Call It What It Is
This post is different to what I usually write about. It doesn't address data, or statistics. It doesn't talk about the need for training. In fact, it doesn't relate to my usual posts at all. Instead I want to reflect for a few minutes about the culture in which we currently find ourselves. The current situation with Covid has given many of us time to reflect about our relationships, our employment, the way we treat others and the way others treat us. With this in mind I want to ask the question:
Can we ever justify hurting people for gain?
There are two well known phrases that try to justify the need to hurt others. These are:
Collateral damage - something that we have all heard about in warfare but most would say is unacceptable where it can be avoided. But we use the phrase when talking about kids who are hurt in a marriage break up, friends that are lost and so on. The idea is that all our decisions impact on others, and sometimes what is best for us is not best for everyone. Look at the news, at countries that are war-torn. We can see the impact of collateral damage, on the people, the culture and the environment. For most of us we would agree that collateral damage should be limited and completely removed where possible.
Of course, we see this idea in a number of different areas. It used to be that we would do things "for the good of medical science". This is the idea in medicine that it doesn't matter that some people suffer if many more benefit. Much of what we learned about the human body has been by particularly barbaric means - horrendous deaths of individuals to increase our knowledge and treat others more appropriately. In other instances, such as the Alder Hey scandal, the damage and hurt was emotional. Retention of children's tissue and organs was being done "for the good of medical science" but caused an immense amount of hurt. These types of cases led to the UK strengthening its ethical processes and fortunately "for the good of medical science" is a phrase that we rarely hear now.
But is the same thinking still there? Are we behaving differently in science solely because to do otherwise would be illegal? Most of us continue to use fossil fuels even though they cause pollution and are destroying the planet. Many continue to buy and discard single use plastics because it is convenient, regardless of the environmental consequences. As countries we continue to sell weapons to dubious regimes for financial gain. Some of us insist on meeting with others during a pandemic lockdown, not wearing our masks or not social distancing even though it is putting lives at risk. Our need to "go back to normal" justifies the risk to others. So, it appears that for many of us, we still hold on to the view that it is okay to hurt people if "the ends justify the means".
Some of us insist on meeting with others during a pandemic lockdown, not wearing our masks or not social distancing even though it is putting lives at risk. Our need to "go back to normal" justifies the risk to others. So, it appears that for many of us, we still hold on to the view that it is okay to hurt people if "the ends justify the means".
A recent open letter from company employees posted on Twitter has stimulated a lot of social media discussion on workplace culture, and whether it is okay for large, fast moving or ambitious companies to hurt their employees along the way. This debate is nothing new, with different companies entering the spotlight on different occasions for their less than ideal treatment of employees.
In this particular case, the company responded that a lot of employees have thrived in the environment and have stuck with the company, and that the company needed to act in a particular way to progress. This sounds a lot to me like "collateral damage", "for the good of medical science" or "the ends justify the means". In essence, because some people liked the culture it was okay that a lot of others were hurt.
Some on social media have suggested that these things happen and are to be expected. And, of course, this is true. But just because we expect these things to happen doesn't mean that we should accept them. This is the same as saying that having employees feel bullied and in fear is acceptable collateral damage. Is it really? Can we put gain (reputational or financial) above the physical and mental health of employees? Doesn't the fact that so many are happy to accept this position indicate that we have a major problem with how workplace bullying is viewed?
But just because we expect these things to happen doesn't mean that we should accept them.
It has been suggested that the power is with the employee to accept the workplace culture, or walk away. For anyone who has found themselves in an abusive relationship you will know that this is simply not the case. Toxic environments make the individual feel worthless, question their own actions, sap their emotional strength and cause mental confusion. These symptoms result in them doing things that exacerbate the bullying and fear. The related fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and feeling it is all your fault makes it all the more likely you will stay in that environment. In some instances Stockholm syndrome can occur, where a victim of abuse bonds with their abuser. What is true for personal relationships is also true in a workplace setting. Is it right that companies are allowed to do this to their employees to make profit and satisfy their shareholders?
Toxic environments make the individual feel worthless, question their own actions, sap their emotional strength and cause mental confusion. These symptoms result in them doing things that exacerbate the bullying and fear. The related fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and feeling it is all your fault makes it all the more likely you will stay in that environment.
My own view, from personal experience is:
There is never any excuse to treat people without respect, no matter what the perceived gain.
Bullying is a disease that needs to be stamped out of the workplace. Any bully, no matter how high a performer should be removed from a company as quickly as possible
Bullied / fearful staff should be supported by HR. It is said that HR is there to protect the employer not the employee but this needs to change - and enabling a positive culture ultimately benefits the employer.
Stockholm syndrome, or similar, can occur in the workplace. I have personally seen bullied staff sing the praises of their company. When asked they will deny being bullied, or say that they deserve the way they are treated. This means that any reported issues of bullying are likely to reflect a much larger problem.
Employers need to support bullied staff with counselling services and other help where needed. Without this, the abused can often become an abuser, ending up bullying others. This is usually an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being bullied. So failure to address bullying in the workplace will simply lead to more bullying.
Any employer or HR department who allows bullying to continue is condoning it. A toxic culture of bullying and fear causes significant mental and physical damage. It can ruin an individual's life by causing mental and physical health problems.
It is not the employee's responsibility to change the situation. Most organisations wait for bullying to be reported and put the onus on the employee to resolve the situation via mediation etc. This approach is wrong - there is no mediation for bullying, there is no compromise and it puts the employee in another unnecessary, stressful situation.
Non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality agreements, gagging clauses or whatever you want to call them should be banned from being used to stop people reporting this kind of abuse. Any company who insists on using them for this reason seriously needs to look at their culture. If you work for an organisation that does this then you should be questioning why.
So, why is this article entitled "Call it what it is"?
If what we saw in work environments was seen at home it would be identified as domestic abuse / violence. It is recognised that domestic abuse does not need to be physical but can be through psychological, emotional or financial abuse. How is this different to what is seen in the workplace? The only difference is that we are paid to be at work - does payment justify the mistreatment of individuals? Would domestic abuse be acceptable if money transferred hands? This is obviously both ridiculous and offensive.
It is recognised that domestic abuse does not need to be physical but can be through psychological, emotional or financial abuse. How is this different to what is seen in the workplace? The only difference is that we are paid to be at work - does payment justify the mistreatment of individuals?
We should call out this sort of behaviour in the workplace for what it is. It is workplace abuse / workplace violence. The problem is that we have created our own language around the workplace. We talk about toxic cultures, workplace bullying, micromanagement etc. All of these phrases don't sound so bad as the word "abuse" or the word "violence". But let's not fool ourselves - that is what we are talking about. We should call a spade a spade, we should call it what it is.
If it is a criminal act to commit domestic abuse (physical, psychological, sexual, financial or emotional), then it should be a criminal act to commit workplace abuse. Instead we have workplace tribunals that deal with employment issues. This is entirely unhelpful. If someone was killed at work it wouldn't go to an employment tribunal it would be a criminal proceeding and addressed in the courts. The same should be true for workplace abuse / violence. It isn't something specific to employment, it is abuse and needs to be seen as such. Viewing workplace abuse in the same light as other forms of abuse would make employers a little more careful in their interactions with their employees.
Viewing workplace abuse in the same light as other forms of abuse would make employers a little more careful in their interactions with their employees.
In the meantime, while workplace bullying is brushed under the carpet, we will continue to see people leave roles due to induced ill health, undergo counselling, in many cases to self medicate with drugs or alcohol, and very sadly in some cases to end their lives. Unfortunately this has happened to people I have worked with (in different organisations) - and the workplace gives condolences rather than realising that they contributed to the employees mental state.
I often talk about the importance of learning in my blogs, and this one is no different. Here we do not need to learn about statistical tests, data or logical thinking. Instead we need to learn that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness, to be treated as we would like to be treated. That's just human decency - let's call it what it is.
We need to learn that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness, to be treated as we would like to be treated. That's just human decency - let's call it what it is.