Avoiding Bullies in the Executive Talent Acquisition Process

Nov 2, 2011

from "Miss Blackflag" on flickrThere’ve been comments about how the role of the HR professional is to protect the organization, not the individual. Whether the complaint is regarding budgets, restructuring, or harassment, HR staff members are typically charged with being the facilitator who shields the organization through tumultuous times. Aligning with the mission of serve and protect the organization, recruiters can be a front line which can prevent the bully from invading a workplace environment.

Different workplace arenas tend to attract different personality types. While educators and social organizations tend to attract those with “helping” personalities, corporate cultures tend to reward a more “assertive” personality.

With this in mind, recruiters can keep an eye out for the appropriate personalities for open positions, as well as learn some of the characteristics of a bully, ultimately avoiding recruiting them into an organization in the first place.

With corporate culture in mind, recruiters should be cognizant of the impact a bully can have on any organization. Bullying is a silent epidemic which is infecting many organizations; insightful recruiting can help stop bullying before it starts. Much of the information on workplace bullying confirms that the bully is the boss 72% of the time. Bullies are equal opportunity players, both men and women. While the shiny new executive needs to have the stamina and confidence to manage staff and execute strategy, the new executive also needs to be a leader that staff can follow.

People vote with their feet in organizations, not their mouths. Staff will not speak up against the newly recruited bully boss. Recruiters will find themselves in a heavy recruiting cycle when good people flee a toxic environment, crushed under the weight of the highly touted new bully boss. When an organization truly considers the cost of turnover, it should be motivated to stop the bullying problem before it starts, especially when most bullies are the boss.

Statistics show that 25% of the people bullied and 20% of those who witness bullying will leave the organization. Further, very conservative estimates show that for each person who leaves the organization, the organization loses at least 30% of that salary. A recent study on incivility documents that 53% of a workforce loses time worrying about a bullying incident or preparing how to avoid a bully. In this environment, 46% of staff lacked civility or thought about leaving; 10% of the staff actually left the organization, according to a book called, “The Cost of Bad Behavior: how incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it.”

So let’s do some math. Imagine your company has 35,000 people, and for the sake of this discussion their median income is $58,000. Add an ogre of a boss into the situation and 10% of the people actually leave. With the aforementioned statistical data, 350 people leave to escape the stress of a toxic environment. If 350 leave, and their median salary was $58,000, annual salary for this group is roughly $20.3 million. The 30% it cost to recruit, retrain, and replace these people is just over $6 million. These estimates of loss do not include the 53% of staff who lost productivity worrying about bullying events.

Recruiting and harboring a bully is expensive. These numbers are the result of hiring that high-priced bullying executive, who winds up chasing off your creative and productive staff.

And let’s be clear: it is the innovative and high-performing staff that flees. The mediocre staff simply becomes disengaged and collects a paycheck in a toxic environment. As bullying is the silent epidemic, draining organizations of already dwindling resources, the recruiting process can be the first stop on a list of processes and interventions which can protect a healthy work environment. Even first-rate companies need to continue to be on guard for loss due to bullying and incivility. Cisco, a group recognized as a particularly civil place, ranking in the Top 100 great places to work, has documented losses to bullies. By their own estimates, over $8 million has been lose to lacking productivity and turn over attributed to incivility. Therefore, recruiters should:

  1. Try to recognize potential bullies in the interview process. A bully is typically a good performer in the interview because he or she seeks to control the situation. However, interview procedures which include informal lunches, or tours, are opportunities to relax the recruited candidate and listen to his or her stories. Do they brag about “cracking the whip” or “cleaning house” in their last position? While restructuring might be necessary, a bully might take pleasure in asserting this control without empathizing with the impact on those staff members let go. Does the candidate make comments about being frustrated with staff and brag about coercive tactics? Does the candidate ever show genuine empathy or concern for previous subordinates? Often a bully doesn’t realize he or she is a bully, and will often talk about his or her behavior.
  2. Maintain relationships that are a critical part of the process, and know the culture that you are recruiting for. Knowing the culture can keep an unsuspecting recruiter from bringing a bully into your midst. If you know the corporate culture does not support shrinking violets, then don’t bring in a weak personality who can end up being a target. Even a Harvard MBA cannot compensate for a personality that will not weather an assertive corporate environment.
  3. Know how the company receives aggressive and assertive personalities. If the organization thrives on a vibe that is more like “Clash of the Titans,” bring in that assertive type. But if the organization is already facing high turnover, a shifting culture, or limited resources and RIFs which makes for a nervous staff, recruiting a barracuda in to “whip people into shape” might be exactly what you don’t want. Protect that culture with recruiting the right people — civil people. Internal recruiters might know their corporate culture; external recruiters should be able to give examples of how they understand a specific corporate culture and give specifics regarding that culture.
  4. Conduct a thorough vetting process and avoid the “post-and-pray” approach. Each leader has a record of good behavior, turnover, complaints, or accolades. In the vetting process, determine if this shiny new star had longevity in his or her staff who reported to him. Ask objective questions about the candidate’s strategies to motivate his or her previous staff. Did the strategies include respectful strategies, or coercion?
  5. Engage in proper onboarding procedures. Aggressive and assertive behavior relative to achieving objectives is good. Bullying away the productive people in the division is bad. Include anti-bullying policies in the onboarding process, and have such rules of civility discussed by the division head, even if via podcast or brief webinar. Stop the destructive behavior before it starts and protect the environment. Make it clear to the recruit throughout the process and at the point of hire that incivility will not be tolerated.
  6. Understand that workplace bullying can result in a complaint to human resources and/or an EEOC complaint. A savvy target of the bullying can find EEOC laws or a human resources policy to bring the situation to the forefront with a verbal or written complaint. These complaints often fall under categories of harassment — i.e., age, gender, and sexual. A harassment complaint, even an internal complaint, is costly and time consuming.

Work is tough enough as it is. Further, a new boss introduced into any environment will naturally invite questions or concerns from staff. If the new hire is properly vetted out, and also coached that the work culture is one of civility and will not tolerate bullying, the recruiter and the rest of HR staff are in a better position to reap the rewards of a productive organization, than to constantly recruit replacements for those fleeing a hostile environment. When an organization loses $30,000 to $100,000 for each target who is bullied, the organizational damages have an impact on everyone, as documented in an SHRM book called “Stop Bullying at Work.” If recruitment strategies can stop a bully from entering a new workplace, such strategies can save any organization millions of dollars.

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