Speech to Mental Health America

Thank you Paul for your generous introduction. It is an honor and privilege to for the Faas Foundation to sponsor and partner with Mental Health America and in Canada the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in the development and promotion of a much-needed program. Our aim is to convince the majority of employers to transform their cultures so workplaces become psychologically healthy and safe.

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 at minimum a one point five trillion dollar drain on the North American economy. It is one of the biggest societal and economic issues of our 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 a 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 and text messages on a 24/7 basis, excluded from meetings, information she required was withheld, she was gossiped about and associates turned on her or 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 for doing the same thing with to 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, management and the union to get away with manslaughter. 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 at 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, recognizing my deterioration, forced me, with their help, 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, is 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 my book - 'The Bully's Trap'. Who Are The Bullies And Why Do They Bully? Most people relate to bullying in schools. While there are similarities, there are differences, the most significant being that 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. Bullies 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 call the book 'The Bully's Trap'. So How Do Organizations Deal With All Of This? Short Answer - Usually They Don't! 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 from 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 systematic 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 fallen 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, 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!!

So what is a psychologically healthy workplace? It is a place where the rights of everyone; regardless of race, color, religion, physical and mental health, age, sexual orientation, gender, and status in the organization are respected and protected. It is a place where incivility and unethical activities are not tolerated, and employees feel a responsibility to report instances of wrongdoing. It is a place where proportionally more emphases is placed on eliminating unnecessary stress vs. coping with stress. It is a place where people who are challenged by mental illness, addiction, financial and family pressures and workplace stress freely disclose their condition before they deteriorate to the point where they are a danger to themselves and others knowing they will be supported. It is a place where addiction and mental health conditions are considered highly treatable afflictions vs. behavioral problems that need to be culled. And it is a place where employees are engaged, thrive, work to their full potential and are positive ambassadors of the organization and what they stand for.

We are embarking on this initiative in a time when cultural investments are viewed with skepticism, in part because of the inability to show a return. In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the SEC trying to force cultural change in the financial industry, Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College indicated, "Academics have examined and tried to measure corporate cultures for decades, but nobody has cracked the code" and he added "that getting valid data on this issue is really, really difficult. Perhaps the reason that the code has not been cracked by academics is because it should not be viewed as an academic or theoretical exercise. And this is what we are setting out to do, crack the code, debunk the myths and put forward a program that will be indisputable in saving thousands of lives, contribute at least one point five trillion dollars to the North American economy. Please join us in this journey so that those millions of people who live in terror today can feel safe and free tomorrow.

Thank you all so much for the generosity of your attention.