Causes of Workplace Drama

I’ve recently come across Patti Perez’s book “The Drama-Free Workplace: How You Can Prevent Unconscious Bias, Sexual Harassment, Ethics Lapses, and Inspire a Healthy Culture”. It is perhaps one of the most interesting books I’ve read for a while. Patti has a common sense approach, rather than academic, and she makes some very interesting points. Whilst the book centres on sexual harassment, the issues that are explored could be applied to a range of misconduct situations or teams with a poor workplace culture.

Patti talks early on in her book about the causes of workplace drama, which can be summarised as:

  1. Inauthentic leadership
  2. Communication gaps
  3. Increased division (amongst individuals)
  4. Culture of complicity
  5. Lack of transparency
  6. Persistent confusions
  7. Problem solving deficit
  8. Blind Spots (think Johari Window)
  9. Unwillingness to admit wrong-doing
  10. Wrong Solution

I think that this is a great list and I’m still thinking about whether there is anything else I would add to it (currently, I have nothing!)

The key theme underlying most of these points is around skills gap: knowing how to problem solve; knowing what you can and can’t say whilst creating an environment of transparency; how to give feedback and actively listen to your team; how to have courage to tackle inappropirate behaviour in a way that has a positive outcome. I could go on.

My observation, as a workplace investigator, is that management do not often see the issues as part of the wider picture – in that the environment they have created has either contributed or prevented the “workplace drama”. Instead, the focus is on the actual incidents themselves. Although there is always an outcome to confirm “what most likely happened and why” with that particular issue, I’m not convinced that employers spend time considering what has been learnt, what needs to change and applying that to the entire organisation. And if there is a period of reflection and learning, to what extent is that done in an inclusive approach?

I could discuss each point in detail, but I’m thinking that I’d rather save that for future blog posts.

3 Myths about Dismissing Employees

A quick quiz:  answer either “Yes” or “No” to the following 3 questions:

1. If an employee doesn’t turn up to work for a period of time (unauthorised leave) then (s)he has, in effect, dismissed himself/herself?

2. Can an employee only claim unfair dismissal if they have worked for an employer for at least two years?

3. Can an employer dismiss and employee employee “on the spot” if (s)he has committed an act of gross misconduct?

Did you answer any of the above questions with a “Yes?”  All of the above examples of HR Myths.  

There are lots of myths about relating to the dismissal of employees.  We can provide you with solid and pragmatic HR advice and answer all the questions you may have from managing unauthorised absence or issues relating to gross misconduct.

Can we give employees too much information?

I went to see a nutritionist this morning as I wanted some advice on my diet.  I spent 90 minutes talking about managing blood sugar levels, the impact antibiotics have on the gut, how the kinesthetic approach to  food tolerance testing works, and how stress impacts the digestive system.

This afternoon, I can’t remember any of the science behind her recommendations, but all I know is that I’m to abstain from all caffeine (coffee and diet coke feature a lot in my diet), eat more nuts and seeds, go wholemeal, eat a little less red meat and a little more white meat.

In my case, it doesn’t really matter how much of the science  I do or don’t remember, I’m clear about what my actions are.  But is this always the case with employees who are going through some kind of formal procedure?

I’ve been supporting two friends recently as they have been under threat of dismissal (one for gross misconduct, the other due to redundancy).  It’s been interesting being on the other side of the fence, seeing how hard it is for an employee to navigate the formal procedures we use in HR.

In the redundancy situation there were so many different options for my friend that it just confused the issue.  My cynical mind thinks that the organisation used my friend’s confusion to their benefit, trying to persuade her to take a voluntary severance (VS) over what appeared to be a clear case (to me) of compulsory redundancy.  Obviously, the VS package was the cheaper option for the organisation.  The more questions my friend asked (following our conversations), the more information she received. Even for me, it felt like wading through treacle at times.

In the other case, the employee hadn’t realised what the allegations were that had been made against her when she was suspended.  Having reviewed the documentation she received, they did inform her – but she just hadn’t heard or understood.  Despite being supported by her union, she was given very little information on what was happening to her, what the next steps were, and how she could best prepare.

When I’m talking to employees I try to give them the full picture , including the worse case scenario.  If employees are going through organisastional change, I tell them from the start of the process that it might end in redundancy.   I inform witnesses in disciplinary investigations that their interview notes or statements might end up being public documents should the case get to an Employment Tribunal.  I think it’s important, so that employees can prepare themselves and make the right decisions based on the long-term view.

But how much do employee’s really take on board when we bombard them with this information at a difficult and stressful time in their employment?  Whilst we might follow-up any conversation in writing, do employees really read the finer details?  How much more should an employer do once it’s met its legal implications?

There is the argument that employees have their trade union representative who can support them in such instances.  However, in my experience, the quality and experience of the union support is variable.  There are some great union reps, and others who I feel miss the point and confuse the issues – and it’s the employee that suffers.

Another approach is to keep on re-iterating the key information to the employee(s) concerned.  I could be wrong, but I’ve never heard of an employee tribunal being lost due to an employee being given too much information.

In the centre of all this is the need to consider each employee as an individual.  Each employee reacts to their situation differently.  In cases of gross misconduct, some staff show remorse whilst other don’t when faced with similar scenarios.  The threat of redundancy can be a positive or negative experience for employees -depending on their personal circumstances.

What I have learnt over the years is that it is impossible to pre-judge an employee’s reaction to redundancy or other dismissal situations.  I’ve also observed that employee’s will tell us when they’ve “got it” and will keep on asking questions when they haven’t.

And if an employee is still asking questions…….. the organisation hasn’t yet given them enough information.

Where do you stand on bullying?

I’ve been talking a lot about bullying recently. It started a few weeks ago when I participated in the weekly Twitter Talk #nhssm on the topic of cyber bullying.

Then a friend of a friend contacted me as they are being bullied at work because (she believes) she’s just agreed a flexible working arrangement so she can support her husband who is having on-going treatment for cancer.

And a BNI colleague called me as his daughter started a new job six weeks ago and is finding the workplace too “aggressive” and wants to leave.

What I found interesting in the #nhssm chat is that one participant was surprised to hear that there was bullying in the NHS.  But it is a fact – as the annual staff survey shows – that there is  bullying the NHS .  (Unfortunately) Bullying within the NHS generates a substantial income for me as I frequently undertake complex investigations into bullying and harassment.

I still remember my first investigation in 2000 – a case of a nurse bullying a patient; I’ve also seen staff-on-staff, managers-on-staff, staff-on-managers. I’ve investigated a fair share of senior Doctor grievances about being bullied.

Last week I met up with Andy for a drink and he started to tell me about recent developments at work. His boss, Darryl, has always had a strained relationship with one of the General Managers, Derren. However, he hadn’t realised how bad until he attended a meeting recently when they were both present. The atmosphere was hostile, the dislike between the two parties tangible. Andy came out of the meeting thinking “What was that about?”

The next day Andy was in an informal 1:1 meeting with one of Derren’s junior managers when he learnt the true extent of the situation. Allegedly, Derren and Darryl fell out about 8 years ago and have never sorted out their differences. Derren however has recently been saying that he believes Darryl is “absolutely useless” and is on a personal mission to drive Darryl out of the organisation. Apparently “everyone” knew about this.

Andy was in shock to hear this, but as he absorbed the information past events that he’d not fully understood now seemed to make perfect sense. For example, over the last two years Derren has actively sabotaged projects and instigated investigations into areas of HR where he felt there was any impropriety. Andy has been an innocent bystander but  has indirectly felt the impact of this behaviour.

Andy was now wondering what he should do.  Like me, he feels quite strongly about bullying & harassment.  Having seen the awful psychological damage it can do, I like to think that I stand up to bullying:  a few months ago I was in a meeting with a client and one of the participants swore a number of times.  Whilst the colourful language was used in jest, it wasn’t appropriate.  In fact, one of the other participants made a passing comment about it as we left the meeting.  I spoke to him about it a few days later when the opportunity was right.

However it’s not as easy as that in Andy’s case.  I’m not going to detail what Andy decided to do after our chat, because everyone deals with such situations differently.  But there were three key things I felt he  needed to think about:

a) his relationship with his boss,

b) his reputation within his organisation,

c) what he might say when he gets to an Employment Tribunal (when, not if).

I don’t think it’s always clear exactly what we, as HR professionals, should do when we see such deep entrenched bullying behaviour.  Striking that balance that ensures Andy maintains his integrity, his professionalism and his job as an HR professional isn’t going to be easy.  I just hope he doesn’t get caught in the cross-fire.

When is theft a sacking offence?

Back in the day I worked in an HR department of a well-known retail group.  I was young, enthusiastic and it was in this environment that I first learnt how to give advice on Employee Relations.  Working from HQ, I was the “Employee Relations Advice Line” for 2 days week.  Store managers would call with their employee problems and I would provide sage advice on how to resolve them.

I had a range of interesting cases:

  • An employee was numerically dyslexic (Dyscalculia).  She had been in charge of the shoe section for the last four months and in that time they had thrown away A LOT of odd pairs.
  • A cook in one of the restaurants (the one nearest my house at the time) turned up for work with an acute case on conjunctivitis
  • An employee who had brought the firm into disrepute by flashing her bra to the builders on the building site next door whilst she was in the staff room having her tea break.

However, the most common issue was theft.  Employees would be “sacked” for stealing a penny.  Whilst that might be extreme, the organisation took any theft seriously.  If every employee stole a penny every day, the company would lose £22k per day.  Or over £8 million a year.

The other day I was reminded of my experiences working in retail when I was discussing the issue of employee theft with a couple of NHS HR Managers.  The way we manage theft in the NHS is very different.  I think it’s because the type of cases we see, for example:

– a play specialist invented  the day trips and activities she had done with her patient groups and claimed for the expenses incurred.  This went on for two years before management discovered there was an issue.

– another care worker received a number of very large, very generous money gifts (in the form of a cheque) from a vulnerable patient who frequented the clinic on a regular basis.

– an employee who was stealing from her colleagues – £10 from a purse, a stereo, sandwiches from the fridge (can you believe it?)

– a nurse who stole non-controlled drugs to fuel a drug-habit.  (see footnote for explanation of non-controlled drugs)

In all these cases, there is no simple scenario of “one time, x took 2p from the till and hasn’t returned it yet”.  The cases are complex, and often only came to light some time after the initial event occurred.  Frequently initial investigations show that there is limited robust, concrete evidence and much rests on connecting a series of events.

Such cases often turn out to be lengthy and detailed investigations and if done well, reach the appropriate conclusion.  They are handled in a completely different way to how I would have advised a manager working in a shop.  But I think that each case has to be handled according to an organisation’s culture.

On the day of the discussion with my two HRMs, we were debating whether a cleaner who had “stolen” a bottle of industrial size bleach should be sacked for gross misconduct.  She admitted the misconduct as soon as it was discovered, had mitigation and was willing to pay the Trust back equivalent to the amount of bleach used.

Two of us felt it wouldn’t be a “sacking” offence, and the other believed that “Theft is theft”.

What do you think?


Foot note:  uncontrolled drugs are those which are not subject to “control” procedures (eg in locked cabinets, audited etc) by the nursing staff.  These include drugs that you can buy over the counter – eg Paracetamol, or slightly stronger – eg Codeine Phosphate.    

How to do a Jigsaw Puzzle

Both my kids are good at Jigsaws. And maybe that’s because I like a good jigsaw myself. I’ve always taught them that it’s about the patterns, shapes, textures and colours. I haven’t taught them that they have to do the outside edges first.

There is “no rule” that the outside edges have to be completed first. It’s just the way that everyone seems to approach a jigsaw. And for complex, 1000+ piece jigsaws it makes sense.

However, for a 3yo doing a 75 piece jigsaw it’s not the most sensible approach. Sometimes doing the edges are the hardest bit.

Now that my 5yo is at school and attending an after-school club she’s started to do jigsaws with other adults. She now officially declares as we start each jigsaw “We need to do the edges first, mum”.

I know that it’s not me who’s taught her that. And it makes me sad – despite my early interventions she’s been taught a belief about how to tackle a puzzle that may not always be appropriate.

The reason I tell this story is that sometimes I see this at work.

“This is the way we’ve always done this”.

Maybe so.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s always the most appropriate way to do it.

It’s hard to challenge our beliefs, or the tried & tested ways of doing things.  But when the environment changes and we’re facing new challenges it’s important to stop & think about whether the customary approach is actually the best way.   Naturally, we need to ensure that we’re keeping within legal boundaries.  However, the beauty of legislation is that there’s usually enough wriggle room to allow for flexibility in our interpretation.

So on this rainy Sunday afternoon I leave you with this thought about how to do a jigsaw puzzle to take you into the week ahead.

The Drowned & The Saved

Last night, I put down my book (Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved) to watch the Panorama programme about the gross failure of care in a UK residential care home.   I went from reading about  inhuman behaviour to watching it on TV.

Whilst I’m not saying that the care home at the centre of Panorama’s programme last night was like a concentration camp, there are certain common themes: the abuse of power, the cruelty that humans are capable of, and the despair of the victims.

A few years ago my gut told me that there was “something not right” about a clinical service I was working with.  There were small things that I saw, read, heard about that when pieced together made me feel uncomfortable.   There was nothing substantial, no evidence of wrong-doing, just this gut feeling.    Then one day a Senior Manager came to me to tell me that they had the same gut feeling.

We spent some time developing a plan and we enlisted the support of  an Occupational Psychologist.  I spoke to my boss, who in turn supported me when I met with our Chief Executive.  My CEO listened and I was given resources for six months and the go-ahead to implement our plan.

But what had caused this service to deteriorate?   My Occ Psych called it “Institutionalism”:   a group of individuals who had worked with each other over a significant period of years with few (if any) newcomers to the group; a group that worked in isolation – often caused due to geographical reasons (but this is not always the case).  As a result, bad behaviour and poor standards creep into the service.

Certainly there was a power-base.  It wasn’t necessarily the senior members of the management team.  There were alliances within the group and the struggle for power was continuous.  However, the greatest threat was the newcomer – the person who challenged “the way we do things round here”.    At first, the group would try to seek an understanding with the newbie, convert them.    But in essence, there were two choices

a) To go “native” – to join the rest of the group with poor behaviour.  Or at least stand at the side and allow it to happen.  They are probably told that even if they do report it – nobody would believe them.  To be honest, for many this option is taken in order to survive.  For a Healthcare Assistant who has been unemployed for six months it is undoubtedly easier to conform, as the other option might lose them their job.

b) To challenge the behaviour.  However, the group would close ranks and there would be signs of bullying and intimidation towards the newcomer.   After a short period of time the newbie will simply move on to their next job.

So the role of a Whistleblower is incredibly important in these situations.  They need to be taken seriously and protected. It’s also important that there is strong HR leadership – patient in executing their strategy, and compelling  in their vision to ensure that the right people are engaged along the journey.

But it’s not easy.  In my case I still distinctly remember a Saturday afternoon when I was at home working. I burst into tears:  not because anything had happened, but because I feared the potential of something happening;  because I was frustrated – if there had been evidence  of misconduct I could have advised on a swifter and more definitive approach (although paradoxically, there had been evidence it would meant that a patient had already been abused).

Was I successful?  In six months – no.  But we had made some fundamental changes, both in terms of personnel and organisational culture.  A robust development plan was being implemented, and I felt assured that the service was increasing its level of clinical care.  But there was still so much more work to be done.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s programme, there have been suggestions that it’s the CEO of the residential care home who’s at fault;  and that the CEO of the CQC has failed in his duty to ensure such care homes are regulated.

I disagree: it’s all our responsibilities to follow our “gut” when we believe that the standards of care aren’t quite as high as we expect them to be.  Senior managers need to listen, and then have the confidence to take appropriate positive action.  If we don’t, we will forever have to carry the burden of our own guilt.

The F word

It’s recently been reported that a former interim chief executive of an NHS Trust was unfairly dismissed for sending a high volume of inappropriate emails, including personal ones, and not taking action when receiving inappropriate emails.

The Employment Tribunal felt that the emails were “largely innocent; at or below the level of seaside postcard humour”.  It went on to highlight that over a two year period, the emails contained 12 expletives and the f-word appeared six times.  As such, the Tribunal felt that this reflected language “in common everyday usage throughout industry, commerce, voluntary organisations and public authorities”.

I have never used the F word in an email.  And those who know me, know that I don’t shy from verbally expressing my anger by using expletives (but not quite as fluently as Gordon Ramsey).  But I think a line is crossed when it’s written in an email.

Equally, I have never seen an email in over a decade of working in or with the NHS that contained the F word.  And if I did, I’m not sure what I would do.

So I’m not so sure I agree with the Tribunal’s opinion that using the F word six times in two years in an email is a reflection of everyday usage in business.

Am I wrong?

The Three Paradigms of Equality & Diversity

At a recent NHS Employers Conference, there was a brilliant session given by Professor Robin Ely from Harvard Business School.  Her session was powerful and thought-provoking.  This post is my attempt to share the three equality & diversity paradigms that she presented at the conference:

1)      Discrimination and Fairness Paradigm

The motto behind this paradigm is “We are all the same, differences do not matter”. There are top-down rules that order such organisations; there is pressure to assimilate.  This isn’t pleasant for any of the staff, who may feel alienated as a result and subsequently restricts productivity.  In a way, it is undermining.

2)      Access and Legitimacy Paradigm

This paradigm is the one that we usually use when presenting the business case for diversity in the workplace.  It’s about differences emphasised, but not used as leverage.

Diversity in this paradigm is used to connect with clients:  it is a resource.  However, as a result, careers are marginalised.

3)      Integration and Learning Paradigm

The philosophy behind this is “we are the same, with our differences not in spite of them”.  Perspectives and experiences are shared and with this paradigm, diversity is a resource for learning.

Differences are acknowledged and their value recognised.  Cultural competences are learned and shared.   It informs and enhances work through experimentation.

The most powerful point to this paradigm is that progress is measured by the power of traditionally under-represented groups to change the organisation. In this way, it delivers on the “promise of diversity”.

But this paradigm is more than just “talking about our differences”.  It is where differences are embraced, discussed and disputed. Without doubt there is more conflict in this paradigm, but in a constructive way.  And these need to be managed well, with honest discourse, greater courage to have conversations about unfamiliar situations, and the ability to resolve conflict swiftly and sensitively.

So that is our challenge as managers: moving to a paradigm where diversity is used as a learning resources.  And as Professor Carol Baxter said at the conference:

“We can experiment, we can take risks,  so we can learn how to get it right”