Bullying at work shouldn’t be hidden by ‘playground’ stigma

This is Anti-Bullying Week 2018 (#ABW2018), with a series of events, articles and publications aimed at making the problem of bullying something about which we all know more and are better equipped to stop.

As is inevitable, many websites and much of the Anti-Bullying Week 2018 material focuses on bullying amongst children, particularly in schools.  However, that doesn’t mean we can forget that for many people, bullying is a reality of their day to day working lives.  If you think you’re being bullied, please don’t feel you’re alone.  TUC commissioned research in 2015 found that in the UK almost a third of people experience bullying at work (and another 30% have witnessed it). 

This year’s theme is “Choose Respect” (#ChooseRespect), but bullying behaviours can go far beyond a lack of respect.  Agency Central describe bullying as encompassing:

  • Exclusion
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Verbal insults
  • Rumour spreading
  • Purposely preventing career advancement
  • Threats in relation to job security
  • Humiliation
  • Being overly critical

These are all aggressive/passive-aggressive actions, but take care also of the “charismatic bully” who may be more difficult to spot:

This type of bully will not rely on physical force to intimidate their targets, but rather will use subtle manipulation to exert their power over others.

In recent months I’ve advised several individual clients, each of whom has experienced bullying at work, on how to tackle the problem.  Although they are based in very different parts of the UK, there are key similarities in their situations:

  • Each knew they weren’t happy with their interaction with their manager;
  • Each has been exposed to 2 or more of the behaviours mentioned above;
  • In spite of this, each failed to recognise that they were being bullied.

With smaller employers, many of the problems have arisen from the lack of management structure, but even companies with great policies in place can face problems.  In 2 of the cases, the employer is large and has excellent Equalities, Bullying & Harassment and/or Dignity at Work polices.  With a bit of guidance on how to pull together and present evidence that their treatment falls outwith those policies, they’ve made real progress towards solving the problem.

Of course, sometimes there’s a deeper problem.  I have advised several employers over the years where inappropriate behaviours have become a part of their managerial culture.  The reasons behind these behaviours are too many and varied to go into here, but this recent article from Psychology Today provides a pretty useful exploration.  And underlying all of this is our ongoing economic and political uncertainty.  In 2015, ACAS stated:

as we look ahead to 2016, one finding in our recent paper especially resonates: the strong correlation between restructuring and organisational change and increased rates of workplace bullying.

Now, unless I’m reading the commentary wrong, uncertainty, restructuring and organisational change aren’t going away any time soon, so there is real merit in taking measures to prevent bullying from taking hold.

At the same time, there is increasing evidence of significant detrimental impact on personal and organisational performance.  Indeed, more research from ACAS estimated the cost of workplace bullying to the UK economy as £18 billion. 

In other words, for business to be successful, and for the economy to grow, this is an issue where increased awareness, and real efforts to curtail bullying, simply aren’t optional.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

Time to call time on out of hours e-mail?

The French now have an absolute right NOT to check their e-mail out of hours, but why do people do it in the first place?  Is a law necessary?  And how much of it comes as an expectation of the employer, and how much is self-inflicted?

I suspect there may be a PhD in accurately finding the answer to these questions, but few employment contracts demand that you are available and responding 24 hours a day and for most people the actual expectation is that they work their normal contract hours, plus give a bit of flexibility when they need to get something done.  It’s interesting that France has felt the need to protect people from the pressure (perhaps to protect them from themselves?) by introducing a law that guarantees the right not to check e-mail when you’re not working.

In the days of paper correspondence, people would expect a response to their communication perhaps within the week, but after 5 or 6 days was often the best that could be achieved once everything was balanced into the diary.  That steadily changed as electronic communication came to the fore.

The step changes in expectation, however, came with the rise of the laptop and the BlackBerry.  While the traditional BlackBerry is an endangered species, teetering on the verge of extinction, more and more people are carrying a smart phone on which they can not only send and receive e-mail, but they can browse the internet, log into cloud drives, even edit documents.

I’ve had colleagues in the past who expected instant responses to their e-mails – one reportedly started criticising my lack of response because I hadn’t replied within 2 hours of them e-mailing me.  Whether or not that was true, the fact that someone was prepared to relay it indicates how believable it is in the modern world of work that expectations have become so utterly and completely unreasonable.

This whole situation has become exacerbated by the increasing use of Twitter and other social media by businesses looking to communicate with their customers and clients.  Twitter has brought the expectation of instant responses, or at least within a few minutes, to the extent that some staff are now being tasked with responding to all Tweets within very short timescales, while there has been a growth in suppliers offering social media management services so you can outsource the “instant” responses and focus on more considered answers to legitimate questions.

It is inevitable that this focus on more and more rapid response should spill into people feeling they’re not doing their job properly if they don’t meet the timescales.  That, combined with increasing presenteeism, means people are often tempted into having a quick check of their work e-mail once they get home.  Or just before they go to bed.  Or as soon as they wake up in the morning.  Or while they’re SUPPOSED to be off work ill.  This last one is particularly concerning as the increased stress will undoubtedly delay their recovery, while they are unlikely to get any thanks or recognition from their employer for having done so.  Indeed, a responsible employer should be seeking to stop such behaviour, as has been reported on the parts of Volkswagen, Daimler, Axa and other companies.

To highlight the folly of this lifestyle change, keep an eye out for more information about Work Your Proper Hours Day, an annual event instigated 13 years ago.  Given the amount of unpaid overtime you probably work, including checking your e-mails out of hours, WYPHD falls on the day each year when you (as an average worker) actually start to get paid for the work you do.  And in 2015 people in the UK worked £31.5 billion worth of hours without getting paid a penny.  This year it falls on Friday 24th February.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787

Depression Awareness Week – talking about it definitely makes things better…

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I didn’t want to see Depression Awareness Week pass without doing at least a little to promote it. Why? Because mental health is still a massive taboo in UK workplaces, with many people going through agonies to stop their colleagues, and especially their bosses, from finding out that they’re ill.

Only this week I was approached by someone asking if their employer is likely to see them as weak, a liability, if they are honest about being ill. It’s a shame, but that is still the overwhelming fear for people when they’re diagnosed. In spite of the fear, many organisations I’ve dealt with are actually reasonably aware of the problems that can arise and treat mental illnesses similarly to physical ones, but some, sadly, are a long way from that. The best way to start improving things is to speak about depression openly and honestly, and Depression Awareness Week presents an ideal opportunity to start that conversation.

As an employer, it’s worth remembering that depression can be a disability, so it’s important to get your approach to it correct, but also that it’s a common illness from which the vast majority of people recover (or can manage) with proper treatment – and a supportive employer can make a huge difference in successful recovery.