Workplace Bullying: WE DON’T DO THAT HERE

Lessons learned at the 2nd Annual Consortium on Abrasive Conduct in Higher Education [CACHE]

My first documentary, Sandra’s Web, the intimate video letter from a homeless mother with AIDS left as a legacy for her daughter, premiered on HBO. A few days after the broadcast the legendary George Stoney, my beloved mentor, looked at me and essentially said, That’s nice. Now the real work begins.  It was a life changing lesson he passed on to so many of us who produce social justice documentaries. So, while I was delighted to win an Honorary Webby this year for my documentary on workplace bullying, What Killed Kevin, it meant even more to me that I was invited back a second year in a row to screen the film at the CACHE colloquium sponsored by Sibson Consulting and the Boss Whispering Institute. Similar to the year before, attendees at the two-day conference held at the University of Denver School of Hospitality Management were made up of “representatives from nearly 20 institutions of higher education including faculty, HR professionals, ombudspeople, labor representatives, administrators, and researchers convened to explore best practices in addressing the problem of workplace bullying in the academy.”

What Killed Kevin is a cautionary tale designed to reveal the complexities of an issue the media prefers to frame as “good vs evil” in crowd pleasing tales of narcissists and psychopaths rather than a problem desperately in need of systemic solutions and early intervention. One of the many things I learned while making this film is that the “bully label” itself is problematic and that the often impossible task of proving intentionality is best left out of the equation. This is backed up by the research and practical experience of Laura Crawshaw, founder of the Boss Whispering Institute and author of Taming The Abrasive Manager, who has spent many years coaching often clueless “abrasives”. A lot of vital information is packed into the event and Crawshaw was among those guiding colloquium attendees as they shared and discovered ways to recognize and address behavior in their educational institutions. The Q&A after any screening of my film is typically deeply felt and passionate as audience members grapple with the tale of human beings caught up in the drama of a toxic workplace that  had a tragic impact on all involved after one of their co-workers, Kevin Morrissey, committed suicide. But, this time was different.

The audience at the CACHE event at the University of Denver was made up of the those in admin positions who struggle to ensure that all of us have the healthy and respectful workplaces we deserve. Watching it with them I was reminded of how incredibly draining and painful it is to listen, bear witness if you will, to the conflicting tales of abuse in the office. I spent several years interviewing principle players for my film multiple times. Many of these interviews lasted 4 hours or more. Often the person involved refused to go on camera but they still wanted their perspective understood. Even the email correspondence was wrenching and fraught with the desperate need of all concerned to prove that they were “right.” After each interview I shut myself down and entered a reflective space that helped me navigate the emotional trauma of all the pain washing over me. Sitting in Denver with the Human Resource managers who were quietly watching my film that evening I realized that they do not have that luxury of carving out however much time is needed to retreat into solitude and avoid the personal toll. After an emotional session with an employee they have to turn their attention back to the next task at hand for the day. I walked away from this year’s colloquium with  a deeper understanding of how important it can be to have outside observers come in to help “manage up” by bringing a perspective that does not have a stake in the outcome.

All of us at the conference agreed to respect the need for confidentiality so I won’t go into the stories that were shared but I will say that it’s long past time for the media and workplace bullying advocates to put to rest the prevailing mean-spirited and sensationalist image of “evil” HR representatives who dabble in the “dark arts” and  Ombudspeople as “useless” and “uncaring.”  Sadly, some workplace bullying advocates have recently decided to frame this issue in terms of choosing sides (“pro-bully” or “pro-employee”). This approach unnecessarily pushes away the very people needed to implement systemic change as the conduit to upper management and presents the dignity and human suffering of targets in terms of one of the most damaging aspects of being a victim that hinders healing — victimization. To borrow from a phrase offered up at the Denver colloquium, a better frame might be: “we don’t do that here.”

Anyone interested in joining CACHE should check out their LinkedIn Group:

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