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2016 - make a resolution, or have resolve?

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox



I’ve never been one to make a long list of New Year’s resolutions. Mainly because it is so easy to fail at them – the lofty ideals we set at this time of the year; when we are looking back at the year that was and what we want to be different somehow in the coming year.   The only resolution I made in the past (which I have now stopped making) was that I would be ‘serene’ the next year.  I don’t think that is ever going to happen completely, but bit by bit I am learning.  Honestly.  Delegation appears to be key.

F0r 2016 I am quietly determined not to read the comments on public facebook pages or on twitter, and participate in the discussions.  I really don't need to participate in the outrage industry social media seems to breed these days and correcting grammar and spelling on the internet has lost its sparkle.

Resolutions are very different to goals made with resolve.  Goals can be broken down into achievable parts.  ‘I’m going to lose 12 kilos’ as a resolution often fails at the first hurdle when one hypothetically wakes up with a hangover on New Years’ Day unable to get off the couch to get any exercise. Yet having a goal of losing 12 kilos in the next 12 months can be broken down into losing 1 kilo a month, by exercising 5 days out of seven, by reducing your calorie intake so that output is higher than input and so on.  Possibly even giving up wine, if one was so inclined.   And every month that goes by and you see your goal reached is a mental tick in the box that you’re doing well.

And while resolutions come and go; resolve is easier to maintain, especially when you set yourself a goal and have a clear picture in your head, and written down on a piece of paper of what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it.

So think about your career and life goals for 2016, and how you are going to measure your success at achieving them.  Do you want a new client?  What steps do you need to take to win that work?  Then keep it?   Do you want to achieve a certain financial target?  What changes do you need to make to ensure that happens?  Do you want to move into a different area?  To whom do you need to speak?  Do you want start your own business?  Where are you going to start and who can help you?  Do you want to get a promotion?  How do you find out about the criteria and who makes the decision?  Do you need to make more time for yourself?  What has to change to make that happen? Do you need to give up control of some things?  What are you going to give up doing that has been distracting you?

Each of these questions is a whole blog post on its own, (especially the last two) but I want you to think about one important thing where we can all maintain resolve.

Is there a difficult conversation you have been putting off having with someone, whether it be a supervisor, colleague or junior employee?  If you are doing reruns in your head of what you could have, should have or would have said to someone, that is a sign that a difficult conversation needs to be had. Plan it, frame it, and have it.  Nothing changes unless you have those conversations – in particular the enormous space those thoughts are taking up in your head, and the energy expended in thinking about them.  If you are a manager of people one of the most important skills you can learn is how to have a difficult conversation.  I have yet to meet anyone who has dreaded a difficult conversation at work, but who has regretted finally having it, regardless of the outcome.

But back to the concept of serenity.  I will never be Princess Grace (assuming she was serene and not just faking it).   And most people with busy lives will have difficulty achieving serenity.   I am however learning to be mindful. And so can you.  I am day by day learning to focus my attention, to pause between tasks, and take a deep breath before moving on to the next one.  And so can you.  Trust me, it works.

And in 2016, let’s  all practice gratitude and kindness regularly ( have written about gratitude previously),  and be the person people look forward to seeing when they come to work.  Gratitude and kindness, however small the act, are never wasted.

Happy New Year everyone any may your 2016 be successful, whatever success means for you.



She is just being 'oversensitive'.

The most introspective of souls are often those that have been hurt the most

- Shannon Alder 


One of the many reasons I love Foxtel is the fact that on any given day there is at least one episode of Law & Order or CSI I can record to watch at some later point.  I quite enjoy the forensic nature of this stable of shows (for obvious reasons).  In addition, I quite enjoy seeing rapists,  murderers and child molesters get their come-uppance.  It’s very rare that I don't have a wide selection of these shows on my planner to watch at my leisure.

In Law & Order: Criminal Intent recently (Ok , it was a repeat, as are most of them) – a show called Baggage – Goren and Eames were investigating the murder of a female supervisor at an airline.  The woman supervised a number of  baggage handlers, all men, some of whom had been sexually harassing her.  At the risk of spoiling the ending, the murder actually had nothing to do with the sexual harassment, but her promotion to a management position.

This was a fictional story, yet it was easy to imagine this happening in real life

I found my blood boiling though at some of the detail of her claims of sexual harassment and bullying and how they were investigated.  The victim had kept a journal detailing the harassment, which included:

  • physical intimidation (standing in her way in passageways, requiring her to brush past them, standing over her desk)
  • organising team drinks at strip clubs
  • putting up playboy posters next to her locker
  • sexual, anonymous phone calls
  • unwelcome text messages
  • comments on her clothing and looks
  • threats of rape if she reported the harassment
  • urine and semen on her belongings in her locker

As well as her journal, she had told her father about the harassment.  His advice was to ignore it, and it would go away.  Which of course it didn't.

Regrettably, the HR Manager did not engage an external, independent investigator when the employee raised her concerns.  In the words of the Manager, it was determined, without investigating thoroughly, that she was ‘over-sensitive’ and exaggerating. 

Investigations involving sexual harassment are often difficult when only the complainant and the respondent have their versions of events. If this were a real case, a good investigator would have been able to speak to the father, would have seen her journal, and accessed phone records to back up claims of the harassing phone calls and texts, without pre-judging the issue based on personalities or biases.

Why an external investigator?

Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.

- Abraham Maslow

Many organisations, when faced with a complaint of bullying or sexual harassment, or other misconduct, elect to conduct the investigation ‘in-house’.  The ‘easy’ path is not necessarily the best one.  There are numerous examples of flawed or incomplete internal investigations resulting in criticisms from the Fair Work Commission and in some cases reinstatement following termination.  This, to be honest, is just awkward.

There are many advantages in engaging one:

  • Your internal resources may be stretched.  Investigations can be very time consuming and an external investigator can dedicate the necessary time and resources to get it completed in a timely way.
  • It is a stressful process for all involved — complainant, respondent and the witnesses, as well as other senior staff.  An external investigator can complete the investigation in a way that reduces the stress for the parties, and your internal HR team.
  • Investigations can have an enormous emotional impact on staff when they are conducted internally, when they know the people involved, as well as a strain on them intellectually, if they are not familiar with process and procedure.  External investigators are not emotionally invested in the outcome of the investigation, being engaged to investigate and report on the facts.  
  • An external investigator is completely impartial.  Without knowing the personalities of the people involved an external investigator brings no pre-conceived ideas or biases to the investigation.  This means it is likely to be perceived as a 'fairer' process.
  • Having an external investigator means that your HR Manager, or other senior staff member who would ordinarily conduct the investigation, is able to provide 'emotional scaffolding', if needed, to the staff involved.
  • The seniority of the people involved may require an external investigator.  If, for example, the complaint involves someone to whom your HR Manager reports, it is not appropriate for that person to conduct the investigation.
  • Perceptions of other staff can be more easily managed — internal investigations might be perceived as a ‘white wash’ or a ‘ticking boxes’ exercise, and looked upon with cynicism.  Bringing in an external investigator shows staff that management takes the issue seriously.
  • An external investigator is more experienced in conducting investigations and able to extract information others may not be able to.  Professional investigators are very used to the charmers, the silent aggressors, the blamers, the people who don’t want to be involved and the underminers, and know how to deal with them.
  • When an external investigator is engaged, it is unlikely to result in allegations of a lack of natural justice.
  • Where recommendations are called for, management can act on them, as advice from the Investigator.  This takes some pressure off management in terms of perceptions of staff in how the matter has been handled.

There is always a place for investigations to be conducted internally, but don’t under-estimate the value in having an external investigator deal with a difficult issue for you.


Lawyers and the ripple effect of poor work environments

It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver

- Mahatma Ghandi

A recent study by Dr Rebecca Michalak of PsychSafe, has shown that the legal profession has the lowest levels of health and well being of white collar workers, and that they are also the highest users of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.  In fact substance abuse is approximately double that of other white collar workers.  You can read a summary of her report here.

It is no secret that the very nature of the legal profession is inherently stressful — long working hours, the tyranny of time sheets and budgets, demanding clients, competition, and a pessimistic view of the world as a result of always having to look for the worst case scenario and plan for it, all contribute to stress, which over a long period of time cam lead to many health problems.  These health problems include many physical illnesses and also mental illnesses.

Sadly, substance abuse can be a by-product of mental health issues as those suffering from it attempt to self medicate, rather than admit to it.

Dr Michalak said that rather than teaching resilience, to cope with stress,  law firms needed to take proactive, preventative measures around the systemic failings and work environments to prevent it happening at all.

I agree with Dr Michalak - at present the legal profession has almost double the rate of mental health diagnoses as the general population.  This is a systemic issue not a personal one.

Disturbingly, her report also found that:

Lawyers were also more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behaviour in the workplace, including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition, and destabilisation from colleagues, as well as sexual harassment

The ripple effect of poor work practices and environments is large, and getting bigger.


World Kindness Day in the workplace

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

Friday 13 November 2015 is World Kindness Day.  This day is part of a World Kindness Movement (WKM) that started at a conference in Japan almost 20 years ago.

The mission of the WKM is "to inspire individuals towards greater kindness and to connect nations to create a kinder world".

This is the WKM on a macro level - changing the world.  We can, however, all make a difference by practising kindness every day and on this day, consciously practising kindess in the workplace.  Imagine if we could change the world by changing one workplace at a time.

Kindness does not have to be a grand gesture.  Nor does is have to cost money.  Kindness can be a small gesture, genuinely made.  Some of the simplest acts of kindness in the workplace are:

  • holding a door open
  • offering to make someone a cup of tea
  • answering someone's phone and taking a message
  • offering to get extra materials from the stationery room
  • keeping the lift doors open when you see someone rushing to catch the lift
  • remembering colleague's birthdays and acknowledging them
  • taking an interest in peoples' interests
  • showing genuine empathy to someone who is upset

Empathy is one of the best character traits to have - it makes the practice of kindness easy.  And authentic.  Practising kindness because you 'have to' is emotionally exhausting.  Authenticity is essential.

The really good news about kindness, however is twofold.  First,  is that is is contagious.  We take our cues from other people.   When we witness or experience someone showing us kindness, we experience something called moral elevation - an emotion we experience after witnessing an act of kindness, compassion, understanding or forgiveness.  We are more likely to be kind and helpful ourselves in that state.  If leaders show kindness, their employees are also more likely to do so.

Secondly, practising kindness gives another person the opportunity to express gratitude,  a very underrated virtue.  In turn, having someone say 'thank you' gives us a good feeling and also increases the well being of the person expressing it.

When you think about it, kindness creates a giant warm circle of happiness.  What's not to like?



Power, Position, Prestige - and deafening silence

Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.

- Bill Cosby

I used to be a huge Bill Cosby fan.  I was a fan long before his days as Dr Cliff Huxtable, the patriarch of the Huxtable family in The Cosby Show (it never occurred to me to query then why it was called The Cosby Show when the main character was Dr Huxtable, but I suspect narcissism is the answer.  But I digress...)

When he was just a comedian, I used to listen to many audio recordings of his comedy routines including Fat Albert (“Fat Albert had a car”) and his hilarious take on parenthood (“I ran out of petrol, just shutting the car door”).  When he starred in The Cosby Show as Dr Huxtable, the head of a household of five children with a working wife (a lawyer, no less) it was both hilarious and honest, and he became much admired as not just a comedian, but a successful TV star and an admired family man.  Many grieved when his only son was killed in a tragic accident, because they felt they knew him.

Sadly my fan girl days for Bill Cosby are long gone with the increasingly long line of women alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape at his hands.  At last count there were more than 50 women who have come forward with these allegations.

I am far from a fan of trial by media; however even if only 10% of the claims are true, they are horrifying.  It is not a numbers game — that figure of 10% is to answer the many people who are asking 'why now?', and 'are they just in it for the money?'.  Let’s assume for a moment that all of the claims are true (and note that none of these claims have yet been tested in Court) —  how is it possible for a man to avoid prosecution or publicity over the course of  such a long career of harassing women?

The answer is that power, prestige and position engender silence.

Clint Smith (educator and poet), in an excellent, and short, TED talk on the danger of silence, said:

“Silence is the residue of fear.”

He was not talking about sexual harassment specifically, but his words are very true.

In my work as an Investigator, I find that very often women who claim to have been sexually harassed have been reluctant to make the allegations, and this is largely borne out of fear.  They are still fearful even once they have plucked up the courage to come forward- and that decision is not taken lightly.

Fear takes many forms.  One of them is fear for your job.  For example, I once listened to a single mother of two children who was, or had been, on probation in a new job when she experienced sexual harassment.  She said at the time that she feared being terminated while on probation if she raised the issue at the time.  She said “What chance did I have of succeeding in bringing this to a good resolution, when he could have terminated me at any time, and for no reason?  I had two children to feed and I needed that job”.  Unfortunately she tolerated sexual harassment and, from what she told me, sexual assault for fear of being sacked, until she found another job and left.  She left, and her boss is probably treating someone else the same way.

Another very genuine fear  for women is job prospects.  If the person doing the harassing is someone with decision making power over salary or promotions, raising an allegation of sexual harassment can put someone in a difficult position, particularly when there was no one else able to make that kind of decision.  Also, in a structure where the perpetrator is the only one 'talking up' to his immediate supervisor, the likeliood of support is perceived as low.

In Bill Cosby’s case, many of the women were young actresses hoping for a “break” in the industry who needed to work, and the old adage that “You’ll never work in this town again” was no doubt going through their minds at the thought of raising an allegation against the much loved Bill Cosby, after the shock of discovering that the person they were meeting with was not the loveable Cliff Huxtable, but a sexual predator.

Fear of not being believed is  another very genuine fear that women have.  And this is more relevant where the perpetrator does have power, prestige and position.  Who would believe that Dr Cliff Huxtable, the loveable father of five (and note Bill Cosby was also a “happily married” father of five children at the time) could be responsible for such despicable acts?

The same goes for senior men in organisations who appear to have a lot of power and prestige that goes with their position.  When men put on a public face of being happily married, a good boss, kind to animals, or whatever else they want people to believe, it is hard for people to believe they could be capable of assualt or sexual harassment.  In fact, peopld don't want to believe it.

At work, as much as in Hollywood, women fear not being believed, fear losing their jobs or fear that their careers will stall if they speak up.

Silence can be deafening.  Shame associated with the events surrounding the allegations can also be responsible for the silence around this issue.  In cases where alcohol or drug use is involved, after hours, many women feel partially or completely responsible for what happened and do not want the spotlight turned on them, questioning their own behaviour and their contribution to the events that transpired.  This is so akin to victim blaming in rape cases it’s not funny — it's just a question of degrees.  In the words of Beverly Johnson in Vanity Fair:

“I sat there still stunned by what happened the night before, confused and devastated by the idea that someone I admired so much had tried to take advantage of me, and use drugs to do so.  Had I done something to encourage his actions? …

For a long time I thought it was something that only happened to me, and that I was somehow responsible.  So I kept my secret to myself, believing this truth needed to remain in the darkness.  But the last four weeks have changed everything, as so many women have shared similar stories, of which the press have belatedly taken heed.”

Shame is easy to come by; hard to get rid of.  A client I spoke to recently said that she once offered to drive her very drunk boss home from a work function, and that he made a pass at her in the car — at the time she was embarrassed but made no complaint.  However, having rejected his advances, she then became the target of bullying behaviour.  When she plucked up the courage to speak to HR, the first words she was greeted with was 'Why on earth did you get into a car with him?'.  The first reaction was to somehow hold her responsible for his actions.

What is interesting is that in the Bill Cosby case, once someone came forward, other alleged victims of Bill Cosby have also come forward and their stories are disturbingly similar.  In workplaces, it is unlikely that someone who indulges in the sexual harassment of female employees does it only once.  Whilst silence can be golden, it can also mean that the act goes unpunished and other women will suffer the consequences.

Break the silence.  Tell your truth.



Psychopaths in the workplace

If you know someone who cares more about power and material things than people, watch them very closely. You may be dealing with a psychopath.

- Michelle Parsons


Workplace psychopaths can appear normal.  They are also mostly charming, on the surface at least, because charm is one of the many tricks they use to manipulate others, and they  lack empathy, meaning that they cannot understand the feelings of others, or put themselves in the shoes of others.  They are almost always narcissists as well – making every situation all about them, particularly if something has gone wrong – it becomes about what they did right and everyone else did wrong.  These people are walking amongst us!

By the time you recognise an office psychopath it may be too late, as the damage they have done to the workplace will be enormous.

Professor Robert Hare, a criminal psychologist, developed a diagnostic test to determine whether someone is a psychopath or not (called the PCL-R).  For more information see the article here.  

This is a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 if it doesn’t apply, 1 if it somewhat applies and 2 if it fully applies.

Some of these (and I am not including those relating to criminal psychopathic behaviour here) include:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Being cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotional Shallowness (genuine emotion is very short-lived, probably fake  and egocentric, i.e. it becomes about them)
  • Callousness; lack of empathy
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Tendency  to be bored easily
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of behavioural control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility


A score of 30 or more  out of a possible 40 would qualify someone as psychopathic, according to Hare.

Recognise anyone with whom you work?  Or live with? The latter is potentially scary.

Psychopaths can be fun to work with, for a while – a tendency to be bored can be seen as someone who is always coming up with good and interesting ideas.  Being charming means that they are good at giving compliments (even if they are manipulating you by doing so).  A grandiose sense of self worth will at first appear to be nothing more than confidence.  Impulsivity can extrovert as having a keen sense of fun.

But be warned – a psychopath is a dangerous work colleague or employee.  They  will never accept responsibility for a failed project; any goals they fail to achieve (no matter how unrealistic)  will be the fault of someone else; they will lie to get out of any difficulty; they will turn any success into being about them.  If a psychopath is in a position of power and the only one doing the talking to management senior to him or her, you can be sure nothing good is being said about any work colleagues or junior employees.  Because they are so charming and often, as I call them ‘kiss up and kick down’ people’, senior management is unlikely to believe someone who raises a concern about their behaviour.

Psychopaths are also unlikely to bully anyone overtly – bullying will take the form of undermining, isolation, exclusion, gossip, and other subtle means.

A recent article listed the top 10 careers for the highest percentages of psychopaths – there are few surprises here (although I was surprised by the addition of clergy on the list).   

Of course the good news is that only 4% of CEOs are diagnosable as psychopaths – 4 times that of the general population.  But it is important to focus on the positive – that 96% of CEOs are not. Of course where does that leave lawyers who become CEOs?  Is that a double whammy?

As an investigator, I am always on the lookout for psychopathic traits that could impact evidence - particularly the tendency to be charming, as they will no doubt try to charm me to influence the outcome.  I am not easily fooled.



From Class Room to Tea Room

The events of childhood do not pass but repeat themselves like seasons of the year.

Eleanor Farjeon

Bullies are everywhere. I don't know of a single person who has not experienced either first hand bullying or witnessed bullying, whether it be in the classroom or the workplace.

Real bullies have an enormous impact on their victims - from developing lack of confidence, to anxiety and depression, and sadly some of this behaviour and the results of it start at school.  Studies have linked the onset of depression in adulthood to being bullied as a child - you can read more about that in this Forbes article.

I am a fan of the show Seinfeld, and recall an episode in which a lost school library book comes to haunt Jerry, by way of a large fine. In his quest to recall what happened to the book, and discovering along the way that their bullying gym teacher was now homeless, and living on the street outside the library, Jerry and George remembered the treatment dished out to them at school - George and Jerry's gym teacher referred to George Costanza as 'Cantstandya', which the jocks at school of course enjoyed. But the epitome of the bullying was 'the wedgie' where the jocks would give them a wedgie (pulling one's underpants up through the shorts). An 'atomic wedgie' occurred when the waistband was ripped off. Elaine is quite horrified by this and the conversation goes like this:

Elaine:  Boys are sick

Jerry: What do girls do?

Elaine:  We just tease someone til they develop an eating disorder

Cue the canned laughter!  The delivery of these lines make it funny but the reality  is that for the victims of bullying it is no laughing matter, whether as a child or an adult. While I have no doubt atomic wedgies could still be 'a thing' in some workplaces, they are hopefully very uncommon.  Other forms of school room bullying which are still very common in the workplace include:

  • Name calling
  • Humiliation
  • Teasing
  • Exclusion
  • Isolation
  • 'Ganging up'
  • Withholding information
  • Withholding invitations
  • Physical intimidation
  • Actual physical violence
  • Gossiping - spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • Use of social media to humiliate and intimidate

At school, a bully may invite the whole class except one person to a party.  At work, a bully might invite the whole team to drinks after work, except one person. At school, a bully may stand over a classmate and threaten to hurt them if they don't hand over their lunch or lunch money.  At work, a bully might stand over a colleague and threaten to hurt them if they don't do something for them.  At school a group of students might 'gang up' on a classmate and tease and humiliate them.  At work, a group of workers might similarly 'gang up' on a work colleague.

Of course, to be bullying the behaviour has to fall within the legal definition of bullying, but you get the idea.

When you think about it, adult bullying is incredibly childish. It is the same as schoolyard bullying - the only differences are in demographics and geography.  The impact on the victims is the same, if not worse. It is a source of hope that the many programs being introduced in schools will see a positiove impact in years to come in workplaces.  If not,  perhaps bullies in the workplace should be treated as children - give them detention, groundings, suspension and expulsion!

Fair Work issues first order on bullying

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time

- Maya Angelou

Since 1 January 2015 the Fair Work Commission has had the power to issue 'anti-bullying' orders and until recently had not issued one.  This could be for any number of reasons - the employees have left their employer, so there is no risk of the bullying continuing in the workplace, the parties settle the matter privately, or no bullying is found to have existed.

The parties involved in the matter were not identified.  The behaviour complained of included:

  • belittling
  • swearing and yelling
  • undermining the work of others
  • physical intimidation
  • threats of violence
  • attempts to incite the applicants to victimise others

An internal investigation was conducted; and  the employer conceded that the behaviour amounted to bullying.  The alleged bully made concessions and supported the outcome, which was a contributing factor to the non-identification of the parties.

Commissioner Hampton said

The contribution of the parties, and their support advisors and representatives to that final outcome, bodes well for the re-establishment of safe and constructive working relationships upon the applicants’ forthcoming return to the workplace.


In this case, it appears that self awareness on the part of the alleged bully, and a willingness to comply with the orders, with support from the employer, has contributed to a successful outcome.

The full text of the decision can be  found here.

Collaboration from all parties assisted in the resolution of the matter.



Belle Gibson - the art of attention seeking

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another

- Shakespeare

Belle Gibson, the now disgraced ‘social media entrepreneur’ has become the poster girl for deceit on a large scale in Australia. 

Last night on 60 Minutes, Tara Brown interviewed her, to try and get answers out of Ms Gibson as to how, and why, she managed to deceive so many people for so long, about her cancer diagnosis and recovery, through diet and in particular whole foods.  Ms Gibson made millions out of  a cookbook and an App developed from her cookbook.  Worse, she convinced many people to ignore the advice of oncologists and traditional medical intervention on the basis of her miraculous recovery.  You can see the interview here.  It is clear from the whole fiasco that Ms Gibson is a chronic liar and shameless attention seeker. I still can't believe how few people called Belle Gibson's version of events into question - the whole sorry saga could have easily been prevented.  Sadly, like every other narcissist, Ms Gibson blames everyone but herself for the situation in which she now finds herself.

This is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence and also occurs in employment relationships.

On a smaller scale, I have twice now investigated employees who have been suspected of faking cancer for both sympathy, and to avoid performance management.  I still say ‘suspected’ because in both cases, the employee resigned before formal performance management commenced, although many years later they are both still very much alive and healthy.

In investigating this type of issue it is important to tread lightly.  While suspicions are aroused for any number of reasons, the truth is that the employee may be terribly ill, in one way or another.   However in both of these cases the following issues arose:

  • Performance was not at the expected level for the role and this continued for a significant period of time
  • The employee was under 30 years of age
  • The employee had regular ‘dramatic’ events in life, not related to health, requiring their absence from work, and garnering a great deal of sympathy
  • The employee was considered to be very ‘brave’ in coming to work when so ill, and gained sympathy and attention from colleagues, making management of the employee difficult.  In one case, other employees had organised fund raising activities for the ‘sick’ employee, as well as home cooked meals
  • The investigation started because the ill health suddenly became dramatically worse when performance issues were raised – in one case, cancer which had been in remission for a number of years, suddenly returned as a secondary cancer
  • The employee refused to allow me to obtain a report from their treating oncologist as the effect of performance management on their treatment and health.  Neither would tell me the name of the treating oncologist, notwithstanding that every other facet of their illness had been freely and embarrassingly shared with other in the workplace
  • Lengthy research had to be done in relation to common treatment regimes for the particular cancers which bore little resemblance to the treatment the employees said they had, or were, undergoing
  • The employee had gone to great lengths to look sick during work hours (including shaved heads and scarves)  yet social media accounts (which were not private) showed them to be enjoying busy social lives which also included heavy drinking and smoking – when challenged as to absence from work on a Monday the reason given was usually treatment rather than a hangover
  • An examination of email and work provided mobile phone records proved the employees had lied about their whereabouts at times of medical appointments or other events requiring their absence from work, including occasions when compassionate leave had been granted
  • The employee resigned when asked to respond to issues raised with them


I suspect this was a pattern of behaviour -  leaving their employment when the deceit was discovered and probably starting the deceit again.  It should be noted, however, that at no stage was an allegation put to the employee about having 'faked' being sick. The allegations were about lying about other events related to their employment, but in also asking for details of their treating oncologist, each will have known that suspicions had been raised.

Following their departure from the organisations, further investigations revealed other instances of deceit involving credit, taxi vouchers and various other work related benefits.

The level of hurt and anger in those organisations when the level of the deception was uncovered cannot be described.  Staff who had been through treatment for cancer or who had lost a loved one to cancer were among those who had provided support.

Sadly, I believe in one of these cases the employee was psychiatrically ill, but in the other the employee was no more than a narcissistic attention seeker, who was a chronic liar!  I don’t know if either sought help, but the most important lesson from this for me was to trust my instincts.  I thought something was not quite right from a short time after their employment commenced.

For employers, as with all investigations, policies which allow workplace investigators to review email correspondence and phone records for work provided mobile phones are vital to uncovering the truth.  Unlike most workplace investigations which involve allegations made by one person against another,  this type of investigation requires a slow and steady approach, particularly as the employee may be seriously ill.



Investigations - so you think your Facebook is private?

A team is not a group of people who work together.  A team is a group of people who trust each other

- Simon Sinek

More and more in my work as an investigator, the use of social media is brought into complaints about behaviour, predominantly as evidence of bullying or other misconduct.

A recent investigation into bullying produced an interesting turn of events.  A witness produced a screen shot of a Facebook group message sent to her and others in the workplace.  She said she had felt uncomfortable about it at the time, but had mentioned it to no one at the time at the time either, not wanting to 'get involved'.  She told me that she had not participated in the conversation and had 'left' the conversation once other messages came in so she only had the one screen shot.  What was telling, was that the respondent to the bullying allegation had sent a group message saying:

'I can't stand that stupid bitch. I  am determined to make her life so f***ing miserable that she'll wish she had never applied for the job in the first place.  Who's with me?'

Case closed?  Not so fast, unfortunately.  Bullying has to happen 'at work' for it to be considered to be workplace bullying, so the usefulness of this one Facebook message, between several people from the workplace, sent at night outside work hours, only goes so far.  It is important to note that no name was mentioned in the Facebook message, even though the witness said she understood it to be referring to the complainant.

The behaviour complained of 'at work' needs to meet the litmus test, on the balance of probabilities, that it is bullying.  The screen shot however was useful as supporting material as to intent, and the probability that the behaviour was unreasonable.  The evidence of bullying was such that it was proven, on the balance of probabilities, to have occurred, over several months and in several different ways.  The person who sent the message was the respondent, and the behaviour complained of commenced at approximately the same time as the message.  But the message itself, was not sufficient.

The important lesson for both employees and employers is that even if Facebook pages and other forms of social media are set to 'private', it is still possible to access this information.  Others may copy or print off posts or forward them to other people, in the workplace and to a wider audience.  Technological advances also mean that employees with smart phones provided by their employer may have their private social media presence monitored from time to time.  Employers must review their policies on a regular basis to ensure their policies keep pace with technology, and that staff are aware of those policies.  This client also amended their policy to include a 'bystander' clause to encourage those who witness inappropriate behaviour to step up and support the recipient.

Of course, the number one lesson is that people should always treat their work colleagues with respect - it is not that hard to be kind, to be honest.

Social media has many advantages but it comes with great responsibility as well.  Anything you post, even if you think it is private, can still be used as evidence against you, and others in some cases,  in an investigation



Is your Valentine a co-worker?

Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

- Plato

Office romances are as old as, well, office buildings.  It is hardly a surprise given the numbers of people who work, and the amount of time they spend there.  Often people spend more time with work colleagues than with anyone else, including partners and children in some cases.  Throw in a stressful job, a work colleague who understands the pressures, common interests, and romance is sure to follow, at least for those who are otherwise unattached or in committed relationships.  One of the most successful relationships that started in the office is that of Michelle and Barack Obama. Michelle Robinson as she then was, was assigned to mentor the young Barack Obama, as a work experience student. On the other side of the Presidential coin however is the more infamous office romance between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

A recent survey by Vault.com called 'Love is in the Air' has some interesting statistics for us on office romances.  For both men and women, 8% said they found their permanent partners at work, while about 50% of each (slightly more men) admitted to having a relationship with a work colleague.

So office romance and relationships are here to stay, but unfortunately can give rise to many and varied problems in the workplace - not least of which of course is the secret relationship that is found out in the most embarrassing of ways by ending up on the front page of the newspaper, and as the latest youtube hit.  For this unfortunate couple, they learned the hard way (pardon the pun), that  in the current technologically literate world, a  sexual interlude after business hours, can be caught on camera and shared. Even more regrettable is the fact that the partner and former partner of the two involved (and in one case, children) have been embarrassed by the publicity.  And while as a general rule relationships are no one else's business, in this case their employer has been embarrassed as well, by being named.  It is likely that because of the way Google works, this article may well be the first that comes up when one searches Marsh Ltd.

While it is unlikely, according to news reports,  they will lose their jobs over this incident, it is said that they will no longer be able to work together (and they may still face disciplinary action).  Of course the embarrassment and identification of the parties involved may mean that they leave the workplace voluntarily.

Leaving aside infidelity for the purposes of this article, working together is one of the most difficult aspects of office based romances. The emphasis is on the word work, because you are still expected to be able to do your job, while conducting a personal relationship. This is largely because those involved in office romances try to keep it a secret.   

So consider this - what is the reason for it being kept a secret?  The very fact that you don't want anyone to know indicates that perhaps you think there may be a perception of impropriety.

If you are considering throwing caution to the wind, consider these problem situations:

Is one of you in a position to affect decisions about promotion or salary?

In this situation you need not just to decline to  participate in a discussion about promotion or salary, you need to absent yourself from the room.  Other people may feel that they can't speak freely if you are in the room.  So clearly this is difficult to do if the relationship is a secret.

Can you honestly avoid allegations of favouritism?

Imagine if you have contributed to an important decision about your lover - and it comes to light after the event that you were in a relationship at the time.  Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the decision, there will always be a perception of impropriety.

Are you in a situation where one reports to the other?

This situation can also lead to accusations of favouritism - the best work, always good feedback, favourable treatment re leave, taking holidays together. Allegations of conflict of interest may arise.   Sadly, if the relationship doesn't last, it will be unworkable unless both parties are extraordinarily mature.

If you want to be part of the 8% who meet their permanent partners at work, honesty is the best policy. On that note, be aware that use of company funds to conduct a relationship with a co-worker can lead to summary dismissal.  So beware the conference attendance together, flights and miscellaneous lunches that get put on the company credit card, or exorbitant phone bills including texts and phone calls between you.  If your employer is looking for a reason to dismiss you, this will be the reason, not the relationship itself.

'Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction' - Edward Teller

Career lessons from Winston Churchill

Success is not final, failure is not fatal:it is the courage to continue that counts.

- Winston Churchill

This last weekend saw the 5oth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century - the man who was Prime Minister twice, and most importantly during World War II, showing great resilience, purpose and strength of character.  He came to be a symbol of steadiness and strength for the population, while enjoying a few eccentricities which endeared him to a nation while PM and long after.  One wonders with the advent of social media would those eccentricities be tolerated today!

Churchill was a prolific writer, both of his personal memoirs and history.  He once famously said 'History will be kind to me for I intend to write it'.  He was also a great orator and his stirring speeches inspired a nation, and the world and are still used today as examples of great speeches.

I want to share with you some of my favourite Winston Churchill quotes and how you can apply them to your career.

Success comes from going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm

I use the word failure here in the generic sense, and also in the sense of how we perceive ourselves.  There will be many times we feel discouraged and disappointed with ourselves and consequently feel like a failure.  It is how we deal with that which determines whether or not we succeed.  I have written about this in more detail previously.

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference

How you approach your career, your life and even relationships can impact the result.  Accentuating the positive and having the right attitude, even in difficult circumstances is important to your success.  If you are holding a leadership position, or aspire to one, your attitude is all the more important because those you lead will take their cues from you. If you have a negative outlook, whether temporary or permanent, this will affect your team, and therefore your results.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen

Sometimes, the most courageous thing you can do is to take onboard constructive or negative feedback and not argue the toss about whether it is right or wrong.  Effective listening when someone is speaking is hard - our natural instinct is to fight back when we feel threatened and being told you have done something wrong or that your performance is not up to scratch is perceived as a threat by our brains which goes into fight or flight mode.  Learn to quiet those responses and listen to what is being said.  Even if you don't think it is right, deal with the perception.

Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential

Keep at it - your career is a marathon not a sprint.  Applying yourself consistently to your work and setting goals on a regular basis will get you further than just being clever.

Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary.  It fulfils the same function as pain in the body.  It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things

Similar to the quote above, we will never improve without honest discussions about what we can improve.  Developing a growth mindset - that is, knowing that our intelligence and skills are not set in stone but can be improved - means that every bit of feedback, from colleagues, supervisors and clients, will make us better at what we do.

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

Philanthropy is a good thing, and I have written before about the benefits of gratitude.  But think about this - when you reach a point in your career when you can mentor someone junior to you, do it.  Mentoring brings great rewards not just to the mentee but for the mentor as well.  There is something intrinsically satisfying seeing someone you have mentored succeed and develop in their own career.

A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on

Stay out of office politics as much as possible and don't involve yourself in gossip about other people.

Difficulties mastered are opportunities won

Often our supervisors take the path of least resistance, delegating work to the person they know can do it, a 'safe pair of hands'.  Sometimes we are reluctant to take on new challenges for fear of making a mistake.  This will cause stagnation, and ultimately boredom.  Ask for challenging work if you have mastered a particular task or work type.  Challenge yourself and you will be surprised at the opportunities this will bring.

And finally, I will leave you with my favourite Winston Churchill quote

Every day you may make progress.  Every step may be fruitful.  Yet there will stretch out before you  an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path.  You know you will never get to the end of the journey.  But this, far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.




Inclusive behaviour may prevent bullying claims

There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.

-Pablo Picasso

In my work, I am often appointed as an independent investigator in relation to complaints of workplace behaviour – most often these are bullying complaints and occasionally sexual harassment.    Complaints of sexual  harassment are often difficult because without witnesses it is usually a case of ‘he said, she said’.  Occasionally there will be a ‘smoking gun’.

In relation to bullying, these cases are difficult for entirely different reasons.  I often say that ‘bullying is in the eye of the beholder’.  What might be perceived as bullying by one person would not bother another.  Regardless of the sensitivities of the complainant, bullying claims all have to be investigated in light of the relevant legislative definitions, which involve what is meant to be an objective test but is in fact the very subjective test of reasonableness.

A few things have been made clear over the course of my work in this area, combined with the work I have done with Diversity Partners recently in relation to inclusive leadership.  Inclusion is about how people feel at work, and it is possible to bully by exclusion.  So the very behaviours that go with being an inclusive leader can also help prevent  a bullying claim.

We often attribute certain behaviours to a person rather than a situation they are in.  I can recall starting a new school in year 6 – it was a small school and I started in the middle of a term. There were 16 eleven year olds in the class before I joined.  Binna Kandola talks about the effects of ‘In Groups’ and ‘Out Groups’ in his book ‘The Value of Difference:  Eliminating Bias in Organisations' and I was very much a one girl member of the out group that year.  That group of students made me feel isolated, strange, different and unwelcome.  I can recall walking into the classroom and they were looking at my report card from my previous school which had been on the teacher’s desk, and one of them said ‘you must think you’re really smart’.  I said nothing.  I was very quiet and tried to physically shrink in the classroom.  After a while I became angry and my natural extraversion kicked in and I started fighting back verbally.  This made it worse of course.

I was then labelled arrogant, rude, and bitchy.

Did I feel bullied?  Absolutely.  Did they intend to make me feel like that?  Probably not. 

Children of course don’t think as adults – but imagine the above scenario in a work situation.  A new team member starts, and feels excluded, different.  She sees the team members looking at her CV or performance review documents and making snarky comments.  She goes quiet then gets angry.  Does she feel bullied? Absolutely.  Did they intend to make her feel like that?  Probably not.  But the potential for a bullying claim is there.

Had this behaviour been properly attributed to the situation and NOT the person, the result would have been entirely different.  Had those school children or the team members chosen to think and act inclusively, the situation would never have deteriorated.  So think about your behaviour – are you acting inclusively?  Are you inviting this person to be involved, getting to know them, asking how they are getting on, offering to help with the new environment and introducing them to the people they need to know?

Inclusive behaviour, along with reflection on your communication style, will go a long way to preventing a bullying claim

My top tips for behaviour at the office Christmas party

What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day

Phyllis Diller

Tis the season to be jolly, as the welsh Christmas carol goes.  It is also the season for the office Christmas party, and for those who work in HR, the prospect of an investigation the next working day.  I always had a rule not to have too much to drink at the office party (being in HR and possibly the investigator) and to always leave before it got too out of hand.  The first was fairly easy to do; the second not so much, and I invariably got to be holding someone’s hair back as they were sick, just as I was about to get into a cab, or have to mediate a dispute over a spilled drink, or listen to someone complain about someone else relentlessly.

Let's assume the organisation you work for has appropriate policies and training in place around what is and is not appropriate workplace behaviours.  Here is a good article from BRW about the need for those policies and procedures.

Unfortunately, people sometimes forget these important instructions, usually after the fifth drink.  And the golden rule of course is DO NOT SEXUALLY HARASS ANYONE.  That goes without saying — and if you happen to witness someone being harassed, please don’t just stand by watching someone do this. Step in, step up and take responsibility for making it stop. 

So based on extensive research and personal experience here are my top tips to remember when attending the office Christmas Party (CP):

1.  Decide if you really do want to go.  

This is particularly important if you have:

(a) embarrassed yourself at a previous CP; or

(b) a philosophical objection to partying on a boat, from which you can’t escape, as I do; or

(c) both

In a small office, it might be considered rude not to attend unless you have to attend a wake for great aunt Myrtle.  In a larger organisation you probably won’t be missed, and frankly, with some parties, watching reruns of Friends on Foxtel for the 1000th time might be a better option, particularly if point (a) above is relevant to your decision making.

But generally the office CP is fun and something you don't want to miss out on, at the same time not wanting to end up on a new hit YouTube video.

If (a) applies and you decide to go, please make sure you have a buddy to keep an eye on you and send you on your way if things get out of hand.  Unless of course point (b) above applies — then you are stuck.

2.  Are you a happy drunk or a morose drunk?

If you’re going to drink alcohol, make sure you know ahead of time if you are a happy drunk or a morose drunk.  Seek feedback from your friends if necessary.  If you’re a morose drunk you may not have many friends of course, but in either case it’s a good idea to know beforehand.  Happy drunks are more likely to be tolerated unless any form of harassment is involved.

3.  The digital camera/smartphone camera/photo booth is not your friend

I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am that I grew up in the age where not only a film from a camera had to be taken to the Kodak shop to be processed before you even knew what was on the camera, but there was also no internet to instantly upload photos.  Photos can be fun - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Spapchat are easy ways to share photos which also means it is easy for others to see you having SUCH a great time (as you drink your 14th vodka lime and soda, beer or champagne).  Also remember if you upload photos late in the evening it usually means someone is going to be embarrassed, and DON'T, whatever you do, put your firm or organisation name to anything that might cause embarrassment.  Of course, the risk management part of the brain is the first to be affected by alcohol so you may not remember this advice.

Related to this — beware the photo booth.  It’s always funny until there is photographic evidence of misbehaviour.  One minute you're goofing around in the photo booth and the next lips have locked and there is a photo and a marriage break up.

4.  This is not the time for teary confessions/grievances

The CP is  not the time to tell HR Manager about the number of times you called in sick but actually weren’t — that instead you just hate work so much and you  'just couldn’t be ‘f***ed’ coming to work.'  Excellent let’s talk about that on Monday, shall we?  HR Mangers remember all of these conversations, because they are usually sober.

This is also not the time to air grievances about work colleagues or, in fact, the boss.  Especially don’t tell the boss you think he is a c***, that everyone thinks the same and that basically everyone hates him or her.  Even if it is true (although I wouldn’t use that word). This is a true story.

The CP  is not the time for teary confessions of attraction/love or indiscretions. Ever.  Cue Monday morning embarrassment.

5.  Bear witness and step in

If you happen to witness someone being harassed, please don’t just stand by watching someone do this.  Step in, tell them they’re behaving badly, and take the person being set upon away.  Then follow up with them the next day to make them apologise.

6. Rethink your dance moves

Dirty dancing was great in the movie because of Patrick Swayze - not so great when a very drunk person attempts it, especially with someone who doesn't want to participate.  Ain't nobody got time for that.  Oh, and if 'Whip It' by Devo comes on — it is never a good idea to jump on someone's back and pretend to whip that person like a racehorse.  Refer to point 3 above again.

7. Leave at a good time

As Ted from How I Met Your Mother says 'Nothing good ever happens after 2am'.  Cabs are always hard to find late in the evening before Christmas, so leave when you can still get a cab and you’re then not tempted to go back to the party.  Also,  if  someone from HR or your boss politely suggests it is time to go home and puts you in a cab, don’t drive around the block and get out and go back in.  Nothing good ever happens after HR tells you it’s time to go home and you don’t.  Particularly if said HR person has called your mother to let her know you’re on your way home and then the police are called 3 hours later (true story).

8. If there are speeches, please don’t heckle

This applies especially if it is the CEO, or someone else important making the speech.  It is almost certain he or she is sober and will remember the fool with a drink in each hand who heckled during the rousing and inspirational   speech to the team.

9.  Keep your clothes on

This should be obvious, but regrettably is not, particularly after that 14th drink. It might be December and hot, but no-one needs to see your sweaty chest.  And boys, when 'Eagle Rock' starts playing remember this is not a 21st and pants should remain up around your hips with belt buckles firmly fastened, not around your ankles.

10.  Consensual carnal activities are OK

If you and another person decide to have consensual sex about which there will be no complaint, other than from a spouse, that is terrific.  Here, however,  are some of the places you should not do this:

  • on the boardroom table
  • on any table
  • in the fire escape
  • in the archive compactus
  • in the CEO’s office
  • in the sick room
  • on the bonnet of a colleague’s car in the car park
  • anywhere there is a security camera (refer to point 3, above)

Here is where you should do this:

  • in the privacy of a your own home

And remember this:

So there you have it — my all time top tips for having a great but safe time at the office Christmas party.  

Merry Christmas everyone. 




Workplace Conflict Resolution 101

If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Very few workplaces are conflict free.  Everyone is different in some way — the way we think, act, and react is often different to that of others.  Our perceptions of things that are said can vary from not only what is said but the intention of what is being said.  Communication breakdowns because of this are very common.

I am often asked to assist in mediating between two employees who have been experiencing conflict.  Often, it has been an ongoing problem for a while so that the problem, whatever it was originally, is forgotten and it is just two people who can’t ‘get on’.  The word 'personality clash' is then used to describe what is actually a communication clash.

As an external consultant, the skills I use to assist in resolving this tension and conflict are skills that you can learn.  Here are some quick tips:

Know your role

The role of a mediator is not to solve the problem (tempting as it might be!).  The role of the mediator is to help the people involved resolve the conflict, in a collaborative way, themselves.

Be prepared

Find out as much detail about the issue and the people involved as you can before attempting to mediate.  Talk to both people separately, getting an idea of their major concerns, what they are prepared to compromise on, what, if anything, they can see from the other person’s perspective.  And plan, as far as possible, how the meeting will go.

Be impartial

This is particularly important if you know and work with both parties — you might know one more than the other, work more closely with one than the other. One person may be a senior manager and the other a junior employee so a perceived power imbalance, if you too, are a senior manager, can lead to perceived impartiality.  Perceptions of lack of impartiality will cause a mediation to fail before it even starts.

Agree ground rules, or what I call 'terms of engagement'

When you bring both parties together, set and agree ground rules, including:

  • The role of the mediator is not to dictate solutions, but to encourage the parties to find their own
  • Confidentiality – keep the matters discussed between the parties, subject to the mediator discussing the resolution with HR or management
  • One person to speak at a time — no interruptions
  • Each person is to be truthful about their concerns and willingness to find resolution
  • Active listening — each party is to listen to what the other person is saying
  • Don’t use pronouns ('he', 'she').  Use each other’s names at all times
  • If voices are raised the mediator will ask the person speaking to stop, take a deep breath and speak calmly
  • Avoid blaming language

Finding a solution

Finding a solution can be easy when two people talk calmly together, but is often not. Each party will have their own view of events and the relationship breakdown.  When listening, ask questions to find common ground.  The mediator must give each person the chance to speak openly and honestly, and without judgement, while at the same time ensuring that both parties avoid blame and accusations, and accept responsibility for their part in the problem. Find out if they can see the issue from the other person’s perspective.  After they have both spoken find out what they can agree on.  There might be many things, there may be few.  But if it is looking like few, try and find one.  Even if it is both that they enjoy working for the organisation, that is a good place to start.  You’ll be surprised once one piece of common ground is found how it can lead to others.

Compromise is essential — especially when it seems they are poles apart.  The trick is to bring their perceptions closer together.

Remember people are more likely to stick to a resolution to a problem if they come up with the solution themselves. A mediation conducted well will also rebuild trust between the parties and their trust in the organisation, having been supported in this way.

Follow up

Once agreement on a way forward is reached, it is vital that you check in with both parties to make sure it is working and that both are sticking to their side of the bargain.



10 easy ways to show gratitude

Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude.  Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness.  Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.

Henri Frederic Amiel

I have written before on the subject of gratitude and how important it is in the workplace.

Here are 10 simple and easy ways to show the people you work with how much you appreciate them:

  1. Say thank you. Look them in the eye and say thank you.

  2. Leave a surprise post it note on their desk or computer.

  3. For a team thank you, organise a cake for morning tea one day.

  4. Make someone a tea or coffee without asking them.

  5. Tell someone else, in your staff member's hearing, what a great job they did.

  6. Start an ABCD club — awards (monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, whatever works for you) for staff who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

  7. Start a seasonal tradition and have a small celebration.  Or a big one.

  8. Celebrate big wins or good jobs for clients and customers with the whole team and make a big deal about the fact that it is a thank you to the team effort not celebrating the fee or profit.

  9. If someone has been working longer than normal hours, surprise them with a 'get out of jail free' card to leave early one day.

  10. Start a tradition for those with children starting school for the first time that they can either have the day off or work reduced hours that day.

These are just a few simple ideas to help make your staff feel valued, appreciated, and most importantly, engaged.  But the possibilities are endless!



Managing your stress response - think like a zebra

The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another

 - William Jones

Human beings have come to accept that stress is a part of everyday life.  Over time prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems.  So if we can't reduce the amount of stress in our lives we had better learn to manage our response to stress.  And this is where thinking like a zebra comes into play.

Zebras spend most of their time wandering around, eating, drinking at waterholes, mating and sleeping. Most of their lives are spent being pretty relaxed.

But every now and then, for about 1-2 minutes they experience sheer terror.  A lion appears and picks out a potential meal from the herd and the chase is on.  The response of the zebras is an automatic one.  Their brains sense danger. They run.  As fast as they can.  Their hearts are racing and limbs pounding –their bodies are automatically responding to the threat.  They are either eaten, or they survive.

But if they survive, they go back to what they were doing before.  The immediate danger is over, and their bodies, and brains return to their normal relaxed state. 

Zebras would be astounded to know that human beings experience the stress response as frequently as we do.

There is an excellent short documentary explaining the stress response by Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University.  He has spent over three decades studying the stress response in humans and animals, and he has also written a book called 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers'.  Interestingly baboons have very high levels of stress in the animal kingdom, having nine hours a day to torment each other after eating and sleeping.  The similarities to modern workplaces should not be dismissed.

So what is the stress response?

In humans, our immediate stress response is similar to that of the animal world, and our brains and bodies are hard wired to react to threats and perceived threats. I use the word ‘perceived’ because over time our learned responses to certain stressful situations become embedded in our neural pathways and part and parcel of everyday life.   They are memories that become activated by that particular stressful situation. We have taught our brains to find stress in the unlikeliest of places, and react accordingly. Over and over again.  For some people it is like Groundhog Day.

When we are facing stress, our bodies respond automatically by activating the nervous system and releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones cause physical changes which help us react quickly -  the ‘flight or fight’ (and sometimes 'freeze' response. 

Our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolic rate and muscle tension all increase.  Glucose that has been stored in the liver is released, and the immune system is suppressed.   This is the body’s way of protecting us, by stopping things it doesn’t need to do right in that moment, and increasing activity that will help - help us deal with something that could kill us, not a performance review for example.

For example if a car cuts in front of us in the traffic, we put the foot on the brake without even consciously thinking about it.  We should  then resume normal transmission and go back to our relaxed state

But then sometimes we yell and scream and shake our fists and flip the bird when there is no need to… 


There are some simple tricks to use to manage your own stress response.

Recognise the triggers

First of all, recognise what the triggers are for you – is it public speaking, multiple deadlines, over commitment, negative responses, negative feedback, traffic, public transport, fear of failure?  Imagine if it is all of these things and they happen on the same day?  Find out what you respond to and and decide to teach your brain to respond differently. 

Try and identify THREE things that cause you to become stressed and respond inappropriately.

Mary, for example, felt her stress response activated when her supervisor Martin became inappropriately angry when something at work went wrong.  She would immediately become angry herself, assuming he was finding fault with her.  Her heart rate would go up, she would feel a bit light headed.  The two of them would argue, he would talk over the top of her, she became defensive and more angry until they were shouting.  Mary had to learn to completely change the way she thought  about and responded to this situation,  take a deep breath when blamed, and respond calmly, and quietly.  In doing so, she not only managed her stress response, she helped Martin manage his as well.

Practice acceptance for things you can’t control

When we are stressed, little things often set us off because we already have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems.  There are many stressful things that happen in the day over which  we have no control – for example,  planes being late, traffic hold ups, milk being spilled (literally).  There is no point reacting to those things we can’t change.  We need to practice saying ‘it is what it is’, deal with it and move on.   So for example you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a traffic accident and you are being held up.  can you change the fact that the lanes are blocked ahead?  No.  Is having a racing heart and sweaty palms an appropriate response?  No.  Call ahead, explain the situation, and sit back and breathe deeply.  It may be the best way to utilise that 10 minutes rather than shouting and banging your fists on the dashboard.

One important thing about things you can't control -  you can’t control other people’s reactions but you can control your own.


I am not talking about  cardio exercise here.  If your heart rate is up just move to  match what is happening in your body.  Remember that adrenaline is running through your body – so for example  just before a presentation, an exam or any event you know is causing you stress and your heart rate to increase  – move around, walk up the stairs.   This will send the message to your brain that you are heeding its warning, and in turn your brain will stop or at least reduce the stress response.

Self talk

Listen to how you talk to yourself.  Are you telling yourself you’re a failure, this always happens, anticipating the worst  etc?

Ask  yourself what is the worst that can happen?   If you can handle that unlikely event then anything less than that is manageable.  Once you've asked yourself about the worst, ask the question you really need to ask yourself - what is the BEST thing that could happen?  I

f you are telling yourself ‘I am such a failure',  reframe your thoughts.  Turn the negative thoughts around into something less negative even if it can’t be positive.

For example, ‘this is going to be terrible’ becomes not ‘this is going to be great’ but ‘this is going to be tough, but I know I can get through it’.

Remember the quote above - the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.


Next time you are feeling stressed and anxious try smiling.  Take a deep breath and smile.  Just smiling again sends a message to your brain that you are not freaking out, and the brain will respond accordingly.

Recognise fear of failure - and get over it

For our ancestors,  failure could mean the difference between life and death, so failure was a threat. Our brains function the same way today.  Failure and success are drummed into us from the time we start school, sometimes earlier.  We go from a fairly carefree life of writing and drawing how we want and meandering around to having to draw between the lines and walk in lines.  We grow up looking first for stamps and stickers, then for other signs of our success, and anyone else's success diminishes our own.

I recently read  'Wired for Life' by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse and it is an eye opening book.  In it the authors look at many different fears we have and have this to say about fear of failure:

The shape of the threats that face you in the modern world are very different. Failing at a job can be processed as a threat to status. ..and the threat response does not wait to see if this materialises, the threat response is activated as soon as your mind starts visualising them

If you live with fear of failure, your brain is constantly on the lookout for ways in which that might happen and responds accordingly.  So fear of failure, in whatever form, activates the stress response.  Remind yourself of your many successes, take the risk you need to take, and celebrate a job well done when it is over - even if it is just facing something you were afraid of.

A wise person once told me that ‘failure is an event not a person’


There are whole books written on mindfulness so I won’t go into it in any detail  here but it works.  Really. It works. It is about teaching our brains to focus on the here and now, to be in the present.   It allows us to focus on what our senses are telling us, and to calm our minds.


Pausing is, for me, mini mindfulness. and is  very effective for dealing with day to day stress.  I first learned about the concept of 'The Pause' at a seminar run by The Mind Gardeners and if you ever get a chance to go to one of their workshops I can highly recommend it.  The Pause involves pausing, taking a breath before moving from one task to another.  It allows you to bring your attention to the next task and to leave any stress from your previous task behind.

So for example moving from studying one task  to another, moving from one client to another, hang up the phone or put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and then move on to the next thing.

If you do this 10 times during the course of the day it will take approximately 1 minute, which is a worthwhile investment in order to manage your stress response.


You may have noticed a common theme in all of these tips - and that is breathing.

Of all the things that occur automatically when the stress response is activated( increased heart beat, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing) there is only one that we can control -  our breathing

By slowing down our breathing, we can change the messages the body is sending to the brain and thereby change the way we respond.

So if you slow your breathing down, by deliberately taking long slow deep (i.e. through the diaphragm) breaths, your heart rate will slow down and your brain gets the message that the threat is decreasing.

Inhale.  Exhale. Repeat.

The most important aspect of managing our stress response is that in teaching yourselves a new way to respond you will be teaching others, unconsciously, by modelling, to manage their stress response as well.


Tears and Tantrums

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now

Julius Caesar

I have previously given some tips on how to give effective feedback .  In giving constructive feedback and in a formal performance appraisal there are some situations that need special attention and require special skills.  Leaders and managers know that the ability to have a difficult discussion is crucial to not only their success but also the success of the business.  In this post and the next I will deal with some of those difficult emotional responses.

No one likes receiving what he or she perceives to be negative feedback, regardless of how well it is planned and presented.  So you need to anticipate an emotional response if negative feedback is to be given.  And that emotional response can come in a variety of ways.

Whatever the reaction, it is vital to the successful conclusion of the conversation to:

  • keep your own emotions in check;
  • not take the reaction or any comments personally and try and remember they are a result of built up tension or anxiety;
  • listen – mindful listening  assists with positive expressions. Let the person express the emotion first by showing you are willing to listen without interrupting
  • validate people’s feelings if you can, by showing empathy.  For example, ‘I understand this is difficult for you – let’s work on a way to get back on track’, or ‘ I understand you’re upset – I’m going to give you a moment to calm down so we can continue’

Here are some specific situations and how best to deal with them



There are two types of people who cry when given negative feedback.  There is the person who, for what may be any number of reasons, is genuinely upset, and then there is the person who is able to turn on the tears for effect and sympathy.  In my years of working with people I have become very aware of peoples’ various idiosyncrasies (good and bad), and believe me when I say that there are those who will cry to avoid or derail a performance discussion.

Regardless of the situation,  pause, and find tissues! A clever person who thinks someone might cry will have tissues at the ready. It is also useful to offer to get a glass of water as this can allow time for the person to regain their composure..

If someone is genuinely distressed, for reasons outside the appraisal or work, then I do suggest rescheduling for another time.  This is one of the few times I suggest this.  For example, if the person is upset because a relative has died, or has been diagnosed with a serious illness (or they themselves are not well), then they are not going to be in a position to discuss things in a rational way.  They may have been keeping their emotions in check at work, and this has allowed them to to let the tears flow.  It is one of the few times I would recommend allowing the discussion to be rescheduled.  In doing so, you are allowing them to recover from their embarrassment, and take some of the emotion out of the discussion.  You are also showing that you care.

If however someone becomes upset either as a means to derail the discussion, or to try and attract sympathy, it is important to continue the discussion.  As before, pause, offer a tissue and a glass of water, express empathy and suggest that when they are ready you can continue.  And sit patiently waiting for that moment to come.  I have been in a room with one such person who looked up at me through her tears and said ‘aren’t you going to say something?’ to which I responded ‘I’m just waiting for you to stop crying’.  Some might call that harsh, but it had the desired effect – she realised I knew she was putting it on, knew she couldn’t get out of the discussion, and so we carried on.


If the person you are talking to reacts angrily -  stay calm yourself.  There is a little part of the brain called the amygdala  which causes very emotional responses to perceived threats.  It hijacks the rational thinking part of the brain.  This is useful when there is actually a physical threat; not so much in a performance appraisal.  So the person you are talking to is having that happen to them.  Don’t mirror them and respond angrily by allowing your amygdala to hijack your own brain.  This will escalate the problem into an unresolvable argument and most likely an argument that bears no relation to the discussion at hand.

So if your employee becomes angry, stay calm.  Allow the anger to be expressed,  even – and this is important – if it involves a personal, verbal,  attack on you.  If you do respond, keep your voice low, slow , and controlled.  Oftentimes a calm response will calm the angry person.

Acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing (empathy again)  eg ‘I understand why this might make you angry’ , wait for person to finish, and restart the conversation.

In both examples, it is important to ensure the conversation comes back to the performance issue and a solutions focussed resolution.

And remember – it is a tough job sometimes being a manager of people.  Give yourself a pat on the back when you have successfully  concluded a difficult performance appraisal.



CYA - Manage performance, but don't leave yourself open to a bullying claim

'There's a fine line between character building and soul destroying'

Colin Hay

In my line of work I have seen and investigated far too many genuine cases of bullying, and have witnessed the effects this has on the victims of it.  I have also seen far too many disingenuous claims, used as a tactic against a manager for various reasons, but usually when a manager has been addressing performance issues.   Regardless of the outcome, an investigation into bullying or workplace harassment is very stressful for all involved.  So of course the easy solution is — don't be a bully, and even if you're not, don't set yourself up for a bullying claim.

So if you are a manager of people, experienced or not, and you need to address some performance issues with one of your staff, how do you avoid a bullying claim when you genuinely want only the best for your employee and the business?  I have previously give some 'how to' tips in relation to giving effective feedback here .  Given that the definition of bullying is that it is repeated unreasonable behaviour etc, there should be no confusion between  the process of managers or supervisors giving feedback on performance, and bullying. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Unfortunately, bullying is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and there is nothing to STOP a claim being made regardless of the merits.  So how best to protect yourself?

First of all there is a difference between giving general performance feedback and formal performance management.  Giving feedback on an employee's performance should be regular.  And it should be often, especially if it is positive feedback. Positive feedback builds confidence and engagement. Oftentimes people tell me they only get feedback when they've done something wrong or at their annual performance review.  Annual reviews should be seen as an opportunity to record a formal discussion and set goals, and there should be no surprises for the employee if regular feedback has been given. Performance management is of course more serious — where you need a fundamental change in order for someone's employment to continue. 

There are a number of ways to reduce the risk of a bullying claim following or during the process of performance feedback or management in any form.  Essentially, put yourself in the shoes of the employee and see things from their perspective. Little things can add up to big trouble for you, especially where nuances of behaviour or perceptions come into play.

Regardless of whether it is general performance feedback or performance management, document all discussions, whatever the behaviour that needs improving; big issue or relatively minor.  I call this 'CYA' or 'Cover your Arse'.  You never know when a conversation, combined with other events, can come back to bite you!

Keep it confidential.  Other than having a confidential discussion with your own supervisor, if you have one, never discuss it with another employee.  Small things and changes in behaviour can lead to unwarranted perceptions on the part of the employee.

Don't try to soften the blow, by, for example suggesting you go for a coffee, or have a chat.  Be clear about what the conversation is going to be about, to avoid allegations that the employee was unable to prepare or was 'ambushed'.  If it is the first time you have had to speak to them, make sure they understand they have the opportunity to come back to you at a later stage if they want to address any issues.  This is particularly important if you are dealing with an introvert. Introverts need time to process their thoughts and may wish to have the opportunity to address your concerns after they have had a chance to think about the feedback they have been given.  So be alert to an employee who sits there in silence.  You may well go back to your office, breathing a sigh of relief,  thinking 'so that went well' while your employee is seething with resentment.

Give the employee an opportunity to come up with solutions to the problem themselves, rather than necessarily dictating them.  They are far more likely to be engaged in the process of improvement if they themselves have thought of ways to improve.

Beware of  your body language after the discussion - I know it can be uncomfortable having had a difficult discussion, but if your employee perceives you to be behaving differently afterwards, this can add to any negative feelings they may have towards you.  Related to this — keep an eye on other team members' behaviour as well.  If they know or suspect a colleague has been having performance discussions, they may change their behaviour, and avoid eye contact or any contact at all, just due to discomfort with the situation.  

Don't try to make it easy for them, even if you feel some sympathy for them, by taking work away from them without discussing it first.  If they suddenly feel like they are being excluded from certain work, or opportunities, not included in emails and so on,  a small resentment can easily develop into a view that 'they're trying to get rid of me'.

Don't suddenly start micro managing the employee — again this will lead to a perception that they are being watched, picked on, etc.

And whatever you do, do not, ever, lose your temper with that person.  While being angry once in a blue moon is certainly not bullying in any definition, and perfectly understandable from time to time, combined with all of the above, it will form of a bullying claim.

Many different behaviours, taken together, rather than in isolation, are likely to form the basis of a bullying claim given that there has to be a 'repeated behaviour' to establish a claim — make sure your intentions are genuine, and your own behaviour is beyond reproach.  If a bullying claim is made, regardless of merit, you will need to be able to answer all allegations.

Most good workplace behaviour policies and the new legislation have a definition of what bullying is NOT - reasonable management action conducted in a reasonable way.  So while discussing performance issues is of course reasonable management action, it must also be conducted in a reasonable way.  Shouting, banging the desk, swearing, telling someone they're useless, excluding them from work opportunities, ignoring them, is NOT reasonable and a bullying claim is likely to be proven.

There is no definition of what is reasonable in these circumstances and there will be cases no doubt that will define it or give examples of it.  The easiest test is: Ask yourself — how would I like to be treated in this situation?  That's usually the best test of reasonableness.