Upward bullying? Is that really a thing?

What the heck is upward bullying? Don’t worry, I asked myself the same question. I recently read an article on this topic, where a company was tackling the issue of an employee bullying her manager. The writer claims the issues had arisen from, among other things, the employee being granted access to confidential information including colleagues’ remuneration details which was being used as a bargaining chip. Wait, isn’t that blackmail?

Apparently, there’s been a steep rise of upward bullying and our organisations are baffled as to why. The author goes on to say that the cause of the rise is, and I quote “With employees having greater access to confidential information both on and off the premises due to flexible work arrangements, employers are at risk of employees exploiting this information for self-gain or survival.” Why he chose to highlight flexible work arrangements as part of the issue, I don’t know. To me, it has nothing to do with the real issue. The other interesting point is the reference to survival as a driving factor.

What sort of culture must this company have if employees feel forced to blackmail their managers for survival?!

Imagine this for a moment. You’re employed to do a job which creates revenue for an organisation. Things are going fairly well and, one day, you’re given access to confidential information, including your colleagues’ remuneration details. Upon reviewing the documentation, you realise your colleagues are earning more than you. What do you do? You raise it with your manager, right? There’s obviously more to the story here.

Now, I’ll admit she probably didn’t handle the situation as well as she could have, but imagine a workplace culture so toxic, so driven by self-interest and personal gain that an employee feels the only way to approach the situation is to question their colleagues about their pay and why they deserved it. To confront management and threaten to release information if they’re not given an immediate pay rise.

In response, the company engaged a law firm for advice. Their counsel was that the company must review and strengthen their employment policies and remind employees of their contractual obligations. Punishment for the employee in question involved restricting her access to information, sending a show cause letter (the employee must ‘show cause’ why the organisation shouldn’t terminate her employment) and to send her on gardening leave!

While this may have been sound legal advice once the issues had already occurred, it doesn’t explain why the issue occurred in the first place. The fact the issue arose at all speaks to something deeper. It’s not a legal issue; it’s a leadership issue.

Good leadership seems increasingly rare these days. So, what is it really and why is it so hard?

Simon Sinek defines a leaders role not as being in charge, but taking care of those in your charge. If you apply his definition to this case it would appear the employer got it wrong. It takes time, care, guidance and consistency to create a strong human bond. In an organisation where such serious issues arise, we can assume there is a lack of care, trust and safety. The leaders of the organisation had created an environment of low trust and high stress. Where employees spend more time watching their own back than taking care of one another.

It’s realistic to infer that in organisations like this, employees are seen almost purely as a source of revenue for the organisation. Not  as a human to be cared for, developed and coached towards a successful, unknown result but a unit to be utilised to deliver a prescribed outcome. A resource. A number.

The lesson in all of this? Be more human! Good leadership is truly human. To create an environment of trust, cooperation and sharing takes hard work and time. Too often, this truly human work is not done, or done poorly. Numbers take precedence over humans.

We don’t need more rules, more restrictions. We need better leaders!

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