Performance Reviews, Bullying, Malicious Complaints, and Fear of Retaliation

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The stress caused by a toxic work environment can be frustrating. The waters are sometimes muddy. For many employees, incivility at work is a new experience that can generate many questions. The WorkLIfe Office is here to help answer you questions and direct you to additional resources.

Dear WorkLife,

My annual performance review is coming up.  During my last review, my boss made some very harsh comments to me about not getting my work done.  It kind of felt like my boss was bullying me.  My colleague, who is a faculty member, told me that the same supervisor bugs them about research grants and their style of teaching.  Could this be bullying or is it just our boss's style of coaching and mentoring?

Answer

This is tricky water, but not without navigation aids. Bullying is behavior that has no legitimate purpose. The problem is less about the topic, but it’s the manner in which it’s given. Feedback or performance evaluation, in and of itself, is not bullying. How it’s delivered might well be. Grounded in an appropriate job description or contract, with clear expectations from the outset, and realistic deadlines mutually determined/agreed upon/known followed by constructive, respectful feedback, the feedback should not be construed as bullying. When relevant, accurate, constructive feedback crosses the line from objective, honest observations of performance to personal attacks, personal criticism, public humiliation, character or identity slights, slurs or other disrespectful elements, that behavior is inappropriate. Having the right job description, expectations within those boundaries, and respectful conversations about performance shortcomings should not descend into either bullying or incivility. Both parties need to be able to have respectful, constructive feedback opportunities - to manage the work, and to grow and improve. The “how and when” is critically important.


Dear WorkLife,

Many people in my office are afraid of filing a legitimate complaint because of the risk of worsening the situation, or retaliation by the boss. How can we get anywhere if people are afraid of retaliation?

Answer

Retaliation for filing a complaint is itself harassment. It is prohibited in principle and by extrapolation from other laws and policies. Retaliation has to be prohibited, or there can be no effective process.  We must be able to safely use the process or it’s rendered moot - useless. The process must be respected and held in high regard in order for it to be effective.


Dear WorkLife,

Sometimes, my colleague uses accusations or complaints to wage a battle with me, to get back at me for something or just lash out. What can I do then?

Answer

What you’re talking about in terms of using accusations as a weapon is called a malicious complaint. Complaints found to be malicious - without evidence, foundation, not fitting the definition and in reaction to some legitimate action respectfully conducted, are also harassment. This has to be identified in a policy and procedure, and the community must be as educated about these elements and misuses of the policy and procedure as they are about the concepts and definitions of bullying, harassment, incivility, etc.  Other, more constructive approaches also have to be implemented to resolve disputes that don’t rise to the definition. Beyond “No, that doesn’t hit the bar...” we have to continue to work with parties to find constructive, positive, mutually respectful and dignified approaches to conflict resolution.


"Ask WorkLife" is a new series produced by the MSU WorkLife Office.  Our team receives hundreds of questions every month from staff and faculty across Michigan.  When themes emerge, we compile the questions into a blog post and provide some answers here on our website.  Please understand that every situation and person is unique!  We encourage you to schedule a consultation with a WorkLife team member in order to discuss your specific circumstance.

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