Robert Malcom* was 19 years old when he scored his dream job. He had an interest in styling and was hired as a visual merchandiser at a popular retailer, a position he’s longed for for quite some time. His dreams, however, were quickly deterred. You see, Malcom is gay. And while his sexual orientation has nothing to do with his work, his new colleagues made it abundantly clear they weren’t comfortable with it. “Once I told them [I was gay], I started getting treated differently and some of them would even leave the stock room if I went down to grab stuff,” Malcom tells me.
Bullying is an act assumed amongst a younger crowd; a common problem found in schools across the globe. But it’s an issue not commonly spoken about in the workplace. If children have teachers and counsellors they can confide in, employees should have superiors they feel safe disclosing problems with. In Malcom’s case, his bully was one of his direct supervisors. “Did you get tested for HIV?” His manager asked one day when Malcom called in sick. But the harassment didn’t stop there. “One day I overheard [my manger say] it was disgusting that I was openly gay.” Malcom explains, “I didn’t want to lose my job, so I kept my mouth shut.”
“One day I overheard [my manger say] it was disgusting that I was openly gay.” Malcom explains, “I didn’t want to lose my job, so I kept my mouth shut.”
In a study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, it was reported that 27% of employees surveyed felt they have met abusive conduct at work – a large majority of the harassment came from bosses. “[Workplace] culture is influenced from the top of the organization. Leaders need to walk the talk when it comes to company values, providing candid feedback and having a zero tolerance for toxic behaviors,” Morag Barrett, author of The Future-Proof Workplace tells me. And it makes sense. How can colleagues be expected to show respect to one another if a proper example isn’t set?
Toxic culture is something Bethany Brooks*, a PR account manager, says happens frequently in agency settings. “My former office was predominately 20-something-year-old women, and competition to be the best was encouraged by managers,” Brooks begins, “They pitted us against each other to improve productivity, but emotionally, it was straining.”
And that type of “encouragement” isn’t only found in female dominated offices. It can also be found in sectors mostly made-up of men. In the world of manufacturing, Mark Thomas* tells me that almost all of the harassment trickles down from the top. Due to the fast paced nature of the environment, “The pressure is always on to produce results. There’s a continuous sense of urgency and expectation to do whatever and sacrifice whatever to get there.” Thomas mentions, “I once had a manager yell at me over the speakers, ‘You are so fucking stupid, I don’t know how you put your pants on in the morning.’ He had belittled me in front of my peers, employees that reported directly to me.” All of the verbal abuse is the cherry on top of an already hostile environment full of “shop talk,” which Thomas explains consists of expletives, sexist and racist comments that are justified on the shop floor. “I’ve seen grown men break down and cry in the middle of the factory floor.”
“I’ve seen grown men break down and cry in the middle of the factory floor.”
Maybe what’s most upsetting of all is that this type of behaviour typically goes unreported. “The victim of bullying can often feel like it is their fault, or paralyzed as to what to do to change the situation, and can end up pretending it’s not happening, or simply gritting their teeth and tolerating it. Neither is an effective long term solution.” Barrett explains, “The important thing is to speak up. Don’t suffer in silence, in doing so you implicitly condone the behaviour.”
And when it is reported, companies with human resources typically take the matter very seriously. “If we ever become aware of inappropriate workplace behaviour, we investigate thoroughly then take measures to address and resolve any issues and/or individuals the investigation validates did violate company policy,” Ted Hawksford, Head of Human Resources at Booking.com tells me. Through Booking.com’s “Ethics Line”, employees can anonymously submit concerns. The line is monitored by the HR team daily, and is supplemented with posters, annual campaigns and even office ambassadors to ensure employees are aware. He also mentions that they’ve made proactive standards to nip bad behaviour in the bud, which includes a series of conduct training events.
“The important thing is to speak up. Don’t suffer in silence, in doing so you implicitly condone the behaviour.”
However, not all offices are so lucky and reporting harassment isn’t always easy. In the instance of Mary Hong*, who incessantly bumped heads with a verbally aggressive colleague, her superiors didn’t know how to handle the situation. “I really felt threatened by this person coming at me and losing it in the office.” Hong tells me, “It got so bad, I eventually had to go talk to [one of my superiors] about her.” After threatening to go to the work and safety board, a professional was brought in to put a proper conduct policy in place.
For those being bullied, Morag suggests a number of things, including confrontation. “Plan what you want to say, focus on the end result and how things could be handled differently. Practice what you want to say out loud. When you speak to your colleague, try to avoid the public showdown,” he begins. “If things don’t improve you can choose whether to speak with them again, or to raise the issue with your HR department [should you have one]. Keep records of all incidents of bullying, documenting places, times, what happened and who was present.” For employers, he says it’s important to step in once they notice an issue “to avoid bullying festering and spreading.” Opportunities for feedback should be given regularly and employers should also ensure that there are consequences for bad behaviour.
At the end of the day, workplace culture should enable employees to thrive, not leave a career in tatters.
*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Have you encountered bullying in the workplace? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.