Saturday, September 3, 2016

Some reflections on workplace bullying

Let's talk about bullying!!

Everyone knows that on-line bullying has resulted in suicides among teens in too many countries.
Everyone also knows about school-yard bullies, for whom vice-principals have a variety of sanctions.
Everyone knows that Trump is the biggest and the loudest and the most offensive bully on the political stage...helping to set a tone that makes bullying not only tolerable but also the "preferred option" in any conflict. And with some 700+ military bases around the planet, the United States is, without question, the most virulent military bully in world history....if and when they choose to deploy their "might".

However there are a growing number of scenarios at much lower and much less likely to be on the radar screen on any public daily newspaper, or any national or regional television set.
Bullying has, just as have many of the other instruments of  the many types and scenes of conflict, including racism, ageism, sexism and bossism, that kind of bullying that finds people in positions of responsibility in organizations taking liberties with their supervisees.

Some of the ways in which these dramas play out include a scene recently recounted by a friend.
It seems that an employee of a retail outlet, while off duty, was in search of service at that outlet, onyl to have to wait several seemingly endless minutes for that service. After a considerable interval, the now-customer spoke to those workers behind the counter who seemed to be otherwise occupied than waiting on the presenting customer: "Is anyone working here tonight!"  blurted out of her mouth in a less than "professional" tone.

The person behind the counter, new to the store, and the customer/employee were not known to each other, having had no opportunity to be introduced. After the completion of the transaction, the next morning when the worker who had served the customer the previous night learned who that customer really was, an employee in another department, she demanded of management that she be fired immediately.

Of course the other management personnel took up the issue with the "offending" customer, (who really only spoke up when normal and decent and reasonably expected customer service was not available) and the requisite apology ensued. At the scene of the apology, the recipient blurted, "It is a matter that is now closed!" when all present knew and agreed that such a closure was neither feasible nor truthful. The "signature" of the offending customer/employee had already been permanently and indelibly imprinted on the consciousness of the "behind-the-counter" employee, who, everyone knows will be on the lookout for an opportunity to get her revenge.

And, in this culture, such pursuit of personal revenge is not only condoned; it is in fact encouraged.
Whoever has the power to abuse, because he or she can, will abuse that power!

There will be no thought, discussion, policy implementation, or training, for the reluctant employee who refused to offer service when the customer appeared. That employee will proceed, superior in the knowledge that s/he has done nothing "wrong", has no record on his or her personnel file, and knowing full well that the person who was compelled to apologize would have that "black mark" on his/her record for the duration of his/her employment in that outlet. Furthermore, should that employee seek alternative employment, and request a letter of reference from the original employer, that letter might well contain the evidence from this scenario, thereby nullifying or at least impeding the next opportunity for that employee.

In effect, we have just witnessed an unstated, but nevertheless real, "ZERO TOLERANCE" option implemented by a single employee on another employee, without having to earn the inclusion of such a policy in the terms of employment at that outlet. Raise your voice, whether justified or not, is simply an act with which the contemporary employment culture will not tolerate. The person raising the voice, while legitimate, has nevertheless abdicated his right to fair treatment by raising his voice.
Of course, there is more than a little wrong with this picture.

 It leads to another equally, but almost imperceptible incident in which a transportation worker is delayed from loading his vehicle long past the normal deadline for departure, simply because those responsible for providing, assisting and monitoring the loading of the vehicle are engaged in a social visit, laughing and joking on the loading dock while the worker waits in silence. This is not a silly choice on the transport worker's part. Any protest would inevitably result in an "incident report" pointing to the unprofessional behaviour and attitude of the delayed driver, meanwhile exonerating the laughing and joking and delaying colleagues on the loading dock.

Another more inauspicious and potentially explosive, as well as highly complex both to investigate and to sanction, if not curtail, is the issue of "scent free workplaces". This has become especially troublesome in large organizations when chemicals heretofore unknown and certainly not injected into the hairsprays, the colognes, the deodorants and even the soaps we all use in our normal, professional daily lives. If and when a worker whose sensibilities to various scents is especially acute, to the point of generating migraine headaches, nausea, lack of concentration and virtually the inability to conduct the work assigned, encounters an offensive scent, not only will there be the inescapable personal symptoms, there will also be the inevitable political and organizational symptoms. These latter include the denial of the any knowledge or responsibility for the offending scent by all employees, the confusion of the health and safety department to find, isolate and determine the source of the offending scent, and the relationship wrinkles scattered or even rifle-shot directed toward the suffering worker.

And if and when the deniers learn when the complaints are coming from, there is a strong temptation to push back even harder with scents known to be offensive, in another act of scurrilous bullying, with the obvious and predictable impunity that no one will ever know the source of the offending scent, and will be unable, and certainly unwilling to impose sanctions on the responsible scent-bearing offender.

Once again, the person suffering from the situation, though no fault of his or her own, is the symptom-bearer of the organization, left to wonder if and when the next encounter with offending odours will occur.  And because any really effective remediation of the situation will require the expenditure of both time and resources to, it represents another "cost" to the organization, another symptom the organization seeks to avoid, through whatever approach works, to control costs.
And so, the suffering victim of the scent is, once again, without "due process" while the offending scent-generators go on their merry way, without having to address the issue.

Of course, this is another form of subtle yet highly disturbing bullying, especially when the one who is suffering from the offending scents in the first place, is also the one who is doing a professional job, while those bringing in the offending odours may be doing a reasonable and perhaps slightly less professional job with similar duties. Incipient and almost unchallengeable jealousy can be playing such a scenario, without those in positions of responsibilty being able to identify the attitude, and the bullying it generates.

And so, the "politics of the workplace" becomes an incubator for illness, depression, conflict and reduced levels of both performance and attendance. And only the symptom-bearer suffers. The others are rarely, if ever, required or expected, or even encouraged to change their cologne, their deodorant, their after-shave lotion.

And the bullying continues.
And the clock keeps ticking, just as it has done for centuries when people in power abuse that power through the most subtle and seemingly innocuous criticisms, like "that copy needs to be re-written" because it might offend one of our most generous advertisers, even though the content of the piece is both accurate and beneficial to the community. The journalist who wrote the piece does the editing and the re-write, at the beck and call of the publisher or the supervising editor, all the while knowing that his truth and his professional integrity have been compromised. and the argument from the Publisher will be, "If you do not like the editorial policy here, find somewhere else to write"

And it is this last attitude that is most offensive, especially in an economy in which there are literally thousands of highly qualified graduates driving cabs, and performing tasks far below their capability, their training and their vocational dreams. And there is no worker support or advocacy when employers, especially workplace owners can and do call their own shots in whom they hire and fire, without worry or even concern about being challenged on their decisions.

Never before in the last half century plus have workers been more open and vulnerable to abuse, in ethos in which the need for such advocacy and support is most needed. Unions, by definition, have absolutely no power to "grieve" workplace injustice or abuse, and most employers have so emasculated the unions in their workplace that the worker support is merely a papier mache facade.

And the hypocrisy therein, along with the attitude among people in positions of responsibility that "I can take whatever actions I wish without having to be concerned about the implications" add up to an intolerable workplace culture in hundreds if not thousands of workplaces where wages are flat-lined, unions are either outlawed or emasculated and the employment lines are growing.

To say "this is not a pretty picture" is at best an understatement, at worst a tragedy, with little or no hope of any change on the horizon.

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