Workplace bullying – why are we still having to talk about it? Part II

Part II – A minefield of perceptions

In our previous article, our MD Bradley Honnor and Deputy Director of Civil Service HR Casework, Salina Bowen discussed how harassment and/or bullying is still an issue for organisations, and HR departments in particular.

A challenge that was highlighted is how we define what is—and is not—inappropriate language and behaviour. Here, Bradley and Salina take a very honest look at the nuances and complexities that can create a minefield to traverse in the quest to be properly understood.

Bradley begins “In an ideal world, we’d all have grown up conversations, adult to adult. So if I feel you’ve said something inappropriate, I can have that conversation with you. And you can respect my position and not do that again, and I can forgive you because you weren’t aware that I might be offended by that. And that’s the end of it – there’s no grievance, I don’t feel bullied, you’re not harassing me, it’s a conversation. Unfortunately, things quickly get formally escalated to managers because people don’t know how to have those conversations.

There’s a great model, the Transactional Analysis Model, which illustrates how to do this. You have two people with a view, they can understand each other’s perspective and, if for example, one finds a type of humour offensive, then the other is mindful of that. But this doesn’t happen enough at work.”

“I think that’s a little naïve” Salina counters. “You might, for example, think something’s just a joke, but there are some things that aren’t actually a joke or funny. So you need to have baseline?”

“If you look at someone like Ricky Gervais”, Bradley responds, “everything is a joke. He jokes about all sorts of things. It’s comedy unless you’re offended because it impacts on you personally. That’s why we just have to be able to talk to each other.

People make jokes with their friends that they wouldn’t dream of saying at work, even to shock just because part of humour is being shocking” Bradley says. “But does it make that individual sexist, or misogynist or racist or any of those things in a private conversation? I do think this is where we get it wrong sometimes. There’s no forgiveness at work for clumsiness.

“You do have to establish a baseline of acceptable behaviour though” says Salina. “For instance, a customer used an extremely offensive and widely acknowledged offensive word when talking to me. For them then just to say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was unprofessional to say that’ is just an excuse. Aren’t we excusing poor behaviour by saying ‘anything goes as long as you say ‘I’m sorry. You have to have a baseline of acceptability before you can move on to that adult model.

There are all sorts of things that can be considered as micro aggressions, too. For instance, I’m hard of hearing and find the expression ‘it fell on deaf ears’ offensive, given what the expression implies.”

That’s a good example, I wouldn’t have even thought of that” Bradley exclaims. “But if I’d said it, and somebody came up to me and said, ‘just to make you aware, I’m deaf and actually that’s a bit offensive’, my response would be ‘I had no idea, and I’ve definitely learned something today. I won’t do that again, I apologise’. But they’re more likely not to do that. They’ll thank me for the session, and then go to the manager and file a complaint. And that’s what’s wrong, that’s the crux of it. But I guess if you’re feeling bullied, you’re not going to go to a bully and have a conversation. If you’re feeling harassed, you’re not going to feel comfortable that you can go and have that conversation. So it ends up with everything being formalised and in my opinion, that’s not a very effective way to deal with things.

Sometimes, we’re going to get it wrong, and that’s the point. I was in a three-way conversation recently where I accidentally misgendered a trans person with the wrong pronoun. I felt really bad about that, but actually, they weren’t offended because it happens. I made a mistake, but I could have been held really accountable in a disciplinary because of that.”

“I’ve had a similar experience” agrees Salina. “Some time ago, I encountered my first person who transitioned from being a woman to a man. I had never met anyone who had gone through gender reassignment, and I didn’t know the correct language to use. I was asked to support him from an HR perspective, and I had to say to him ‘I don’t really know the right wording to use’. And he said, ‘just say it – if it’s the wrong word, I know you’re trying to understand and you’re coming from a good place’. We’re now friends and have been for the last ten years. Another colleague, who’s a Muslim, gave me a good tip. She said ‘if you want to know something about me being Muslim or a woman, or in an arranged marriage, just say to me, ‘do you mind me asking? If I don’t want to tell you, I won’t. But if I want to tell you, I’m really happy to share.’ She also offered how helpful it can be to read about a subject before asking questions.

The takeaway is not to be so anxious about getting it right so that right that you don’t ask. Don’t be afraid of using the wrong words, or even sometimes getting letters muddled – like LGTBQ+.”

“That, by the way, is hell for a dyslexic like me!” laughs Bradley.

“It can be difficult to keep up with language or terminology changes, but we’ve all got a responsibility to try to” says Salina. “I think it’s important that we also keep talking and asking questions of ourselves and one another.  Sometimes we don’t do that because we’re worried how others will perceive us or that we will unintentionally upset someone.

Navigating all this can be hard, because of how things move on, what’s appropriate and acceptable one day, the next day isn’t. LGBTQ+ is a really good example of how things change continually LGBT to LGBTQ+.  But for me, I think the navigating comes from people being bolder and more forgiving. So if I want to know something, I ask. I try to make it easier for the other person to ask me questions about my disability, as well.”

“It’s almost as if we need our own personal working charter, where we describe how we want people to engage with us; this is what we feel is acceptable” suggests Bradley.

“We already have a personal charter when we feel bullied or harassed or discriminated against, it’s because we feel someone’s broken our personal charter, our personal rules, our value system.

It really is contextual, as well. For instance, if we were in Ukraine right now, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, because workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination would not be a priority for discussion. Some of the misunderstandings are cultural, or generational. There are constructs we grew up with, using common language, which actually wouldn’t make sense to somebody from a different generation. For instance, the term ‘hen-pecked’ was common parlance, but now might be considered misogynistic. I remember when I started doing my psychotherapy training, and talking in a group about what we’d be doing at the weekend. When it came around to me, I said ‘I’ll spend most of the weekend with my bird’. The group were shocked, but I didn’t know any different, all my peers used this kind of language.  It led to a really great conversation about derogatory language and the impact it has.

You do have to keep up with the times. But I do think there is room for more conversation and a bit more forgiveness, because most people aren’t doing these things deliberately.”

“Absolutely” agrees Salina. “I really believe that the majority of people don’t actually want to upset anybody.  For example, when I go on a Teams call and a person’s name comes up and I’m not familiar with how to pronounce it, I can actually feel that horrible sense of dread because I can’t say their name.  And then I worry about saying it wrong, and them thinking that I don’t care. You can get yourself in a pickle over it. But actually, if I just say, ‘how do you say that?’ no-one’s going to be offended. But if I keep saying the name wrong again and again, it is rude”

“Actually, all jokes aside, if you’re dyslexic like me, that’s exactly what you do” Bradley explains. “You get it wrong again and again and again. And what’s really interesting is that then I could be accused of not showing any diversity awareness. The irony being that maybe it’s the other party who are not being inclusive and aware, because part of being dyslexic is that processing new, unfamiliar words takes ages. If I’m looking at a screen, with its tiny writing, that compounds the problem.

We don’t always know why someone has done what they’ve done, do we? They might be aggressive because they’re really stressed; their partner might have cancer. Quite often we don’t know what the root cause behind a person’s behaviour is. And there’s no real understanding or acceptance before we jump to accusations of being bullied, discriminated against or harassed. Being online has made it worse, in my view. People hide behind technology – they’re more aggressive over email than they would be face to face.”

“Another reason is the lack of general rapport-building” adds Salina. “I took a call the other day and the person started the call by saying ‘there’ll be no chit chat or jibber jabbering on this call”. And that means you don’t build those relationships with people which allows you to understand and get to know them. You don’t have that five minutes of face-to-face time getting coffee saying, ‘how are you?’ You don’t see the human side of people.

Cancel culture is also interesting. We do seem to be very bad at being non-judgmental and forgiving at the moment. If someone does say the wrong thing (I don’t mean deliberately or repeatedly), people can overreact, and even if the person apologises, it can still lead to a formal complaint.  Surely we should be able to have an honest conversation and say ‘don’t do it again’. We need to break that really vicious cycle.”

Yes, it’s interesting, cancel culture, because it’s exactly what’s not needed” agrees Bradley. “It shuts down those feelings and views and puts them behind closed doors, which is really unhelpful. People aren’t necessarily going to change; they’re just not going to say it out loud anymore. That defeats the object, as nothing is overt anymore. And then for me also, who actually gave them the rulebook? You know, what makes one opinion so right and another so wrong? For example, I can think of a black comedian that got cancelled based on his act. Most people I’ve spoken to about it found him funny. So who’s doing the cancelling, and where did they get the power?

I think what I find quite disturbing about the whole thing is that it’s not okay to just say sorry. It’s almost as if people are being punished for even thinking the wrong thing, before they’ve even said it or had a chance to reconsider. But the reality is that we all have an unconscious bias. If you take my earlier example, mine led to me misgendering someone because I made an assumption based on how someone appeared to me.

But you know, the thing about unconscious bias is you cannot not have it. You can become better at thinking about what you say before you say it, and why you might think it. But if, for example, you associate a group of young blokes with getting stabbed—maybe because of the area in which you live, or you know someone who has had that experience—unless you do a significant amount of work, your natural inclination is always going to be ‘be a bit careful here’ when you are around a group of young men.

We need to be honest about that, and have those adult conversations in a framework of respect, forgiveness and understanding. The truth is that the majority of people that we will all cross paths with throughout our lives will never intentionally be trying to offend.  Having a conversation will usually not only resolve the situation but allow us all to be that little bit better informed the next time.”

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