psychologically safe workplace

Hundreds of Former Employees Expose Jewelry Chain’s Open Secrets

Another employer has been accused of promoting a culture that condoned, and even encouraged, sexual harassment. Sterling Jewelers, the parent company of such well-known shopping mall jewelry stores as Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry has been accused of rampant harassment and discrimination by hundreds of former employees.

Sadly, this is an all too pervasive problem in toxic workplaces, as I recently wrote in regards to the Uber allegations. The Sterling accusations are not isolated incidents. More than 250 women, and some men, filed a private class-action arbitration case in 2008 alleging incidents of groping, demeaning behavior and demand for sexual favors that happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. This is on the heels of an even larger case of some 69,000 employees alleging widespread gender discrimination. According to testimonies just released, top male managers of this company bullied women with ridicule, “scouting parties” to find attractive sex partners, and demands for sexual favors in exchange for raises, promotions or protection from reprisal.

Because many employees waive their right to bring suits in public court as a condition of their employment, it’s difficult to get transparency in cases like these. The system is set up to protect the company at the cost of the employees instead of creating a psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplace.

As I discuss in my new book, From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, workplaces of this sort are often an open secret. That was certainly true at FOX News and Uber. Until companies create an ironclad rule to punish any violators regardless of their position or contribution to the company, this behavior will continue. Throwing billions of dollars at harassment awareness workshops and diversity seminars have not, and will not ever make a dent. Only accountability will do that. Let’s hope as the Women’s March empowers women to speak out against injustice accountability becomes the new normal.


Is Your Company’s Performance Management Plan Designed to Get Rid of You?

Performance management is all too often a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing. Touted as a path to self-improvement for employees, such programs are actually structured to get rid of people. And forget about employee review plans. They might as well come with a pink slip. This hard fact became apparent at the end of November when an Amazon employee survived a leap off a 12-story building at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. The employee had previously sent a public email to CEO Jeff Bezos as well as hundreds of his colleagues. According to sources, he had applied for a transfer but instead was put on an “employee improvement plan.” In corporate speak this means: “you’re toast.”

I have written before about the toxic culture at Amazon, which was exposed in this New York Times article. Amazon isn’t the only company to take on this practice. Kimberly-Clark and Proctor & Gamble were also notorious for this. This sort of toxic environment doesn’t bode well for productivity in the long term—and it certainly has done no favors to national reputation for any company. 

Photo: REBusiness Online

Accountability Counts: Holding Grant Recipients Responsible for How They Use Funds

What do you do when a significant donation to a charitable organization is not being used in accordance with prior agreement? Earlier this year the Faas Foundation was faced with that dilemma, which forced us to make an unprecedented decision. For the first time since the foundation was created in 2005 we lost confidence in a grantee and rescinded our donation of $1 million. This story in the Toronto Star outlines what happened when the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) didn’t implement its initiative to provide Canadian workplaces with training to identify risks of mental illness and support employees living with the diagnosis.  CAMH Loses $1 Million Donation Due to Issues of Accountability  The money was given in good faith to be part of a multi-pronged initiative between the Canadian CAMH and the American organization Mental Health America and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to explore ways to better understand and implement psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces. Sadly, CAMH’s elitist attitude, failure to implement and lack of transparency made us reconsider this donation. Philanthropist Questioned the Credibility of CAMH Before Rescinding Donation  Since this news has broken, another donor has considered removing his contribution to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) due to a lack of transparency and communication. The one error in this article is the assertion that the funds were to create a psychologically healthy workplace solely at CAMH. They were actually donated to fund research into evidence-based solutions for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. It’s time for grant recipients to be accountable for the monies they receive.  CAMH Donor Says More Transparency Needed About Money

Photo: Brian B. Bettencourt/The Toronto Star 

What Do You Know About Your Workplace's Culture?

It’s important to take the time to assess your own workplace culture, and how you fit into it. As I’ve written before, and in my new book (out in January!), there are a few types of workplace cultures, and being both self-aware and aware of your workplace is important to finding a job that will be psychologically safe. And, to take it one step further, if you work in a position where you have the ability to enact change on your workplace’s culture, then do it! Too many professionals today pay lip service to workplace culture without actually trying to make positive changes where they can. Is Your Workplace Culture a Good Fit for You?


Conflating "Happiness" and "Engagement" at Work


I think this article from The Globe and Mail about why it’s okay not to be “happy” at work totally misses the point. Being “happy” at work means different things depending on the work environment itself – it’s not all about being “content” and demanding spiritual and aspirational fulfillment, as this article seems to suggest. For the vast majority of working people today, being “happy” at work means nothing more than operating in a workplace where they’re not being abused or harassed, not living under the threat of layoffs, not being compelled to work unethically (as we’ve recently seen at Wells Fargo), and where they’re not being assessed by a system that’s prone to racial or gendered biases. Many of today’s unengaged workers would be “happy” for a fair shake and a job that values them as people. Conflating psychologically healthy workplaces with lofty and/or unrealistic notions of office “happiness” is not particularly helpful for many of today’s businesses. You can read the article I'm responding to at The Globe and Mail.

Domestic Violence and the Workplace Environment

Time and again, it’s been proven that what happens in domestic life has a huge impact on what happens in the workplace. The survey cited in this article states that one third of respondents had experienced domestic violence, and that half of those experienced some form of violence related to work. Creating psychologically safe workplaces is essential not only to our productivity, but to our ability to process and confront issues that may be impacting us elsewhere in life. Read more on this at the CBC.

My TEDx speech: Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces saves lives and increases profits

Image curtesy of Blackburn News, (Photo by Mike James) -

Image curtesy of Blackburn News, (Photo by Mike James) -

On Friday, April 24th, I gave a speech to TEDx Chatham-Kent about my research and work on workplace bullying and creating psychologically safe workplaces. Here is the entire speech. I will share the video as soon as it is published. 


Bullying in the Workplace and the unnecessary stress it causes kills thousands, makes millions physically and mentally ill, destroys careers, destroys families and destroys organizations, and is a one.five trillion.

It is one of the biggest societal and economic issues of this generation, and yet it is still under the radar, it gets scant media attention and is generally considered acceptable.

Each and every day millions of people spend most of their waking hours terrorized because of the psychological, verbal, sexual, physical and cyber aggression they endure at work.

To put my talk into some context, let me tell you a story.

Earlier this year I gave a talk on this topic, afterwards, someone in the audience (who I will call John) asked if he could contact me to discuss what his spouse (who I will call Helen) was going through at work, indicating to me that what I described is exactly what was happening to Helen.

Ten days later I received a call from John, he reminded me of our brief discussion at the event and tearfully expressed his regret and remorse in not calling me sooner, because just few days earlier Helen committed suicide. 

For over a year Helen was subjected to verbal and psychological abuse, given unreasonable expectations, subjected to constant badgering, receiving emails on a 24/7 basis, information she required was withheld, she was gossiped about, and associates were afraid to be seen with her.

Senior management, human resources and the union failed to support and represent her despite her unblemished 20 plus years of service, only to protect her tormentor who had a reputation of doing the same thing with others.

Helen was told to suck it up, that her tormentor was only doing his job correcting her deficiencies and if they had to choose between her and the bully, they would support the bully.
Helen was obviously traumatized to the point she saw no way out. In deference to her memory and the stigma attached to suicide, Helen's death was classified as "died suddenly", allowing the bully, the union and management to get away with manslaughter.

John is totally distraught, blaming himself for not recognizing the obvious red flags and waiting to call me, wondering what he or anyone else could have done to save her.

Helen's suicide is not isolated or unique, we just don't hear about other cases because like John, most family members want to shield their loved ones from the stigma of suicide.

Occasionally the stories get told usually because the act is committed in public.

Here are two recent examples:

Late last year Kerry Tesney a 45 year old employee with UPS in Birmingham Alabama, with 21 years of service was fired and reacted by killing two supervisors before killing himself. A union representative alleges Tesney was driven to this because he was bullied.

Just this past January Phillip Perea a Fox News Producer in Austin Texas went to the Fox Headquarters in Manhattan, handed out cards alleging he was bullied by Fox and then in spectacular fashion took out a gun and shot himself to death.

Helen, Kerry and his victims, Phillip and the many others tragic ends could have been avoided if their families, coworkers and others close to them recognized what they were going through and intervened.

Everyone in this room today, everyone you know and everyone they know has or knows someone who went though the horror of being targeted.

So how and why did I get personally interested in this issue? Let me tell you my story.

Early in my career, Bob McCutcheon, a senior executive at Loblaw, appeared in my office one morning, sat down and took out his pipe (they allowed smoking in those days).

As he prepared his pipe (a long, drawn-out process) said, "Son I have a major problem. You see, there is a young manager; he is cocky, overly aggressive to the point of being abrasive, not sensitive to others, unreasonably demanding, doesn't listen to others, and bullies people to get things done. I am totally perplexed on what to do."

I was flattered that Bob, who was considered the senior statesmen, the Godfather @ Loblaw, would come to me with such a weighty issue, I quickly said, "I would fire the SOB."

After taking a long drag from his pipe, Bob responded by saying: "Well, son, that's my dilemma. You’re the SOB I'm talking about."

Thankfully Bob did not take my advice, but it was a wake-up call that fortunately came early for me in my career.

This intervention by Bob taught me, that respect is a far more powerful motivator than fear and became the most important lesson in leadership, and made me successful beyond my wildest dreams.

More importantly throughout my career, I influenced countless cultural transformations enabling employees to reach their full potential in psychologically safe and positive work environments.

My story does not end here.

Even though I have dealt with countless bullying situations over the years, nothing prepared me for being on the receiving end of being targeted.

Late in my career, I blew the whistle on a corrupt executive who retaliated against me. For over a year I was subjected to vicious attempts to discredit me.

My emails and phones were hacked, a private investigator was hired to find dirt on me, I was blacklisted, associates shunned me for fear they would be retaliated against and I received an anonymous death threat.

Because of this my physical and mental health deteriorated, I lost over 30 pounds, was laid up for 6 months with a serious case of shingles and had symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact 95 percent of people who are severely bullied suffer from PTSD.

Thanks to the interventions of others, who recognized my deterioration, forced me, with the help of others, to realize I was not alone; I was not at fault; and there were methods by which to positively confront the harassment, which I did to my satisfaction.

But even though I resolved my situation, I could not find closure. This negative energy continued to totally absorb me and to this day I am still haunted by it.

Finding closure, I have found, what most who are targeted face, even many years after the bullying ended.

I desperately needed to shift the negative energy into something positive and this is what propelled me to expose the horror so many face and the catastrophic consequences.

So five years ago I did extensive research on the topic and then commenced to interview just under 300 employees and 200 executives.

What I found was appalling and outraged me. This research, augmented with my own considerable experience on the topic turned into a book which is called 'The Bully's Trap'.

Who are the Bully's and Why do the Bully?

Most people relate to bullying in schools, while there are similarities, there are differences, the most significant being the ways and means are usually more subtle and complex, and most significantly, bullies are vested with real power and control.

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 expected. 

In many cases bullies are viewed as star performers, even heroes. In over 70 percent of the cases it is the boss who bullies the subordinate.

They assert power and control through abuse - both sexual and other methods, and often their reason is to get them fired or to quit.

Bully's come across as being confident, their behaviors are often a mask for their insecurity and they target those who are a threat to them.

Most surprisingly is how targets can go from being solid, hard working 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 they lose faith in themselves and become what the bully wants them to become the villain rather than the victim.

When this happens the target is trapped and that is why I called the book 'The Bully's Trap' So How Do Organizations Deal With All Of This? Short Answer - Usually They Dont!!

Bullying is a byproduct of a psychologically unhealthy workplace, it is a systemic issue that requires a systemic solution. As Oscar Wilde so aptly put it, "It is not the prisoners who need the reformation, it's the prisons.

Where bullying occurs, it is usually not isolated to a single bully or target, in many instances it is influenced at the top, where the CEO is also the CBO, Chief Bullying Officer.

These organizations are usually dictatorial and besides the bullying there are other dynamics at play, including abuse of power, inappropriate behaviors, corruption and greed.

In analyzing the demise of Enron, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and the list goes on, they all had the characteristics of a dictatorial culture.

The global financial meltdown could have been avoided had people in the know, reported wrongdoings, they did not, largely for fear of being retaliated against. In most cases whistleblowers are viewed as traitors and subjected to bullying as punishment for their treason.

More and more organizations are using systemic bullying to get rid of older employees. They do this to lower the average wage and pension costs. Ideally they want their targets to quit and if they don't, they will fire them for cause to avoid paying severance. And I think it safe to say you all know someone who has fell prey to this.

For bullying to stop, it will require cultural transformations that deal with every aspect of how organizations operate. The objective should be to create psychologically safe cultures where fear is eliminated.

In my discussions with top executives, I get a lot of pushback, most view my assertions as extreme exaggerations and claim that this is not the case in their arenas.

Most are in denial claiming that they have a zero tolerance policy on bullying, enlightened human resource people, employee feedback and support systems.

In response I say to them, my findings show even where these policies, procedures and support systems are in place, if there is a culture of fear, they are useless.

Also, my research shows that where bullying occurs, in 80 percent of the cases, human resources are part of the problem.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation CBC in the Ghomeshi affair is a classic case of how organizations deal with bullies and their targets. After months of denial, the report by the external investigator has finally exposed the toxic culture at CBC, the cover-up mentality by management and the complicity and ineptness of human resources and the Union.

Employee engagement is reflective of workplace culture and bullying is cited as a major reason for the disengagement.

Yet studies show that 87 percent of North American Workers are not engaged, with an astonishingly 13 percent who are. If we could reverse these two numbers, it would boost productivity by about 10 percent which amounts to one trillion dollars.

At the outset I mentioned 1.5 trillion dollars, the other 500 billion dollars is in absenteeism, attrition and the training of replacements, and the medical costs associated with disabilities and the economic and social costs of the more than 120,000 deaths annually that may be attributable to workplace stress.

If all of this does not motivate boards of directors and senior executives to seriously look at their cultures - nothing will!!

Working in an environment that is free and safe from violence is a fundamental right. I hope you will now agree that all too many employees are being denied this right.

The work I am doing is just a beginning and is intended to open much needed discussion and debate. When I look back and measure its success:

If one career is saved - it will have done its job.

If one family unit survives - it will have done its job.

If one organization avoids demise - it will have done its job.

f one suicide is not attempted - it will have done its job.

If one murder is not committed - it will have done its job.

I implore you and those you know to join me in the discussion and debate so that those millions of people in the workforce who live in terror today can feel safe and free tomorrow.