Bullying — It’s Not Just for Kids
Bullying in the workplace is common and often goes unreported because employees think, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ A Q&A with Andrew Faas.
Bullying isn’t just something that happens among children on the playground; it’s a bigger problem in the workplace than people may think. Andrew Faas, 67, knows this from his personal experience as both bully and the bullied at times throughout his career. Bullying is also the topic of Faas’ new book, “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye.” Faas, who worked as a senior executive for more than 30 years at some of the largest Canadian corporations including Shoppers Drug Mart, is working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to figure out the best way to create seamless communication between boss and employee in an effort to minimize confusion and stress in the work environment. Faas, who now describes himself as “a revolutionist, an activist and an agitator,” took the time to talk to Workforce about why bullying happens in the workplace, and what you can do to stop it.
Workforce: In your book, you mention that the impetus for writing about it is because you experienced bullying on both ends of the spectrum throughout your career. Tell us about that.
Andrew Faas: Early in my career, at age 26, I was a bully. Thankfully I had a mentor who confronted me but also helped me become a better manager and leader on the principle that respect is a far more powerful motivator than fear. Late in my career a senior executive, a CEO who I blew the whistle on, bullied me. The board of directors did not have the courage to deal with him. He was able to stay on for 18 months and finally he was exposed. For that 18-month period I went through a living hell, even though I no longer worked there. He totally discredited me around the universe. I was blacklisted, my phones were tapped, my emails were hacked into and I even received a death threat. I lost over 30 pounds. I had symptoms consistent with PTSD and it was just the most horrible period that I can imagine. Even after that happened, I could not find closure; it just consumed me for all of my waking hours and I just wanted revenge. What I’ve done is open up a debate and discussion on the topic, because bullying is pretty much under the radar as it relates to work.
WF: In your book you talk about the importance of the work environment. Can you elaborate on that?
Faas: The reasons why bullies bully is because they are allowed to. It’s condoned in the environment and in many instances, it’s expected. Unless organizations transform themselves into having what I consider psychologically fair, healthy and safe environments, people will operate on their own devices. In my early years, I bullied to get things done and that’s where an organization doesn’t care or it’s a systemic issue. Culture has everything to do with it. Culture is everything an organization does — how they hire, how they govern themselves, how they make decisions and the relationships they have with all of their stakeholders. A psychologically safe work environment is an environment where there is not a lot of unnecessary stress. The workplace is stressful enough as it is because of the market, so there’s no need to have those other stress factors out there, the primary one being how people are evaluated in terms of fairness and if bigotry is factored into the way they are assessed.
WF: What makes a work environment safe?
Faas: Eliminating unnecessary stress. It’s as easy as that and it’s something I’ve done over a few decades. The key to that though is to understand how employees feel and more importantly, why they feel the way they do.
WF: What can the executives do to promote and foster an environment like this? Are there programs that can be implemented or is it a deeper issue?
Faas: It’s much deeper. It’s leading a cultural transformation that gets at how companies are governed and set up in terms of organization. Setting a principle in terms of every point of interaction has to be a positive point of interaction. The only program is living true to a set of standards that indicate a level of respect for the individual and a sense of fairness. The arena around culture and diversity and harassment is a billion-dollar industry. People are trained on how to behave or not behave. Everybody is sent to anti-harassment programs and yet harassment still exists. Training is a component but what happens in most organizations is training is done in the first instance, then people go into an environment that has not changed, so the training may help a person individually, but it doesn’t change the dynamics at work. You have to change the dynamics at work and then train people to operate within that environment. What leaders can and should do if they’re serious about getting at those issues is live it themselves. The other step is getting to understand what those unnecessary stress factors are by having their employees tell them. It’s not an easy process, but by understanding what they are they can do something about it.
WF: What is the best way for employees to voice their concerns over unnecessary stresses in the workplace to higher-level management?
Faas: The best way is what I did when I started, which is just going around and talking to people on a regular basis. The approach I used with everyone was the devolvement of a covenant. You work for me, so I say to you, here are my expectations as an employer and once I give that to you, I’ll ask you if you think that’s fair or reasonable. You’ll likely say yes, but … and I’ll say let me ask it in another way. What do you expect from me in order to be able to deliver what I expect from you? And once we’ve reached an agreement, that becomes the basis for our regular and ongoing discussions. For some people that could be every day, others once a month, others once a year.
WF: What kind of benefits have you seen and do companies see as this transition to a healthy and safe environment occurs?
Faas: People work at a higher productivity level, the risk of having to go on long-term disability reduces significantly. People are free and willing and wanting to provide ideas and solutions to what they see as wrong. People feel more content and safe in their work environment, they’re not constantly looking over their back, thinking I could be fired at anytime just because I said the wrong thing or looked the wrong way. That’s the biggest benefit. It’s a benefit for the organization and a benefit for individuals.
Alice Keefe is a Workforce intern. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.