October 23, 2012

Address Bullying Behavior Before Your Firm Gets a Black Eye

We universally recognize many characters as jerks. These are generally people in TV, movies or public life, including high finance and politics.

For example, most of us would agree that Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life;” Biff in “Back to the Future;” or J.R. Ewing of TV’s “Dallas” were jerks and bullies. In real life, most might look at Bernie Madoff and come to the same conclusion. In some cases, however, we assume that someone else is a jerk, when in fact they might not be. Think about that person who cut you off on the Interstate; the one you had such angry thoughts about. I have heard my favorite leadership speaker, John Maxwell, say that we tend to judge ourselves by motives, but others by actions. This is the reason why we often find fault with others who do the exact same things we might find acceptable in ourselves, given our honorable motives. In between the extremes of entertainment and public life examples and the conclusions we personally, and perhaps unfairly, jump to from time to time about others, there may be situations in our lives—and yes, in our law firms—where a colleague simply does not meet cultural standards due to the fact that he or she is a bully.

When I observe the conduct of a bully, I often ask myself: How in the world can anyone act like that? Over a period of years of managing my law firm, as well as other organizations, I have come to the conclusion that there is usually one or more of three possible reasons. 

First, the conduct might be caused by some chemical imbalance or substance abuse in need of medical treatment. Second, the bully might have what I refer to as a “hierarchy” view of life. While most folks realize that different members of law firms have different roles, each of which contribute in varying ways to the success of the organization, some lawyers actually believe that they are better human beings than those who are not lawyers, simply because they have a law degree. Those with this type of attitude are more likely to mentally or emotionally abuse those they view as “beneath them.” Third, the bully may have issues with personal time management, and under pressure he or she has deflected responsibility by taking out personal inadequacies and frustrations on those deemed subordinate. 

Bullying of staff simply cannot be tolerated. If there is a chance that you are the bully, examine your conduct and the possible reasons for it, and take action to change immediately.  If it happens that you are the victim of a bully, it is important that you not continue to tolerate unprofessional conduct and either report it to management, or confront the offender directly. Ultimately, if the conduct continues unaddressed, a victim will need to treat the deplorable working environment in the same manner as a violent home, and leave. In these difficult economic times, jobs are scarce, and this is easier said than done. However, at some point removal of oneself from a negative environment is the only means of safety.

It may be that you are not the bully or victim, but an observer. One might argue that staff members who observe a bully harass a fellow worker have a moral duty to report this type of unacceptable conduct to firm management. If you are actually in authority to take action, there are two important things you should consider.

First, it is your responsibility to foster an environment in which all members of the firm feel comfortable reporting conduct that is not consistent with desired firm culture. Second, in most law firms, even with an environment where painstaking effort is made to encourage openness, one or more individuals will feel uncomfortable reporting misconduct. Because of this, it is clear that when any allegation of bullying is made, it must be taken seriously. As stated by Robert Sutton in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything,”  Sutton said, “The best organizations make explicit their intolerance for bad apples; they spell out which behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and act decisively to prevent and halt them.” With most types of unacceptable behavior, firm management can usually take action through individual confrontation in such a manner as Karen MacKay outlines in her excellent “Taking the Lead” column in this issue of Law Practice.

Law firms must, however, establish a protocol on how to deal with bullies in a more significant way as soon as the problem is evident. In many cases, there may be some hesitancy to take action that is too confrontational, direct or permanent, as many bullies may be quite productive in accordance with the firm’s objective performance measurements. “But beware: Leaders who believe that destructive superstars are ‘too important’ to fire often underestimate the damage they can do,” according to Sutton. I suggest that law firms consider the following actions in resolving bullying:

  • First, the matter should be brought to the attention of the full governing body of the firm. This body should consider the matter and discuss the charges being made, and what steps should be taken to confirm the allegations.
  • Second, once management considers the matter and confirms the allegations, firm leaders should resolve to conduct an intervention meeting with the bully.
  • Third, management must prepare talking points with specific action points for the intervention. I recommend the plan include the following:

Firm management should choose an appropriate spokesperson to conduct the meeting, though all management should be present. Because the person being confronted might have a hierarchy view of life, the spokesperson needs to be that person within firm governance who has the greatest respect of the bully.

Prepare a statement of the reason for the meeting, and the purpose or goal to be gained by it. This will assure that the bully understands that his or her behavior must be changed to be acceptable. In most situations, a more comprehensive analysis and discussion of whether the actual conduct is consistent with firm culture will not be necessary. Since bullying is such a clear violation of all acceptable societal standards, and subjects the firm to potential civil liability, only a brief reminder to the bully should be necessary.

Though there is a natural tendency to desire to replay specific instances of misconduct, and though it is important for management to have investigated allegations, a general statement of the offending conduct is all that is necessary.

After stating the charges, state the assumption that management values the offending member, and the purpose of the meeting is to set up a plan of remediation. Though this assumption should be true, you should also state with specificity the ultimate consequence of repeated conduct, or failure to complete a required remediation plan.

Wrap up the meeting with a very specific plan of action. That plan will likely require treatment or coaching, and should assign a specific trusted advisor from management to monitor rehabilitation efforts. Accountability through periodic reporting back to management by the bully, and the advisor, should be clearly spelled out.

Though we often enjoy the character portrayals of the bully or jerk in movies and television shows, we should not be entertained by bullying in the office. Bullying is serious business, and a law firm without the resolve to address this type of offensive conduct exposes itself to liability, cost and expense. Firm management willing to implement a specific intervention plan will likely avoid the negative consequences that such conduct has on firm morale and culture.