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Is there a defence against false claims of bullying?

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

A growing file of legislation, court rulings and company initiatives protects employees from being bullied or harassed in the workplace. Creating a psychologically safe work environment is a critical objective for companies.

However, there is a flip-side to these positive steps with negative consequences, specifically on false claims of bullying.

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For an ethical manager, to be falsely accused of bullying or harassment can be damaging to their reputation and confidence. Moreover, managers are hesitant to deal with performance issues in case discussions are taken out of context.

Typically, these false claims are coming from employees who are under-performing, have a fear of losing their job or who have a personality clash with a manager. All-in-all, these malevolent claims are lodged with the intention of damaging reputation.

In the last few months, leaders have shared their stories of similar retaliatory tactics from their employees. Here are two cases:

Leader No. 1:

Performance issues tend to be difficult conversations whether they are with a direct report, a manager, a peer, or a boss. In this case, an employee with a history of under-performance used a mobile device to secretly tape a recent performance-review discussion. While the manager, who works in operations, intended to provide constructive comments for performance improvement, the employee felt the manager had been overbearing, rude and insensitive. He was accused of bullying.

The HR department investigated and determined that the manager had acted properly within the scope of performance conversation.

A bigger issue was the "hidden" recording, a practice that is inadmissible in court. With mobile devices prevalent, conversations (especially the tough ones) in the workplace are seldom staying private.

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The employee was advised that such practices are not in good faith and put on a performance improvement plan for 30 days. During that time, the employee voluntarily exited the organization.

The company's code of conduct has since been revised to ban the practice of recording conversations.

Leader No. 2:

Take the case of a senior marketing executive, female, hired for her ability to achieve results, with a sense of clear direction and known for her tenacity.

Her mandate is to reshape a team, manage-out non-performers, build and execute a marketing strategy, and successfully manage change. Strong, assertive women in the workplace are often perceived as being "bossy" or a "bully" not just by employees, but often their peers

Eight months into her position, she is terminated by her company due to false allegations of bullying made by one of her direct reports.

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The company failed to investigate the matter until it went to litigation, as pursued by the terminated executive. The investigation revealed that due to ongoing poor performance by the employee, a false claim of bullying was made as a way of keeping the job safe.

The damage was already done, the company had lost a valuable executive, and there was reputational damage.

In many cases, companies fail to investigate the matters appropriately which can lead to managers being exited out of organizations.

Managers have to manage performance, discuss problems, set objectives and provide coaching. Management direction is not considered bullying as long as actions taken are documented and reasonable. By having clear policies and examples around bullying, companies should protect their employees and their leaders and ensure they are creating a culture of trust and transparency.

Amrita Bhalla is managing director of AB Consulting (@ABConsulting_hr), which provides HR services to clients globally. She has more than 15 years of experience as a senior executive in Europe, Asia and Canada.

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