​Unwanted animal instincts in the office

A dismal UBS case highlights the nasty dynamics of office-based sexual harassment

Last week, news broke that UBS Financial Services Inc. is facing a US$5 million law suit following a period of, let’s say, inappropriate behaviour from senior advisor James Collins. Here, animal trainer cum HR guru Jennifer Hancock offers insight into Collins’ questionable conduct.

“When someone is used to getting their own way and then they stop getting their way, they cycle through something called an extinction burst,” reveals Hancock, founder of Humanist Learning Systems. She’s referring to the desperate and aggressive behaviour that Collins allegedly displayed once he realized he wasn’t going to win his intern’s affections.

Collins’ intern, Samantha Lumbui, insists that he bombarded her with unwanted sexual advances, pornographic material and offered conditional gifts during her time at UBS, adding that human resources were largely unsupportive and in part to blame.

Hancock is certain that Collins is used to getting his own way and the text messages certainly suggest so. One, somewhat damning message, reads: “I sleep with my interns; that’s the only reason to hire interns.”

The extinction burst theory reasons that when something, or in this case someone, doesn’t get what they want, they’ll try harder to regain their reward. If the techniques they’ve used in the past won’t work, it can lead to increased aggression with an escalation in behaviour.

“Eventually they’ll give it up but before they give it up, they’ll escalate and in the work place that escalation manifests as retaliation,” warns Hancock. So how can you keep unwanted animal instincts out of the office?

Well, you can’t. But you can try and control them. “As soon as you start to have a problem you have to document everything and stay firm to what you’re doing- if you’re doing the right thing, you’re doing the right thing,” says Hancock. “The other person is going to act increasingly worse over a very short period of time.” This goes for both parties, whether you’re a victim of sexual harassment or you’ve been falsely accused.

“Make sure that someone higher up than the culprit is alerted to the fact that this is going on, that way they can watch it unfold in real time with you. At first, they’ll say it’s a conflict and they’ll try to minimize it but as they watch this documentation mount up and the other person gets increasingly bizarre in what they’re doing the evidence will all be there.”

Collins’ alleged outbursts are certainly bizarre – read the full story and see some of the messages here

How likely are you to suffer an extinction burst?

Hancock offers a quick and everyday analogy – “Imagine you go the vending machine every day and get a candy bar. One day the machine is broken and you put in the money and you punch the buttons and nothing happens. It doesn’t do anything. So do you walk away and admit it’s broken or do you hit some more buttons? You hit some more buttons and you do more of the same because it’s always worked in the past. Instead of walking away and trying something different we do the same old thing and that’s called an extinction burst. We try it and we get more aggressive and how aggressive we get depends on our personality, it depends on how long we’ve been getting our way and how in control and self-aware we might be. The more self-aware that you are, the quicker you realize what you’re doing is stupid and the quicker you’re going to stop.”

So how long would it take you to stop punching buttons and shaking the vending machine?