Not everything is harassment.

(For some reason WordPress Dashboard is showing up really screwy in my Firefox browser, but not in IE – this has been going on for a couple of days and I can not figure out how that could suddenly happen. If anyone out there has any insight on this please let me know.)

Since returning from bargaining, I’ve had a whole lot of union stewarding situations in the workplace. Before Xmas, since the holidays….. it’s been one unending stream of discontented people coming to see me recently. Which at best is interesting, and at worst breaks up the work day if nothing else.

Although I deal a lot in basic basic sorts of complaints (unpaid overtime, underpayment for work, unsafe working conditions) – probably the number one issue I deal with weekly is conflicting personalities. Which makes some sense in a workplace as diverse as ours – there’s all sorts of ideas about how to communicate or complete our work, coming from all sorts of personal backgrounds.  Unfortunately, it’s not personality conflict that people want to discuss with me as their representative, but rather, the average complaint about a supervisor or co-worker always ends up couched in terms of personal harassment. (Which perhaps is one outcome from the amount of time spent on workplace anti-harassment training rather than workplace conflict-reduction training).

The standard definition for harassment reads something like:

Harassment covers a wide range of offensive behaviour. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset. In the legal sense, it is behaviour which is found threatening or disturbing.” Wikipedia

Which is somewhat vague don’t you think? I mean, a lot of workplace behaviour is disturbing or upsetting – and who is to say whether it is intentional and directed or not? Where is the line between micromanaging behaviour (which drives everyone crazy) and focused nitpicking of the harassing variety? Where is the line between shunning and unfriendliness between co-workers? And further to that – even if there is some abrasiveness going on in our work units, does everything have to be pollyanna friendly? Does every situation need an intervention or is some of it just up to the individual to ignore the unpleasant party if possible?

These types of questions are the challenge of representation – because I am partial to mediated solutions in most of these situations rather than formal complaints – particularly if I believe it is more of a personality conflict than intended and focused torment.

Sadly, the discourse on harassment in our society has become so watered down that some individuals file everything objectionable under “personal harassment”. Complaints I have heard in this category include:

  • My supervisor frowns all the time – I can tell he doesn’t like me.
  • My supervisor wants my home phone number when I am working from home.
  • My supervisor makes me call in every day I am sick or absent from the office.
  • My supervisor is always hassling me to input my leave time into the system as soon as I return to the workplace.
  • My supervisor is always pointing out errors in my work. (When checked, in fact actual real serious work errors were occurring).

(And no, I am not making any of those up – each of these has been cited to me as an example of harassment) . Often these come with – “no one else is asked to do this,” “everyone else does it” (ie – come in late) or “no one else is treated this way”. None of which is any ammunition for an actual harassment investigation and case – and is a rather shabby attempt in some cases to smear another co-worker with the same behaviour the complainant has been accused of.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t see true cases of harassment as well; last year I had a doozy of a sexual harassment/discrimination case that floored me – and I see lots of medical harassment and discrimination around mental health issues and other invisible disabilities. What I am saying is that at least half (if not more) of what people claim to be harassment is not provable in the sense of being able to make a legal case – and the use of the terminology is in itself counterproductive to finding solutions.

Why is that? Well, because once we lay down a claim of harassment, we immediately buy into a victim/bully paradigm in which the victim claims they can’t possibly do anything to change the situation and the onus lies completely on the other person/bully. Which pretty much kiboshes any type of mediation and kicks into a formal process that is bound to lose (contrary to the right-wing media promotes, the bar for finding harassment is quite high) – thus creating even more conflict or strain on the relationship.

In this land of the victimized, I find that every solution/strategy/proposal I suggest as a union rep (such as conflict resolution, mediation, stress-reduction training, or even finding strategies to ignore the offending person’s behaviour) are all met with impossibility. Like nothing could ever work short of the other person being fired from their job because that’s the only “fair” solution. Frustrating, yes? And dangerous from our perspective, because it sets up a system whereby all that is required to have someone terminated is an accusation of wrong-doing. Now wouldn’t that create an unhealthy workplace!

So – what is the answer? I really do think that in addition to anti-harassment training, large employers like mine should invest in conflict-resolution and interpersonal communication training as well. And that should be mandatory for every new employee who comes into the workplace. I think also that managers and supervisors need to be on the lookout for personality conflicts and finding ways in which to address them through collective training (not through paltry “team-building” bullshit exercises that everyone hates). As a society, we really do need to rethink what constitutes “not getting along” versus “I can’t work here anymore” and providing support in the form of counseling to help individuals make that determination as well. A lot of what I see in my (very middle-class)office has roots in mental health, family problems, housing and addiction issues that are going unsupported by a social safety net that broke a lot time ago.

It’s not like any of this is easy to stuff to muddle through, but I’m pretty convinced that a lot of working stuff out has to do with recasting the conversation – even as we acknowlege that serious harassment and screwy power relationships need to be addressed seriously and often legally.  As a whole, we could all do a lot better at conflict resolution – especially if we can acquire the tools in order to do so.

2 Comments on “Not everything is harassment.

  1. So true about the bully/victim paradigm. To paraphrase Jenny, someone who thinks they’re a victim is dangerous – ANY response, no matter how heinous, is justified, because, well, they’re being victimized, aren’t they?

  2. Pingback: Hopped up and ready to go. | Red Cedar

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