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Why don’t companies fire a bully supervisor?

THE QUESTION

I retired at age 59 two years ago, feeling bullied by my department manager. I worked underground at a mine, keeping track of the safety and stability of the tunnels we travelled in.

My immediate supervisor was a young female engineer, not long out of school, and a real pleasure to work with. Her boss, though, was not, and we never got along well.

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I had some intestinal health issues brought on by stress. I took more sick days than he felt acceptable and he rode me hard on that issue to the point I formally accused him of harassment. The HR department investigated, but they refused to do anything, other than have my complaint remain on his record.

So I retired. They still have not replaced me. A co-worker, my supervisor, and her replacement have all left as a result of this manager, but still they keep him on. Why do companies fail to deal with a bully supervisor? What can you do as an employee to change that?

THE FIRST ANSWER

Bill Howatt

Howatt HR Consulting, Kentville, N.S.

Your question implies that all companies are failing to deal with harassment issues. This is not the case. A significant number of organizations today have no tolerance for bullying, especially by supervisors. But this depends on how mature the organization is with respect to its efforts to bully-proof its culture. Bullying is a hot topic and employees and employers are taking a pro-active stance to confront it.

To the logical mind, the way to rid the workplace of bullying supervisors is simple: fire them. But senior leaders can greatly reduce bullying. It takes constant attention and vigilance, clearly defined policies, effective selection and hiring processes, and training for managers.

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The best organizations do not want to be known as places that tolerate bullying, because it affects their ability to attract and retain employees. Organizations will become bully-proof faster when their employees speak up.

Any employee can be an organization's Rosa Parks and say, "No more." Employees can create massive cultural change by asking questions without making judgments. For example: Does this organization tolerate bullying? What is the organization's stand on supervisors who bully employees?

THE SECOND ANSWER

Kyle Couch

Senior vice-president of talent and organizational development, The Beacon Group

I see this type of situation weekly. This type of behaviour is a holdover from a time when organizations were run completely from a "command and control" philosophy. The culture of the organization has not evolved, and these types of "leaders" get away with bad behaviour, as it was a sign of strength years ago.

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You were smart to weigh your options and leave the organization, as, in most cases, this type of behaviour is tolerated, or even celebrated, by senior leaders. Trying to change it is much more difficult when the tone is being set by the top.

As an employee, there are two things you can do to combat this stance. You have chosen one option. If you are confident in your abilities, embrace the war for talent and move on. Alternately, look long term, and stay. Great people in great organizations understand that changing a culture takes time, and that someone has to take up the cause.

At some point, the organization will learn its lesson. As more employees leave owing to leadership concerns, overall productivity and profits will suffer. Change will be imposed by the organization's stakeholders.

I recommend that employees in this situation remain calm, and understand that this behaviour is a relic from a bygone era. Many organizations in traditional "blue collar" industries have yet to realize the potential of adopting more progressive leadership styles. While it may be difficult for you now, it will get better, otherwise, it will have a catastrophic effect for the organization overall.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers. Check out past columns here.

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