Sunday, March 28, 2021

Work Place Harassment

I've been debating for a week or more about writing this post - it's something I've been thinking a lot about against the background of the ongoing Sturgeon V Salmond drama. One of the more annoying aspects of this is the number of people who will smugly declare online that Salmond was acquitted of the charges bought against him last year, and ignore his own admissions about how inappropriate his behavior had been. That your man isn't actually a rapist seems like a very low bar to set. The what about the Tories response which either swiftly follows or has preceded this is frustrating too. Damning corruption and lying on one hand, and then using it as an excuse for more corruption and lying on the other isn't a good look. 

Something else I see a lot of is people who questioning how Sturgeon apparently didn't know what was happening earlier, and asking why it wasn't called out earlier. I don't know what her experience, or that of the other people working in Holyrood at the time was, but I can share mine in the hope that it might be a little bit helpful to someone somewhere.

Around 20 years ago I was an assistant manager in an off license. At the time it had a heavy drinking culture, and once you exclude the weekend staff, a lot more men working for the company than women (my experience was that about 1 in 5 of us were women). Regardless of the ratio I've generally found the wine trade to be a reasonable place for women to work in, with a lot of great role models at every level to show you what's possible.

There were a few uncomfortable incidents along the way - a van driver who used to like to make me blush by describing his sex life in explicit detail whilst he stared at me. It was bullying, but everybody treated it like a joke and it seemed easier to go along with that. After he left for another job I said something about how relieved I was he'd gone and why. My then boss was appalled - I should have said something he told me, he would have sorted it out. Which reinforced that it was sort of my fault, but he was right there in the room, chose not to see how uncomfortable I was, gave permission for that drivers behavior by laughing along with it, and never seemed open to a conversation that might have made him uncomfortable.

Another manager was an alcoholic. Drinking at work was a sackable offence but at the time almost everybody did to some extent - tasting samples of whisky in your tea, a bottle of wine split at the end of the day after cashing up. Mostly quite innocent and how we learnt so much about wine. There were plenty of checks and balances to discourage it getting out of hand, but in this case they weren't robust enough. Our working life with this manager started like this, but then the bottles got opened earlier and there were more of them - but he shared everything with us, so we were complicit, and initially it was fun. 

It was less fun the couple of times I had to get my mother to drive him home because he was too drunk to trust to the bus, less fun when he started getting a bit handsy, no fun at all when his wife would come and sit with him in the back of the shop when she finished her work for the day, drinking with him and laughing whilst he asked 18 year old girls for their bra size, but her unwillingness to pull him up on his behavior coupled with her own spiteful remarks towards us made it so much harder for the rest of us (not so much older or more experienced) to know what to do. And then it was Christmas and anybody who has worked in retail will know what that's like.

The penny dropped for me far to late, I came back from a couple of weeks off and saw very clearly how out of hand things had got. A training day in another branch talking to my peer group led to a lot of raised eyebrows and worried looks, and then everything came to a head. None of the younger girls would work a shift alone with this man, and after a staff tasting event one of them asked if I would back her up if she complained about things said to her. I'd heard them, they were completely out of line, so there was only one answer.

The first result was my female area manager, who I had every reason to believe knew about the drinking problem, asked me if I could get this girl to withdraw her complaint. She wasn't pleased when I said no. We were all asked to write statements which we were told would be completely confidential. They were later turned over to out manager. I took the brunt of this - my contract said I had to work as many hours as it took to keep the shop running which meant whilst he was suspended I worked 60+ hour weeks without any overtime. It was exhausting, there was constant pressure to drop the complaints, cover up the evidence, and of we wouldn't, explain our own behavior. Meanwhile colleagues who had known this man in previous roles would tell me what a great guy he was, how the problem was this or that, and was it fair that he'd lose his job over this. What would it do for his marriage, he was trying to start a family. All of it.

He wasn't a bad man as such, and if he'd admitted he had a drink problem the company would have bent over backwards to get him help. He didn't and it became our problem, not his. We were treated as if we were more of a problem than him - we were responsible for the paperwork, the investigations, his mistakes, and our own. When I say I had every reason to believe our area manager knew there was a problem it's because her predecessor told me in front of her to speak up if things got out of hand, but when it came down to it there was no support for anybody speaking up.

He lost his job, got another one somewhere else, moved on. I hope managed to knock the drinking on the head. The rest of us where more or less marked as trouble makers. I've seen the same sort of situation unfold many times since then. The details change but what's constant is people getting sucked into difficult situations incrementally until speaking out can feel impossible, and a lack of support when you do speak out. Worse when people are actively discriminated against for speaking out and predatory individuals are protected. It's also behavior that's dangerously ubiquitous online.

I've tried in my working life to be someone that will listen too and support people who want to blow the whistle, sometimes that's included pointing out how difficult it might be to do so, that there are often more repercussions for the victims of inappropriate behavior than there ever will be for the perpetrators. The older I get the more angry it makes me. That alcoholic manager was mostly his own victim, but every case I've seen since then has been someone exploiting the people around them, pushing the bounds of what's okay bit by bit, picking their victims and undermining them at every turn. It's calculated and unforgivable behavior. 

12 comments:

  1. I wish this was not so relatable, but of course it is, and the punishment of the victims still continues in all the cases we've seen lately in Australia too. A terrible series of experiences for you, I'm sorry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think these are a fairly typical set of experiences, certainly not the worst I've come across - some of which I've only been peripherally involved in. I think it's important to talk about how situations can spiral out of control though, and how easy it is for bad behaviour to be normalized. The tone of a workplace is set by its manager - it's taken me a long time to really appreciate exactly what that means, but I do understand how hard it is to do the right thing when you know your own behaviour might not stand up to close scrutiny. Best case scenario there's some sympathy for that and a second chance, but far to often it's used as a weapon to keep people quiet. The heavy drinking culture in the off trade as I knew it is long gone (a very good thing), but at the time I experienced it I was in my early 20's and it was fun - until it wasn't.

      Working with a lot more people was a very clear illustration that there are plenty of people who flirt and sometimes make inappropriate jokes amongst themselves who still treat their colleagues with respect, know where to draw the line, don't on the whole make anybody feel uncomfortable, would apologize straight away if they did, and are approachable enough to talk to about it. And then there are those who know they're pushing their luck and do it anyway. It's not difficult to spot the difference.

      Delete
  2. This post and your previous one about sexual harassment are good reminders about how we can all be complicit in inappropriate behaviour. People don't like to stand out and, if British, don't like to make a scene. It's easier to just go along with stuff, and tell yourself it's only a joke, etc. etc.

    I'm really sorry about what happened to you. You should be proud of yourself for standing up for your colleague, though, that took real guts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It wasn't easy, but it would have been worse long term not to have done anything because his drinking would have created a crisis sooner or later and we'd all have been caught up in it, so in this instance it was damned if you do or don't. My experience is that a lot of workplaces are really toxic and that a bullying culture is entrenched. It harms everybody and does nothing for productivity but seems to be a self perpetuating cycle. The way mental health is treated in the workplace and attitudes towards absence are another example of the same culture.

      If people felt genuinely supported and if stress and anxiety could be treated generously at the outset I wonder how many people would need weeks rather than months to recover? I hope that in some ways the last year of Covid will make it easier to change bad workplaces for the better - that there will be a lot of people who just won't put up with the same old crap anymore.

      Delete
  3. In the US we are dealing with (or not) rampant sexual assault and abuse in the military, and the governor of NY is being investigated for sexual harassment. All I can say is it's about time the patriarchy got smashed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It really is. Another thing nobody told me about middle age is how permanently angry I would feel!

      Delete
  4. An excellent post, Hayley. Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading. I think that talking more about some of these things when we can will generally help all of us. I hope so anyway.

      Delete
  5. How awful for you and for your co-workers. I'm so sorry, it's infuriating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is infuriating, and common. It's a weird thing that so many people expect work to be a fairly negative experience, and we laugh about it half the time - but so much of it would be fixable with a bit of will.

      Delete
  6. Thank you for sharing. It's so grim, yet not surprising - and you describe the whole culture around it so well. The normalising, the pressure to go along with it, the way it punishes victims. You did so well to stand up for your colleague.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It would have been worse in every way not too, and at least in that company even if it was a bit begrudging from some quarters the overall intentions were good. I've worked for companies that made big claims about their workplace ethics and yet were far worse in practice.

      Delete