I’m mad. Once in a while (OK, more than once in a while) something really riles me. This week, a report stated that Northern Ireland universities are among the worst in the UK for bullying among staff. I’d go further and suggest that the problem lies not just with universities but across all sectors here in NI.

So, we all have rights in the workplace? Do we? Does this depend on gender, or age, or whether we’ve had experience in dealing with it? Or, whether the bully is the owner or not? I remember little of this to be honest.

Sure, I worked for employers who had ‘policies’. I worked for employers who even had me writing policies (though I was unqualified to do so, and I did not work in the HR Department) because I cared enough to suggest that they should have one. I worked for employers who sometimes even read these policies themselves. Fewer still were progressive enough to even inform staff that such a policy existed or (sharp intake of breath) instruct them in how it operated.

Did any actually implement their harassment/dignity at work policy? One that I can recall. This in twelve years of working for a variety of employers. The worst case of harassment I had to report was ignored. Nothing was done. I eventually left.

Recently I delivered training to an organisation where I was asked what to do if management don’t actually support the training department’s initiatives. I sighed deeply and said she’d (innocently) got it all wrong. It is the management team who should be taking the initiative. And, anything other than direction and support and resources coming from them would be a waste of everyone’s time, even though the original concept will often come from HR or Training. So, why do directors and managers not take the initiative? I’d love to know. Here are some suggestions for those whose harassment policy is still in the jokes file.

Shocker Number One: You’re Not Concerned With the Welfare of your Staff

Therefore when harassment training and the like are suggested by the often idealistic, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, subordinate colleague, he is thwarted at the first step. “It’s not a good time just now.”

And, when someone reports harassment, you will make light of it, not taking them seriously in the hope that they will drop the claims and carry on working quietly. You really do not want to know.

If you are not concerned about the welfare of your staff for its own purpose, or even so that they can, in turn, demonstrate loyalty and work hard, then management is not for you. Give it up and go home.

Shocker Number Two: You’re Not Comfortable With People Who are Smarter, More Professional and Switched On Than You

The reason internal Training and HR departments struggle like salmon against the flow is that those in charge are afraid to have people around them who are professionals and might (should) know more than they do. This often results in aggressive harassment and/or dismissive behaviour. NI businesses are notoriously run by those who cannot be challenged. I’ve twelve years of proof and the current testimonies of many friends, colleagues and acquaintances to back me up here. People are sick of being bullied by incompetent idiots.

Why send our young graduates to college for four plus years to have them come out skilled workers and then treat them like children, conditioning them to remain in their Child Ego State and almost have to ask permission to go to the toilet?! I have actually seen this happening in several organisations. The same employees are probably being bullied in other ways too. The bully will be someone who fears being shown up by those who are professional in their field.

My advice: it’s time to take yourself and your toys out of the pram and get some communication training. Then, take seriously the advice, skills and knowledge or your HR Manager, your Training Manager and your Workplace Ethics Manager.

Shocker Number Three: You’re Not Going to Set an Example of Good Behaviour Yourself, Where’s the Fun in That?

I’m thinking sexual harassment. And, in case you think I’m thinking of males dishing out sexual harassment to females, I’m actually conjuring up an unfortunately real picture of an older female (with teenage children) using her ample – but nonetheless unpleasant – cleavage to great effect in the boardroom. Trouble was, she was not respected by males or females and often used unnecessary physical contact when in contact with other male managers. Cringeworthy in a woman of any age. The older men didn’t seem to mind, while the younger men were naturally horrified and awkward.

Following confiding in a male colleague about sexual harassment in the workplace, I was told, “I only wish someone would sexually harass me!”. Humorous? No, downright na√Øve regarding the effects of such harassment on males OR females. Men think they shouldn’t complain, since the myth goes, most males would relish it. And, females won’t complain, because either they might be seen as weak or it won’t be taken seriously. “Sure it’s only a bit of flirting!”

Who Do You Complain to When the Harasser is the Owner or Director of the Organisation?

In order:

Speak directly to the harasser/aggressor telling them these things:

  1. What is happening.
    [You are shouting at me/dismissing me/standing too close/touching me/making inappropriate or demeaning remarks.]
  2. What the effect is on you/how you feel.
    [It makes me feel harassed/uncomfortable/sick/afraid.]
  3. What you want to happen.
    [I want you to stop.]
  4. What the consequences will be if it happens again.
    [I will report this to another manager/director/owner. I will report this to the police.]

Seriously, it’s depressing to know that NI universities rate high on the scale for bullying in the workplace, but it’s no big surprise. It matters little what sector we are talking about, and I have worked in or with them all. Bullying by adults of other adults is as rife in the boardroom as it is on the playground. There are many ways to begin to stop the cycle, but all must ultimately come from the head or the organisation, whether policies, training, education, enforcement or discipline if such a culture of acceptance is to be shattered. In any case, we’d do well just to begin listening to what our employees and professional colleagues are telling us. And, that requires putting a cork in it – to use a local expression – long enough to hear.

Photo by Rochelle Nicole on Unsplash