Taking a No-blame Approach to Workplace Bullying Allegations

No-blame approach to workplace bullying

A no-blame approach to workplace bullying is often chided for being 'too soft' and 'letting the bully get away with it'. Unfortunately what all such viewpoints fail to take into account is the subjectivity of what 'bullying' actually means and the fundamental ineffectiveness of the traditional 'blame' approaches to bullying allegations at work. 

Many workplaces adopt what could be called a 'proof and punish' approach to allegations of bullying at work and the immediate 'reaction' to such allegations will usually involve some form of investigation into the 'facts' of the matter.

Unfortunately the definition of bullying varies wildly and so the possibility of an objectively assessed outcome is unlikely. As a consequence it is incredibly rare that any such investigation leads to a satisfactory outcome for anyone involved. 

One of the main failures of approaches to bullying allegations is the prevalence of the 'guilty before proven innocent' assumption that means someone is labeled as a 'bully' before any investigation has occurred, and then, as stated above, such investigations are rarely effective and so the person labeled as a bully then seeks redress for the damage to their reputation, or simply leaves the organisation, perhaps with some form of legal action against the organisation trailing in their wake.

You can perhaps see, or will have directly experienced how much of a 'mess' the situation can then become and why it rarely if ever leads to an effective outcome for those concerned. 

So what is a 'No-blame approach to workplace bullying allegations'? 

Mediation is a process that adopts a no-blame approach to any dispute it is involved in supporting towards resolution. The book introduced below describes outcomes of mediation processes where allegations of bullying have been significant within broken working relationships and how, by exploring the behaviours and actions that have occurred rather than seeking to 'prove bullying has occurred', those working relationships have been re-establshed and supported in returning to effective working relationships. 

Most situations where bullying has been alleged and have been 'investigated' lead to irreparable breakdown in the working relationships concerned whether a clear outcome has been achieved or not. This results in staff leaving an organisation or having to be transferred to a different area of the organisation if it is large enough to accommodate this.

A sense of dissatisfaction with the outcome will often mean the issue does not end there and whether the staff involved leave or not, there will frequently be consequences of legal action, long term absence due to stress and other damaging consequences for both the individuals involved and the organisation's productivity and 'bottom line'. Alongside this will usually be damage to staff morale where such situations occur within working teams. 

The book How to Resolve Bullying in the Workplace - Stepping out of the Circle of Blame to Create an Effective Outcome for All describes how, by letting go of the focus on 'proving bullying' and moving towards taking the damaging actions and behaviours as a basis for discussing and reviewing and then creating new and more effective, respectful actions and behaviours, working relationships can be re-established without the destructive consequences of a lengthy, stressful, adversarial investigative approach.

Frequently, during, and as a consequence of investigative approaches there becomes a 'circle of blame' where all involved start to criticise each other for the situation that has arisen, including those tasked with managing the situation. Taking a no-blame approach to workplace bullying allegations prevents this destructive use of time and energy from becoming chronic and paralysing and enables a challenging but constructive, creative and respectful way forward. 

The approach described in the book is based on actual examples of where this has occurred and so is not a 'theory based' book but a direct recounting of the approaches that have successfully supported resolution via a no-blame approach to workplace bullying allegations. 

The book supports all 3 'parties' in taking a no-blame approach to workplace bullying

1. The person who feels bullied

2. The person accused of bullying

3. The person tasked with responding to the bullying allegation by the organisation in which it has occurred. 

The book explains how a Mediator is not required in order to facilitate  effective outcomes but at the same time it may be that circumstances sometimes mean the use of a Mediator or Conflict Coach can be supportive. The focus of the book is on supporting each individual to play their own part in creating an effective outcome for themselves and, in turn, for all. 

Resolving workplace bullying allegations

From Chapter 1 in the book: 

"The problem with bullying in the workplace is that traditional responses to allegations that it is happening require the person who feels bullied and anyone who is helping them with their concerns to ‘Prove it!’. 

While those who feel bullied may see their experience as ‘obviously bullying’, there will be others who do not, including of course the person who they consider to be ‘the bully’.  This expectation of proof of bullying becomes an immediate obstacle in moving forward in any difficult situation or relationship in the workplace. 

The various definitions of bullying that can be found in dictionaries or guidelines or in articles online and in the printed press read as if they are very clear. But when used as a basis for assessing whether bullying has taken place they are ambiguously interpreted because of the subjectivity of the perceptions of those involved. 

.........This is the bad news in relation to bullying. From the very start of any procedure designed to ‘tackle’ it by proving it has occurred there is ambiguity for anyone involved, whether the person who feels bullied, the person they see as ‘the bully’ or any managers or Human Resources officers who are required to deal with it.

The consequence of this is a circle of finger-pointing - blame and accusations and counter-accusations of bullying, incompetence, conspiracy, lack of care, burying of heads in the sand and so very little change, if any, occurs in the majority of cases where bullying is alleged.


..........But within this recognition of the ineffectiveness of proving bullying has occurred resides the possibility for breaking out of the circle of blame and accusations that lead to dissatisfaction all round the circle. This possibility is available to all involved in such situations if they are able to do one thing:

To let go of the focus on ‘bullying’!

As I will discuss in the next chapter, the ways in which I have seen people resolve workplace disputes where originally there have been accusations of bullying and harassment have been where the term ‘bullying’ retreats from the discussion.

When this happens, a more useful, detailed discussion relevant to the unique circumstances and perceptions of those involved can occur, enabling, and expecting them to create their own answers to their difficult working relationship."

Some comments given so far on Amazon about this book:

Alan Sharland has written a vital book on bullying. His approach is the way forward. Instead of focusing on 'proving it', which takes us in the direction of investigations and hearings that go no where and only serve to exacerbate an already sensitive situation, he shows the way forward through direct communication and a focus on the behavior that is of concern. At times the support of an internal workplace mediator will help. John Ford - Director of HR Mediation Academy and former Editor of Mediate.com

This is a superb resource for any employer, HR manager, mediator or student of conflict management. Its core principles are sound and articulated simply and effectively.
There are no references here to psychological concepts of human behaviour, they are not required. Alan Sharland advocates a progressive approach based solely on his experiences, and offers these valuable learnings up to the reader unreservedly. For those who have seen the futility of the "prove and punish" methodology for themselves, this book will provide a welcome new direction.
Alec Coakley - Mediator

The author is, clearly, very experienced in helping people deal with workplace conflict and bullying allegations and has given a lot of thought to the problems, some helpful ways to understand and work through them to more positive outcomes. As he writes, the ebook is not based on a particular psychological theory or an analytical model but rather from direct observation of parties in conflict over many years of practice. The writing is, therefore, helpfully free of jargon, stilted academic terms and unrealistic notions that don't cut it in the typical workplace of 2014. Its approach is practical (there is even a 'question template' included), yet flexible, and encourages the use of creativity. Mr Rubio

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Resolving workplace bullying allegations

Purchase the book on Amazon in Kindle or Paperback: How to Resolve Bullying in the Workplace : Stepping out of the Circle of Blame to Create an Effective Outcome for All.



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