Analysis: Humor or Harassment? (An HBR Case Study)

This is my response to an article in the Harvard Business Review titled "Humour or Harassment", a story about the fine line between workplace bullying and office relations.

Having researched workplace bullying and harassment over the last five years, which led to the writing of my book 'The Bully's Trap - Bullying in the Workplace', I have found that the vast majority of bullying and harassment situations in the workplace are subtle and complex, often with the intent to destroy the target.

A simple solution

Your case study in the June 15th edition titled "Humor or Harassment" is not complex and does not require a complex solution. Sema should have approached Jack to ask him to refrain from the humor. Based on how Jack reacted to her calling him "Hello, Big Dot", my bet is the joking would have stopped. If it did not, then lodging a complaint would have been appropriate.

In my book there is a section called 'Making Distinctions', where I make the point that if claiming being bullied or harassed is used as a shield or a sword, managers could be restricted from doing their jobs out of fear that they will be labeled as a bully. Therefore, it is necessary to be clear and make distinctions on what does and what does not constitute bullying.

Bullying and psychologically unhealthy workplaces and the unnecessary stress caused by them kills thousands, including multiple suicides and murders, makes millions physically and mentally ill, destroys careers, destroys families and is a huge drain on the economy.

Bullies Master Bullying

Bullies are masters of deflection, deception and manipulation. The reason they bully is simply because they can. In all too many organizations, bullying is allowed, condoned, accepted, rewarded and, in many instances, accepted. In your case study, Jack and Dirkson-Hall do not match these profiles.

Getting back to the subtleties and complexities of bullying and harassment, I have found that many targets don't realize what they are going through until it is too late. What I have found is targets go from being solid, hard working, engaged and committed, to becoming poor performers with bad attitudes in a relatively short period of time. The reason is the bully sets the target up for failure, and harasses them to the point that they lose faith in themselves. And they become what the bully wants them to become - the villain rather than the victim.

When this happens, the target is trapped, hence the title of my book 'The Bully's Trap'. Jack, in your case study, did not appear to entrap Sema.

If in future editions you feel that it is important to raise the level of awareness on the complexities of workplace bullying and harassment, feel free to use the case studies from 'The Bully's Trap'