Office payback

This week I was talking to a friend who was relating what she deemed was unfair treatment in the workplace. I asked her to elaborate and she said that most employees have learnt that what the boss says is always right.

She added that having worked in another environment where the boss would seek feedback on work-related situations, she was beginning to feel very uncomfortable at this workplace. For instance, she recalled that after one previous staff meeting the boss finished his speech with the usual question “does anyone have any questions”.

Unknown to her the usual silence ensued, but this time since she needed clarification on certain points she asked for some explanations. She noticed that while she was speaking all of her colleagues had a stunned look on their faces while a charged silence descended on the room. After she was finished, the boss appeared to struggle with a response and look quite ruffled.

When everything was over, she noticed that most of her colleagues left the room very quickly and refused to look her way, instead they all went up to the boss afterwards and applauded him on the presentation. Later that day, she received several calls from some senior colleagues who suggested that if she wants to get anywhere in the organisation she should learn to keep her queries and concerns to herself or she could be victimised.

She is now feeling very uncomfortable and given the current economic climate is concerned about her job situation. The article this week is about victimization in the workplace.

We all know that victimisation takes place in the workplace and in Barbados this situation is no different from anywhere else in the world. The only problem here is the blissful denial by some who, all the while, are hoping that it will never affect them and the absence of legislation in this area.

More importantly it has become so embedded in our culture, that I believe some people would be incapable of managing or supervising if some law was created to address this form of treatment in the workplace.

Let me start with a definition of victimisation. A check with the academic literature has revealed that workplace victimisation can be defined as “acts of aggression perpetrated by one or more members of an organisation that cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to their intended target” (Aquino & Thau, 2009).

So what does this really mean? Well, research has revealed that although many prefer to hide this issue or pretend that it does not exist, there is a “dark side” of organisations. For instance, have you ever wondered why we hardly ever hear of “whistle blowing” in organisations that “see the light of day”? This is not because all employees have suddenly risen to some form of sainthood but because almost everyone is afraid to voice their opinion for fear of victimisation or what Cortina and Magley (2003) calls “interpersonal mistreatment.”

So what is this phenomenon called interpersonal mistreatment? Let me elucidate a bit. According to research, “it is a specific antisocial variety of organisational deviance” which involves negative behaviour towards someone and could include the removal of positive actions or the adding of negative actions.

What this really means is that after an employee has voiced their opinion about some issue, a manager/supervisor/colleagues could stop associating with the individual both formally or informally. For instance, they could ostracise them by ignoring or excluding them from events at work.

They could suddenly start getting reminders of errors, have areas of responsibility removed and/or be ordered to do work below their level of competence, to name a few. This is just another form of workplace victimisation and workplace bullying (Cortina & Magley, 2003).

In other words, victimisation can take many forms as employees are known to be suddenly transferred to another branch or section of the organisation or be demoted without just cause or on the basis of some weak allegation. To make matters worse, research has revealed that the victim of such behaviour is often suddenly given poor performance evaluations despite every effort on the part of the employee to attain an acceptable appraisal.

Last but by no means least, the employee may be deprived of opportunities such as overtime pay, training and promotions (Cortina & Magley, 2003).

Another variant of victimisation occurs at the individual level where an employee is subjected to negative non-verbal or verbal behaviour. Such behaviour could include name calling (nick names) in the form of jokes and the silent treatment. This behaviour could increase to such an extent, that subordinates are affected and may have some influence on their behaviour towards the victim.

Unfortunately, problems of this sort are hard to document, since the victim and others present often have doubts about the intentions of the instigator. In several cases, other employees are known to suggest that the victim is over-reacting or is overly sensitive. I also heard about one case where, after an employee complained about such treatment, the others (co-workers) suggested that the victim (the employee) was acting paranoid (Cortina & Magley, 2003).

You may understand why the boss would victimise an employee, but why would other employees pretend not to notice this treatment. The experts believe that in seeking to maintain some form of equilibrium or to maintain the status quo or in trying not to become entangled in the conflict, they may prefer to trivialise the situation for fear of reprisal themselves. This results in the victim feeling rejected and alone in the situation; just what the antagonist had hoped would happen (Cortina & Magley, 2003).

Before I go on, let me say here that as a manager one may feel that victimising an employee is the way to go, but an old lady once said to me “because an individual does not disagree with you overtly does not mean that they agree with you”. I believe that far too many managers/supervisors seek consensus when speaking to their subordinates yet oddly enough in the core selection criteria they insist on hiring employees who are analytical.

So what can be done about workplace victimisation? Firstly, managers as well as other employees must realise that when a situation exists in the organisation it has an influence on everyone, not only the victim. This is why management experts suggest that managers realise that what one person perceives as fair another may see as unfair.

This is because we all have a self-serving bias which prevents us from seeing wrongdoing when we are benefiting from a situation. However, managers have a responsibility to all employees to act fairly and ethically at all times even though his/her ego may be bruised (Robbins & Judge).

Finally, even though we may not as yet have the requisite legislation for victimisation in the workplace like other countries do, supervisors and managers alike must be cognisant that their actions are always being scrutinised by all employees.

Therefore, they have a responsibility to be ethical and fair in all their transactions as this is a sure way of gaining respect, even though no matter what you do someone will think that you are victimising them or treating them unfairly.

Nevertheless, managers/supervisors must “work on all aspects of the social working environment, including the total vulnerability of one’s employees and their respective levels of work stress”. (Mathisen, √gaard & Einarsen, 2012). Until next time….

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