I wanted to open this post with some nice juicy statistics but then I realised ‘juicy’ and ‘statistics’ don’t often go together. Numbers are great for backing up a cause but they don’t really get at the human factor - the specifics of the problem and how to go about tackling it.
But I did find this: According to a survey of 2,000 men and women commissioned by Slater & Gordon Law Specialists, about six in ten people have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying (UK).
There are a lot of articles on the subject of bullying all over the interwebs - a lot of them in publications available to HR professionals. Fair enough, they resource the humans who make up the organisations. They should be aware of human behaviour and problematic patterns.
Regardless of the publication, these articles also always say that bullying needs to be reported by the employees. That the best way to tackle it is to go to HR and tell them it’s happening. To approach your manager, to approach the director, to approach anyone ‘higher up than you’.
There are some big problems with this though:
1. It assumes that the bullying is being done by a peer, not the manager/director/HR personnel
2. It perpetuates a culture of victim blaming ie. It’s your responsibility to not be bullied
3. It implies that bullying will stop when we ‘tell someone of authority’
Never mind that this structure is akin to a school ground rather than an organisation employing adult human beings, these three problems are why bullying is a growing, rather than diminishing, issue.
How many times have you been told ‘Well, they may be terrible but at least they’re not as bad as the previous person who was in that role’?
I have. Often. Like some kinds of unprofessionalism are ‘worse’ than others.
Like it was worse dealing with a gossip than dealing with someone who calls you names. Or it was worse dealing with someone who ignored you than dealing with someone who speaks condescendingly to staff.
I call bullshit, and so should you. We should ALL call bullshit on this kind of reasoning because it’s not acknowledging that all these behaviours are unacceptable.
Seriously - this sort of reasoning is saying that ‘some forms’ of bullying or harrassment are ‘less bad’.
No, no, no, no, no.
They’re ALL unprofessional. Every single one of them. I mean, yeah, they could be worse. They could be Hitler. Or Pol Pot.
The argument that something could be worse falls flat for me. Saying things like ‘it could be worse’ is a way to justify laziness and unwillingness to do something to improve a situation. Yes, it could be worse, but then that means it could also be better. And in fact, it should be better. Especially when the bullying is being carried out by the very people who are supposedly meant to prevent it from happening.
I have had only one experience of workplace bullying at the hands of a ‘peer’. And when I say peer I mean someone without authority over my role within the workplace.
The other six have been at the hands of two managers, an assistant manager, two HR directors and a CEO.
I’ve been told I have a problem with authority.
My "problem” is that I’ve stood up to this behaviour, or tried to, in any way I could. It’s not been easy and sometimes it’s been downright terrifying - my job has felt threatened and mediation has even been required. And I’ve felt wracked with doubt and fear. I worry that I’ll be seen as unprofessional for calling them on their bullshit. It’s been scary and at times, totally disheartening.
Unfortunately I’ve sometimes believed that I was being unprofessional. Because people have told me: ‘Well, they have the organisation in mind’ or ‘They’re taking a business focused approach’.
I admit, I’ve let these arguments sway me, but no more. Why?
Because organisations ARE MADE UP OF PEOPLE.
An HR manager who speaks condescendingly to an employee, an employee who has consistently been given the highest appraisal possible, does not have the best interests of the organisation at heart. They have their own personal opinion at heart and such behaviour creates animosity which can and will lead to valued members of an organisation quitting.
Correct me if I’m wrong but this is the last thing I should think an HR manager would want to do.
Or what about a manager who consistently confront their staff aggressively in every situation, as if ‘manager’ equals ‘dictator’?
It doesn’t. Seriously. Managers should be supporting their team to deliver, fostering their talents and helping them to work on weaknesses and develop new skills. Bossing people around is not managing, it’s bullying.
Yes, we do need to speak out more and if we don’t tell people what’s going on, the problem can’t be tackled, but as a society we seem to have a ‘blind spot’ for what’s not okay. Poor, unprofessional behaviour is somehow justified and it’s not called out because it’s become part of the culture of most workplaces. There's an attitude that says ‘that’s just the way things are’.
Don’t assume that HR professionals actually care about people. Don’t assume that CEOs are untouchables when it comes to calling them out on poor behaviour. Don’t turn a blind eye to a manager’s scathing or sexist comments just because they ‘deliver’ on the bottom line.
Whether staff point it out or not, there are obvious signs that you have poor management or a bullying problem in your organisation or business:
Is the staff turn-over high under a certain manager or director?
Does a once high performing employee suddenly drop their productivity?
Do staff always avoid speaking to one particular person in a department?
Do staff prefer to always email, rather than speak face-to-face with a particular individual?
Have illness or requests for time off increased in one department?
Businesses of all kinds need to understand that they have a relationship of exchange with their employees. Employers do not ‘own’ an employee’s time, they are renting it. And an employee is not a robot hired to perform a function. They are a human being.
I’d like to see a revolution in the workplace. I’d like to see employees confident enough to call out bad behaviour and employers confident enough to actually do something about it, instead of justifying it based on the perceived value of the person or people involved. Just because someone has a fancy job title doesn’t give them free reign to be an asshole.
Join me in the revolution.
Please share your stories of workplace bullying below and if you want a bit more on how to tackle this issue, listen to my podcast on the subject. Also, for more on reinventing the workplace you can read my interview with Emma Sexton.
When not writing, making art or recording podcasts,
Kaitlyn can be found in trees, listening to Dharma talks on her iPod, Boon.
Thusly named because
Brian Froud = Awesome.