Harassment in the workplace is on the increase. We hear about sexual harassment most often because it makes good headlines and, rightfully, it strikes litigation fears in hearts of company executives, so it is usually acted upon when exposed. I don’t mean to diminish the critical importance of this form of abuse but there are already plenty of laws and protections in place, as well as lawyers ready and willing to assist. Rather, I am focusing on everyday workplace harassment and referring to just plain rotten treatment of employees – it is becoming rampant and endemic.
Depending on where you live, workplace harassment is variably referred to as mobbing in different parts of the world, but it means and represents the same thing. By itself, the term “harassment” is rather subjective and can be widely interpreted. If someone is having a bad day and might for whatever reason lose their temper and take it out on a co-worker or a subordinate, by itself, it does not constitute workplace harassment. In my own view, the criteria for what constitutes harassment is intentional and repetitive attention; of singling out an individual or a group for personal and/or institutional retribution by those acting independently and counter to company policies.
I have heard stories that would curl your toes about harassment, public ridicule and mental abuse at levels that are hard to imagine. I’ve met previously exceptional people who’ve been almost broken as a result for merely trying to do their jobs and some whose self-confidence is never quite the same afterwards.
Let’s consider a few of the reasons for the kind of unprofessional behavior to which I am referring:
· Cliques of bullies - in many organizations there are small groups of people within that are akin to a syndicate, a little internal mafia of sorts; perpetrators and their sycophants who band together and collaborate, to cover and protect each other from scrutiny. Cross them and you’ll receive their disapproval at best or worse, their wrath.
· Disengaged senior management – there is a growing trend, a degradation of management skills and leadership ability. Earning an MBA may result in good by-the-book management skills, but it does nothing to teach or promote true leadership abilities.
· The sluggish economy - management is under enormous pressure for results and that pressure is passed down the chain of management; the further down the line the more pressure is exerted. This by itself is not a cause of, nor does it constitute workplace harassment; most companies are under pressure. The problem here arises when managers lacking interpersonal / people / soft skills lash out and tend to transfer their own frustrations onto lower-level subordinates. In other words they can’t handle pressure and don’t know what to do.
· Societal breakdown – yeah, that’s right; does anybody doubt the increasing lack of civility or the degradation of common courtesy? Obviously, this is going to inevitably carry over into the workplace.
So what can be done about it? First from the company and employer perspective, it should be thought of as a disease rotting the company from the inside out; tumors must be removed. Whatever happened to Topgrading? It is almost as though senior managers are more detached than ever about what is happening, or they prefer to avoid the issue because they are not equipped to deal with it. This is one reason why some companies lose some of their best and brightest, while the corrupted, remain and cling to their jobs any way they can - resulting in mediocrity as the new normal. Therefore, it is necessary to either root out the infections or lose your best quality people to people like me, I am happy to take them. The only solution rests with senior-level company managers to take on this issue.
Second, for employees who experience this kind of unprofessional treatment, keep a log or diary of events, write everything down, save and print emails, save offending voice mails, record conversations, take photographs or videos whenever possible. The perpetrators of workplace harassment are usually clever and to a varying degree can be evil geniuses bordering on the delusional or worse, psychotic. They’ll deny their behavior with a straight face and imply there is something wrong with the complainant. Have you ever heard of the term “Gaslighting”? Look it up. And don’t rely on others to step up as witnesses for fear of later retribution. The more info you can compile to prove your claims the better, not because you plan to litigate, in part because some of the things I just listed might not be admissible in a court of law. It’s primarily for the sake of your own sanity and so that you can back up your claims because, after all, the main point of this kind of treatment is most often intended to drive you away. Furthermore, if or when you decide to act, if you haven’t kept records you have nothing to validate your side of the story and you will be branded a whiner, a nut, delusional or a trouble maker; management might actually assist the very people making your life difficult.
In conclusion, if management won’t back you up and fails to take any real action, your only recourse is to find another job and leave. Sadly, for some people these experiences burn deeply into their psyche – and you cannot allow bitterness or hatred to take over, following you to wherever you go. And remember, one of the golden rules of interviewing, never talk trash about a current or past employer / employee; it is both bad form and can be slanderous – even if the person was truly a jackass.