Harassment: the ‘invisible’ problem

Harassment, Special Report

Harassment: the ‘invisible’ problem everyone talks about

The key concern of any trade union is to defend and to try to enhance social achievements, both overall and in any given organisation, company or workplace. This means taking account of a series of factors that go beyond pay and are commonly known as well-being at work.

Well-being at work is a historic achievement. Little by little, workers consolidated their rights in the various aspects of working life (reduction of working hours, leave, medical insurance, ergonomics, and others), which make up a fairly widespread model of labour relations in western Europe. Well-being at work is the result of a balance of power and, as such, is subject to changes caused by the economic climate or the dominant political ideas at any given time. When pressure for greater productivity develops, this may pose varying degrees of risk to what has been achieved in the field of well-being : much will depend on the quality of human resources management within the organisation and the ability of workers to organise and resist.

In some cases, the situation itself forces an agreement, whether explicit or implied, and, irrespective of any natural resistance among workers against a loss of acquired rights, a perception that the sacrifices proposed are fair may lead to increased productivity, which may extend beyond the crisis.

However, a poor management system will always be incapable of increasing productivity without calling into question acquired rights. In such contexts, amongst other things, harassing behaviour may develop. Thus, a boss who do not have the necessary training or is not equipped to distribute the pressure of work among his team in a way that is not upsetting will be inclined to use strong-arm method. This does not mean that such people are ill, mad or evil. Any boss can develop harassing behaviour if he is not able to find acceptable ways to reduce stress. There are many cases of harassment whose origin is simply the personality of bosses or colleagues. These are serious cases that, under normal circumstances, the system can manage. Believing that harassment is only the preserve of a few isolated sick or mad people is a dangerous mistake.

The real problem is that harassment could be called ‘structural’, an invisible problem. It comes from the system’s inability to cope with pressure. It is often manifested in low-intensity attacks concealed under the euphemism of unsuitable conduct that top management tolerates and trivialises as a minor evil necessary to meet objectives, including those of dismantling established rights. At worst, it is perceived as a way to get rid of the weakest, who are easily conflated with the least productive, and to give others a lesson. This type of behaviour is therefore a kind of managerial terrorism aimed at making workers accept cut-price working conditions.

This type of behaviour does not directly harm productivity, at least in the short term, but gives rise to invisible costs : absenteeism, illness, costs of litigation and lost time. Worse still, a large part of these costs is transferred, outsourced to society in the form of personal and social problems : burnout, wrecked careers, broken families, but also defensive behaviour, hypercompetitiveness, clientelism, lack of solidarity. The short term trumps the medium and long term both for the organisation and for the people who work there. The fact is, organisations which tolerate harassment outsource their costs to society as a whole.

Avoiding harassment involves looking for the warning signs, raising awareness of the consequences, motivating people to solidarity and making organisations face their responsibilities. These are all parts of a trade union policy of prevention which should, in any case, start with raising awareness among members and key stakeholders.

Zero tolerance towards harassment, also called the invisible problem, starts with the early detection of any signs that may indicate a deterioration of the working environment for a person: who will no longer be invited to certain meetings, from whom work is taken away, who is isolated against their will, etc. Those involved are not always aware of the impact of these actions and, for the trade unions, it is sometimes very difficult to enter the microcosm that is the unit of work: the team.
Many victims do not dare to speak out : a dependent relationship with their managers ; fear of the consequences – which may go as far as losing their job; the lack of evidence, are just some of the arguments for leaving matters as they are. Some will opt to change jobs if the opportunity arises; others will grit their teeth and hope that the storm will pass. In fact, very few will decide to act, which allows administrations to boast favourable statistics : anything that is not reported simply does not exist.

It is our duty to shed light on this hidden harassment, to denounce the root causes and to require remedial procedures that do not simply push victims to the invalidity procedure. We need to work to raise awareness of the invisible costs of this scourge. This is a priority for a harmonious working environment – even in times of crisis.

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