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Colborn’s corner: Who’s watching?

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Quentin Colborn

The past few weeks have seen many fixated on Big Brother and accusations of racism and bullying. This week Quentin takes a look at whether this offers a lesson for the workplace.


Let me start with a disclaimer – I don’t watch Big Brother. Sad maybe, but I have better things to do with my life! However few can have failed to notice the media furore about alleged bullying and racism. Not having watched the programme I do not feel qualified to significantly comment on the detail of the contributions from participants, suffice it to say that some of the comments that made it to the news made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. But does Big Brother reflect the real world? If so, should we as HR professionals be concerned about any aspect of it?

Firstly, I’m pretty clear that reality TV shows in general don’t reflect reality. Seems ironic really, but in reality I suspect there is much playing to the camera that is never seen in everyday life. Put people in a goldfish bowl and the results are pretty predictable, especially if there are large financial incentives around! But the views and attitudes displayed – do they reflect prevalent views within society, and more importantly from our perspective the workplace?

Perhaps I’ve led a fairly sheltered HR life, but I’m not sure I see rampant racism and bullying in the organisations with which I work. Maybe I’m simply selective or blind or perhaps it doesn’t happen; but I know these things happen in some places, so what is our responsibility as HR professionals?

“We should not be corporate thought police, looking for each step away from political correctness. Yet in many organisations HR are perceived in such a way, waving the notional big stick against anything that may have the hint of incorrectness. But can’t we do better than this?”

I believe we should not be corporate thought police, looking for each step away from political correctness. Yet in many organisations HR are perceived in such a way, waving the notional big stick against anything that may have the hint of incorrectness. But can’t we do better than this? Surely our key role is to create an environment where two basic things predominate. Firstly that racism and bullying don’t occur and secondly creating an environment where if these things do happen, people feel free to raise them and any issues raised are dealt with fairly and properly.

How many organisation take active steps against bullying? Certainly many organisations will have clear statements and policies, but how many actually do something? I venture to say precious few. Partially, no doubt, because in some cases the bullies are managers, or even directors, and the bullying is so prevalent that fear renders people incapable of doing anything about it. Alternatively, how many people, including those within HR, understand what bullying really is? Blind prejudice is relatively easy to spot, but one of the traits of bullying is that it is insidious and not necessarily easily recognised as such. It would be an interesting exercise for some organisations to run, to see how their staff would define a bully – I doubt if there would be a clear consensus.

So what can be done about bullying? Clearly having a robust policy on the topic is a fist stage, but often a policy is insufficient. I see many organisations that have a policy on equal opportunities – that doesn’t mean they are equal opportunity employers. For a policy to be successful it must have teeth and be supported from the top – often the biggest challenge that some places face.

My view is that organisations approaches to bullying don’t tend get much publicity, but prove me wrong! Let’s have some details of experiences of bullying you have come across and how organisations have handled it – for good or bad.

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Quentin Colborn is an independent consultant who helps organisations address strategic and operational issues within HR. If you would like to contact Quentin directly he can be reached at [email protected] , or on 01376 571360

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