Dealing With Workplace Torments
“I am going through what you went through!”
As I was listening to my colleague explaining he was bullied and morally harassed at work, my heart sank. This was many years ago and the world has changed. But not all of it and these situations keep happening, as humans remain humans!
Over the years, I observed the same pattern: someone fragile and vulnerable falls prey of predatorial behaviour in the workplace.
The vulnerability does not matter. My colleague was a closeted gay man, but it did not fundamentally matter; like it did not matter when it happened to me (check my blog post Coming Out, or the Path to Becoming Who I Am) In fact, I learnt many years later that some of my perpetrators were also closeted gays. They were just looking for “psychological leverage”.
I keep hearing people need to stand up and if we were to observe anyone falling victim of such situation and we have a duty to report it. This is true, but only to a point.
The first thing I did when my colleague reached out was to listen. At first, he did not mention he was not out; because I recognised the signs, I asked him. And he responded, and probably for the first time in his life he was talking openly about it.
I offered to report his situation to Human Resources (HR) and to help him through it. I offered to get very senior colleagues involved – some executives in the investment bank were massive LGBT allies and they would not have stood for this type of behaviours.
But I needed to be honest with him on one key point: such process would expose him, and, more importantly, he would have to face up to his own personal situation at least to some degree. It was not possible to report this incident, without talking about why he was bullied and morally harassed. And he was not ready for that.
And with that, I feel it is critical to understand the personal situation of the individual and ensure this is factored into the help provided. A good place to start would be to create a safe space for such individual to open up and show them support.
Immediately after the discussion ended, I reached out to Human Resources (HR) to discuss options. But they only confirmed what I had told him.
With that, I was reminded by a friend Head of HR, that the support his function provides is in the context of protecting the firm. They are not here to protect the perpetrator or the victim. Their interest is to make the problem go away as fast as possible, which can make the employee reporting the incident the problem to deal with.
Using legal support in this context, and make clear to HR colleagues that you have legal support, tend to work wonders. For example, reporting an executive for gender/female discrimination, harassment and bullying through a carefully crafted email, containing the right legalistic terms, would get you a very swift response. In the UK, discrimination and harassment are subject to unlimited liabilities, unlike other work situations, like unfair dismissal, which are capped.
To be clear, this does not mean a firm, or the people running such “employee support process” won’t want to help, but their duty will be to their employer and the protection of their firm.
As I discussed his situation with my young colleague, I also noticed that his own workmates might not have been aware of his situation. His boss was also French and all the exchanges took place in French. So I suggested he might want to engage with people around him. As he might – and would most likely – find out that he was not alone and people would support him and stand with him.
When in this situation, as I found out myself, the sentiment of loneliness is extreme and the focus is on the perpetrator. This creates a blind spot and it becomes very difficult to see the world around us. So I reminded him that he was not alone; I was there; there were many other people up to the top of the organisation who would be standing with him if he were to accept our help.
People should not have to suffer through such ordeal. But they do. Every day, every minutes. By talking about my own experience, I contributed to create a safe space for other to come forward. It was also a reminder that standing up is critical but the way to do it must factor in the victim’s situation. Always bear in mind that HR processes are here to help, but will primarily focus on helping the firm, and before activating them, make sure to be ready and be legally informed and supported. And finally, if you find yourself in such situation, and as dark as the circumstances can be, always remember that you are not alone. So reach out!