Workplace Bullying: How IBM Stops Employees from Crossing the Line

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(5 min read) By Amy Bennett

In 2019, IBM launched a workplace bullying prevention course for over 300,000 IBM employees across the globe. Dubbed “Crossing the Line: Workplace Bullying Prevention” it is a 55-minute minute course that uses powerful examples to bring workplace bullying to life, helping us all better recognize and address bullying.

I sat down with Sarah Siegel, Learning Design Manager—and whose team put together the course—to find out more about its background and development. I enjoyed every minute of talking to Sarah; the emotion in her voice and the smile on her face made it clear how passionate she is about this course and how proud she is of the team that created it.

Why was this course developed?   

IBM has always strived to be a leader in diversity and inclusion. Tia Silas, our Vice President, Global Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, challenged her team to think about new ways to reach and impact the IBM community. Tia wants all of IBM to include people because of who they are and celebrate our differences. She wants to ensure our work environment is open and safe and encourages all to be their best and authentic selves.

Given this mission, Tia and her team partnered with Gary Kildare, Vice President, Global Employee & Labor Relations and his team along with the Learning Design team, including me, to offer a digital course, and a new channel for preventing workplace bullying.

The course and channel both set a positive tone in our organization and provide a safe environment for people who feel they have been bullying targets, and for people to be upstanders, not bystanders if they observe unprofessional behavior.

This course sends a cultural signal. It’s not a compliance course as there are no US laws on workplace bullying and laws vary across the globe.

                   Amy and Sarah chat on a video call to talk about IBM’s new workplace bullying course

Why now?

We are all immersed in the news and public discourse, we’ve all heard stories about bullying at schools and the cost of bullying on our society, and most of us have witnessed or felt the pain of bullying in our lifetime. With all of this, it’s critical for IBMers to understand how to identify and respond to bullying and how to be an upstander.

How did you develop the examples in this course?

With this course, the team strives to set the bar for employee behavior. We try to define a social norm that is inclusive of all groups and empowers people to stand up to bullying. We have worked to identify a broad spectrum of potential bullying situations and to provide tools to have an open a dialogue and empower people to be an upstander.

Several examples in this course drew from the broader team’s personal experiences. For example, one of the course scenarios grew out of an exchange I had with a new manager. He asked whether I thought his career potential would be limited if he disclosed his devotion to his religious faith. The question moved me because I could tell he was struggling with how to bring his full self to work.

What can the LGBT+ community and allies do to stop bullying?

The course aims to help IBMers recognize situations that range from no obvious misconduct, to unprofessional to bullying, including toward LGBT+ people, and most importantly provides options for standing up to bullying if people observe or experience it at IBM. We hope this course changes the minds and behaviors of some and empowers many to be advocates and upstanders.

And as someone who’s lesbian, I also hope that some of this learning translates into people’s personal life and has a positive effect on our employees’ children and the greater LGBT+ community.

Bullying has so profoundly impacted our LGBT+ community at all ages, but our youth are by far hit the hardest.  We all need to be upstanders at every age and in every aspect of our life!

LGBT+ people also need to ensure that we are encouraging a culture where all of us show up at our best, and where we do not bully anyone, and where we act as upstanders should we observe any colleague treating another unprofessionally or being a bully.

What specific tools are in place to help folks?

Some people who feel they have experienced bullying or witnessed bullying fear the repercussions of speaking up. This is why we have trained all managers and HR professionals on how to address bullying. We also launched a new system called Talk It Over@IBM which encourages any employee who observes, experiences or hears about behaviors contrary to our values to speak up and say, ‘This is not what IBMers stand for.’
Who is accountable to prevent bullying?

While the formal answer is HR, managers and our senior executives are held accountable, ultimately, all of us are responsible for fostering a culture of inclusion, and preventing workplace bullying.

About the Author
Amy is currently the Senior Product Marketing Leader for Watson IoT in North America. She has 14 years of experience as a leader in consulting, product marketing and go-to-market marketing in IBM Watson and IBM Systems and she is an active member of IBM’s LGBTQ+ community.” You may follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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