When I started work (in the dark ages of the twentieth century), sexual harassment was thought of as an entirely private problem. There was rarely any point taking it to the boss. Even if the boss himself was not the problem, a victim would often find herself blamed, shamed and punished. That’s changed radically. And it’s one of the key factors in changing for the better how women and men deal with one another in the work place.
A zero tolerance for sexual harassment is still far from standard. The current David Jones debacle in Australia tells us that. But increasingly companies are aware that they can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the behaviours that used to be commonplace. If women are harassed or subjected to sleazy comments or advances, their concerns must be heard. And there is legislation in place if the matter needs to go further.
While that situation certainly isn’t perfect , those positive changes in social attitude make it even more striking that bullying in the workplace remains such a problem. And, apparently, is so difficult to curtail even when it’s blatant, and even where there are policies in place to combat it.
At any level, bullying profoundly affects people’s wellbeing. Because of the harm it causes, I have written about it explicitly in the past. We also know what psychological damage it’s causing in our schools.
Yet of all the negative workplace stories that I continue to hear, those causing the worst harm all reflect a culture of bullying, rather than individual instances. In my circles alone I know of organizations – including one government department – where bullies have boasted of striking fear into the hearts of those they purport to “manage”, and where significant numbers of staff have been hounded or humiliated, gone on stress leave or suffered lasting effects – while the bullies continue to flourish.
In such an atmosphere, fear also flourishes. If the bullying culture goes all the way to the top, victims will feel powerless to complain. That kind of silencing is itself a form of bullying and should be totally unacceptable in a contemporary workplace. When it does prevail, there can be literally nowhere to go but out the door. Leaving is not always an option, though, and bullies understand this very well. Playing people off against one another is a common bullying tactic. In many situations the bully will only favour or promote people who show that they can behave as ruthlessly as she or he does. This further entrenches the bullying. More dangerously still, it normalizes it.
The costs of bullying are tremendous. Individual costs of loss of safety, pleasure in work, and inner wellbeing are paramount. But it is almost beyond belief that any contemporary organization could overlook how every other measure of success is also compromised when a workplace culture is corrupted by fear. People’s efficiency, loyalty, creativity and even their basic willingness to do their best are lost when a bullying culture prevails. In commercial organizations this directly affects the bottom line. In non-commercial organizations it will markedly affect the very services that organization is intended to provide.
The worse the culture of bullying, the more difficult it is for any lone individual to act effectively. This means that colleagues – bullied or not – must get together to name what’s going on and take a stand, ideally involving people outside their immediate organization wherever possible. Just as critical is for us, the wider public, to insist on zero tolerance when it comes to bullying. Bullying is often carried out in private. But, just like sexual harassment, it isn’t a private matter. Bullying has high social costs. It is sadistic, unintelligent – and must never be accepted.