In the UK, workplace bullying is not against the law but harassment is. Harassment is defined as 'unwanted behaviour' relating to age, sex, disability, race, religion, marital status, pregnancy, gender reassignment or sexual orientation. It’s interesting, and rather alarming, that this definition harnesses only discriminatory behaviour. What about aggressiveness, intimidation and unreasonable demands that are not motivated by discrimination? The truth is, harassment and bullying often have nothing to with factors like age, sex and race, and everything to do with power, control, extreme competitiveness or the desire to make oneself look good by belittling or overworking others.
I began to feel anxious, hounded, pestered. I felt like I couldn’t get away from him...I was even dreaming about him at night, when I actually managed to sleep.
I didn’t really grasp what corporate bullying was until it happened to me. A number of years ago, I was working on a high-stakes project with a senior colleague. He would often call me late at night (11pm wasn’t out of the question) and when I woke the next morning – bleary-eyed, exhausted – dozens of emails and texts awaited my response. The tone of these messages was impatient and inconvenienced, implying I had been slacking off by going to sleep. At restaurants with friends, on weekends away, whenever I managed to escape to the gym, I was constantly on tenterhooks. At any point my phone could start ringing. At any point a request could come through, asking for work to be completed out of hours. At any point I could be slammed with yet another deadline. I began to feel anxious, hounded, pestered. I felt like I couldn’t get away from him. I was even dreaming about him at night – that is, when I managed to sleep. I regarded myself as pretty tough, but he got under my skin and made me question my ability to handle pressure and do my job to the required standard.
After months of harassment, months of trying to get my head around the problem, to determine if the issue lay with him or me, I finally worked up the courage to confront him…and he was astounded. He had no idea that his behaviour had crossed the line of what was acceptable. He hadn’t stopped to think what it was like to be on the receiving end of a constant barrage of after-hours calls, emails and texts; his thoughts had been consumed with keeping the project on track and making himself look good by overachieving on certain milestones (at the expense of my sanity and health, I might add). This is the inherent problem with bullies: they are often unaware that what they’re doing is wrong. They regard themselves as hard taskmasters. They’ll admit to being tough, to having high standards and being persistent, but while all these qualities are acceptable – even desirable – in the workplace, there is a line, and on the other side of that line is bullying and harassment.
I acknowledge that the workplace is a hierarchical environment by nature. People get bossed around, it’s a fact of life. Sometimes they won’t like what they’re asked to do; sometimes they’ll be under more pressure than is ideal. I get that. There is no doubt that some employees are inefficient, lazy and overly sensitive. And we all know someone who is not cut out for the job, not up to standard, or who falls apart in the face of negative feedback.
I also believe mobile technology and 24/7 connectivity can be exacerbating factors, allowing hypercriticism, power plays and harassment to follow us home. Our working day has no defined start or end, and boundaries of any kind have been blown apart. More often than not, there is an expectation that after-hours emails will be responded to, promptly. But at what time of night is it okay not to respond? And what about the following morning? How many of us reach for our phone and find ourselves groggily answering emails before we’ve even got out of bed? Those of us who are parents know the importance of taking devices away from children to ensure they have downtime and balance. Why are we not applying these rules to ourselves? In retrospect, the problem with my colleague might have been resolved quicker if I’d had the good sense (and courage) to turn off my phone. Such a simple solution – and yet it isn’t, because our accessibility has expectations around it, and we are judged and often rewarded by how available we make ourselves.
Given that the law does such a poor job of defining workplace bullying and harassment, and with perpetrators and victims often unable to see the situation for what it really is, it seems that onlookers have an important role to play in this complicated issue. We all have a responsibility to speak up when we know something is wrong (even if we aren’t directly affected), to model fairness and respect in how we deal with our colleagues, and to do our best not to violate the lines between work and home. Many of us have stories to tell. Colleagues who make us feel as though nothing we do is good enough. Colleagues who set deadlines for sport, and huff and puff while we all run around in circles, trying to make it happen. Colleagues whose work-related calls, emails and texts hijack our family time, our leisure activities, our sleeping hours. Colleagues who shout, belittle, mock, backstab, undermine. We’ve all seen it happen – some of us have experienced it firsthand – but how many of us have stepped forward and spoken out?
In our schools, we’re teaching children that bullying is everyone’s problem, creating a culture that turns bystanders into upstanders. In the corporate world, the lesson should be exactly the same.
B.M Carroll drew on her personal experience in the world of finance for the corporate bullying she depicts in her novel The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy, out 27th December.