We have to protect employees against powerful bosses

Recent scandals show the prevalence of harassment and other forms of abuse, but organisations are still too quick to protect guilty parties and silence victims, says Julie Provino

Most organisational structures are autocratic – the power, in other words, sits in the hands of one person or a very small group of people. Unfortunately, some abuse this power, wielding it over their employees and suppliers in a negative way. More often than not, they are unaware of the impact of this negative behaviour.

While companies are being encouraged to improve employee wellbeing, there remains a significant lack of understanding of what actually goes on in the workplace. Wellbeing is not just about yoga classes and a great benefits package, it’s about taking ownership of a company’s culture and behaviours and empowering everyone to feel valued.

Harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace come in a multitude of guises. They can be in the form of direct abuse, or small and seemingly minimal nags that slowly eat an individual up without them being even aware of what is happening. 

Unfortunately, recent legislation is proving inadequate when it comes to stamping out harassment. What constitutes negative behaviour is still too broad. Moreover, the existence of non-disclosure agreements means most culprits can go on as before, without fear of retribution. Not least because problems, when they arise, can be easily settled behind closed doors. 

From my own experience as a HR professional, I know how often this happens. For example, one issue of sexual harassment was ‘resolved’ by exiting the harassed individual and giving her a significant payout to soften the blow. This was under the guise of protecting her from her harasser, the company owner. While she was the victim, it was easier to remove her, as terminating the owner would have put the business at stake, as he was so central to its operation. He remained employed and his behaviour was slowly tackled.

This highlights a challenge facing HR and senior management teams. Do you punish the guilty party or remove the victim, while the offender receives additional leadership development support that may or may not result in a positive behaviour change? 

And how do you fairly balance the needs of individuals vs the business and its survival? It’s hard as we are currently operating in a fog of ethical ideologies. 

In my own business, we now champion the idea of corporate healing. Our consultants work with organisations in a number of ways including wellbeing programmes which cover mindfulness, NLP and reiki. Employees become more aware of who they are, more assertive, feel energised, less stressed and more in line with the organisation’s purpose. They are able to open up and contribute to the company values and mission. This is the true power of what corporate healing can do – enabling a business to grow and evolve through its people.

Another less frequent but also important outcome of corporate healing is that victims of harassment, bullying or discrimination feel empowered to open up, either through speaking to a trusted colleague or an external consultant. Being able to speak to somebody who is bound by confidentiality helps foster a safe environment. And at the same time as supporting the victim, they can advise the business of the most appropriate action. 

Slowly, the workplace is changing. More businesses are adopting a zero- tolerance approach as they begin to understand what constitutes negative behaviour. However, the situation will not change overnight. That means it is the duty of HR and external providers to promote and champion new ways of handling these issues.

Julie Provino is founder of VeryHR and the author of How to Get What You Want in 7 Weeks