bully or harassment.”

Simon a somewhat introverted and measured Finance Manager,  has recently given a poor appraisal to a report following a series of errors that impacted performance and compromised the accuracy of the monthly reporting information presented to senior management for business planning. There were also time keeping issues. He was accused last week of racist bullying, being  notified that he treated other team members, all of Caucasian ethnicity, more leniently. Simon was mortified but adamant “The individual’s timekeeping was consistently erratic and record keeping sloppy which accounted for the errors. I’m appalled that a race card has been presented” .


It is easy to underestimate the impact accusations of bullying can have on an individual. Many feel this is a direct attack on the very core of their integrity, character and interpersonal skills. Charlotte was very upset by this news and now finds herself dreading going into work. Simon is having difficulty sleeping.  Bullying in the workplace is clearly a critical issue, but organisations also need to be able to ensure that managers and supervisors are able to communicate poor performance  without bullying accusations. What to Charlotte and Simon was routine performance feedback, has now escalated into a major H.R. issue.

There are three possible scenarios in cases like these: the behaviour is bullying, the behaviour is received as bullying or the accusations are entirely spurious.  Instinctively anyone finding themselves in this situation is likely to be defensive,  but hard though it may be and no matter how hurtful and outrageous the accusations are,  the ”accused” have to dispassionately examine all possibilities to consider the experience of the complainant neutrally.

The behaviour is bullying

Most organisations have guidelines for what constitutes bullying behaviour and ACAS certainly does. A critical self-analysis and audit is vital to check if firm management could have crossed the line into bullying. It is possibly best done with the support of a coach or other professional.  This can happen in organisations with a top-down, embedded bullying corporate culture. If the answer is no – go to the next step of analysis.

The behaviour is received as bullying

In my lengthy experience most people accused of bullying have no idea that this is how their communication style is perceived and received. Very often we all forget to factor in how our behaviour is experienced, especially if we are nervous,  busy or stressed. It is therefore always subject to misinterpretation.  One person’s assertiveness can be another’s intimidation. Factor in gender issues when authoritative women managers are perceived more harshly by women reports than male managers.  With a new manager such as Charlotte, this situation of resentment is possibly exacerbated.

But where do we draw the line when there is a “I meant” / “They heard” situation?  The first responsibility of the person accused of bullying is  always to carry out an honest  self-assessment  in two areas:

  • Content  – is the nature of the appraisal 100% accurate? Make sure you have all the facts documented and covered.  Accusations of “you are always late” might factually be twice because of a train strike. Do your reports have clear objectives, departmental standards and goals or even job descriptions?
  • Communication style review - this  can take place via mediation channels, with a coach or even independently.  Be honest, has anything similar happened before? Do a litmus test with colleagues or reports. Do you have a tendency to be overbearing/aggressive/heavy or high-handed? Research from the CIPD suggests that those who experience bullying or harassment (or feel they do) are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers and senior managers, and want to leave their current job.  There is an increased likelihood to react badly to poor performance appraisals. Are you completely sure that your communication style is neutral and constructive?

Managers  are also doomed if they ignore a problem within the team.  ACAS report that a manger’s failure to tackle poor performance impacts team harmony,  causing friction if one team member is seen to ” get away” with errors and sloppiness. Setting clearly defined boundaries and communication expectations from the outset is critical to avoid this.  What is perceived as constructive communication and firmness  by the manager maybe received as aggression by the report. It is also key to remember that the messages contained in 80% of email communication are not received as they were intended.

If you are accused of being a bully what can you do?

In addition to the content and style check above the following guidelines are helpful.

  • Check  the internal organisation policy.  Most have an established grievance policy . Make sure all response are within the official guidelines.
  • Always ask to be allowed to formally present your own experience of events to the hierarchy and confirm in writing.
  • Establish the exact nature of the complaint requesting precise details relating to the time, location  and content to gain full insight into the “victim’s” experience of the events. This can even be done informally over lunch in a business neutral manner possibly with a third- party present. In more sensitive and extreme situations, a formal in-house meeting with a third-party present recording the conversation might be advisable and more appropriate. Most spurious cases simply disappear at this point because of a lack of factual information.
  • Separate the managerial behaviour from the personal. This can help distil the problem into specific issues. Personality clash can be a core factor and it’s a card H.R play: sometimes correctly, sometimes to make a problem go away .
  • What are the complainants communication and performance expectations? Where are the gaps? What if anything can be changed?  Create a blue print going forward.
  • Request coaching or mentoring support during what can be a challenging time.
  • Ask judiciously for feedback.  This is when trusted colleagues can be helpful. Being alert and empathetic to the reactions of others is vital because it is the only way to understand how you are perceived

Spurious accusations

If after thorough examination there is no room for compromise,  then following a formal disciplinary/grievance procedure will be the only option. If poor performance continues then the appropriate official warning systems should be invoked which could lead to termination of the report.

All organisations should have clear guidelines for disciplining employees and notifying them of under performance.  The last things that any manager wants is a need to mount a personal and professional defence as a result of what should be routine performance feedback. As the manager you should be allowed to expect your team to meet  clearly communicated, reasonable, measurable and achievable departmental goals and standards.



The declining art of conversation and Gen Y recruitment

Much has been written about the need for changes that employers should make in order to attract and retain Millenials. We have seen a veritable outbreak of company Facebook pages, inter-active web sites,  Twitter accounts, mentoring  programmes and the like. But as one client mentioned recently after a less than effective graduate recruitment job fair, an additional challenge is even more basic: to identify the best entry-level talent.

I’m not even talking about text-speak or spelling errors on CVs,  but basic social inter- action during the interview process which is generally the backbone of most hiring systems. Modern technology has impacted us in many ways. Many are positive. Some are not.

Good on paper only
The platforms that are typically used and relied upon for entry-level screening are telephone interviews, video calls, job fair meetings and regular face to face interviews.   Candidates are then frequently advanced to testing processes and more rigorous interviews.  Today, undeveloped interpersonal skills means that many capable candidates don’t present well causing increased difficulties for those in the hiring process  to make an accurate preliminary triage. Clients are reporting the growing cost ineffectiveness of job fairs as a result of this down turn in social skills.  Many candidates with pre-submitted CVs,  look great on paper but are under-performing in the face to face interview. So although we know that Millenials communicate and socialise differently to other generations, at some point they do have to engage with people outside their age group. What happens when skills core to the talent indentification process are defficient?

Diminished interpersonal skills
Sherry Turkle in her excellent article the  Flight from Conversation eloquently portrays the downsides of the trend to block out communication and conversation on a whole generation who are “alone together”.   University Career Directors both at undergraduate and MBA  level report a global pandemic of students mentally checking out of their classes and using Smart Phones and lap tops to log onto Facebook and email accounts during lectures. When I asked an MBA workshop group to turn off their phones for my session, one participant reacted as if I was contravening his civil liberties. At a recent Italian job fair a client cut a  candidate because he responded to an incoming text in the middle of the interview. It is not for nothing that Blackberries have been dubbed “Crackberries”.

But is the interview texter an unempathetic communicator or merely demonstrating multi- tasking skills?  The poor presenter might have excellent potential and skills that are simply not evident. We just don’t know.

First impressions unreliable
First impressions are made in less than 15 seconds. In a situation where social skills are under developed and candidates are unable to make that key engagement with an interviewer as they should  (poor eye contact, the ability to listen and tune into cues from the whole range of body language and voice tone) , which is critical in an interview, how do recruiters sort out the wheat from the chaff?

Here are some solutions currently being considered:

  • Online testing: One response from a number of companies seems to be a growing shift to mass online testing prior to personal screening, using outsourced organisations such as SHL , or in-house assessment centres.  Follow-up procedures include further assessment tools before finally personal interviews to evaluate cultural fit and social skills.
  • Network recommendations:  seem to be becoming increasingly important and will favour candidates with strong personal networks possibly via well-connected family members or previous experience. In today’s economic climate this is not easy to come by and as we have seen with the flourishing unpaid intern sector both possibilities put less well placed candidates at a disadvantage. This is also a demographic which networks widely via Facebook,  but generally hasn’t started to develop a professional network.
  • Modifications to onboarding programmes : to incorporate  communication skills training into in-house programmes sooner rather than later have been suggested. Whether this will provide the catch-up programme required remains to be seen.

Gen Y workers are some of the most independent-minded and tech-savvy workers employers have encountered. Changing recruitment models seems to be necessary not just to attract the best candidates, but to identify them too.

But the significant overall message to Millenial job seekers is to switch off  the lap top, iPad or Smart Phone  and practise the old-fashioned art of conversation.

Those with social skills will be ahead of the game.