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Corrosive consequences: harassment within toxic company cultures

Jonathan Richards, CEO & Founder - Breathe
people sitting on chairs near tables during daytime

With teams now physically displaced from an office environment, all communication comes from isolation; screens being the only window into business operations. Conversations and collaboration are mediated through video conference systems and phone calls, including the usual office banter, now reduced to single sentence lines in chat boxes.

The problem tends to be that with such limited facetime, there is often vast room for misinterpretation. Words that are intended as friendly banter can easily be read as blunt or offensive, depending on the audience. And what we’re able to tolerate varies from person to person. So, given the current crisis and lockdown conditions, it’s fair to say that these existing problems are even more prominent.

Harassment can be easier to spot in an open-plan office environment, where everyone is grouped together and largely monitored most of the time. Meanwhile, online platforms have always had the tendency to conceal certain behaviours that would classify as manipulative and bullying, depending on what sort of culture already exists in the business. Whatever the intention of the messages is, there’s always a possibility they will be taken to heart and considered harmful. It’s always worth asking: would managers like what they see if they could view every Slack message, every email, or overhear every phone call?

Culture in crisis conditions

From my observations of the last twenty years or so of office culture, I must say there’s been a huge improvement when it comes to flagging the offensive and inappropriate behaviours that used to permeate the workspace. That said, I think these problems will always remain within different business cultures and what it really boils down to is the intrinsic collective culture. It’s a trickle-down effect, often, and shared attitudes are what define a business’ expectation around behaviour. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate and maintain a respectful culture from the outset. Of course, the challenges we are currently faced with have only highlighted culture problems; it’s not easy for management to identify and pulse check individuals’ behaviours anymore, as everyone works remotely.

Often, culture is what holds a business together. People, and a very particular combination of people, are the key to business growth and overall success, it’s undeniable. How, then, can we conduct accurate assessments on a culture when each employee is working from their spare room?

Across a remote working landscape, existing culture is the glue holding teams together right now, and thankfully there are ways to demonstrate trust and understanding even in a de-matrixed office setting.

Under pressure: mental health and harassment

Discussion should actively be encouraged in the workplace – debating with colleagues and agreeing or disagreeing with their opinions is enriching. It allows for innovation to thrive. But where do we draw the line? Sometimes, disagreeing with others can be interpreted as undermining or humiliating.

How we perceive treatment, through messages and video conferencing, can be a far cry from its true intention. Especially now, some staff will possibly be more susceptible to offence, with conditions like anxiety and depression on the rise for various reasons under these lockdown conditions. It’s crucial we take a compassionate stance to this and be mindful of what’s going on behind the screens. Employers are no longer able to as easily spot early warning signs before they escalate as they perhaps would in an office setting.

One actionable step to take in promoting honest and respectful communication across digital channels is to advise all staff on taking a little extra time to give punctuation, tone and perhaps even emojis to what could otherwise be blunt messages. For those in a sensitive frame of mind, blunt messages can be translated as angry, overbearing, rude or humiliating, so before hitting send too early it’s advisable to review the overall tone of emails and written communication. Equally, it’s worth asking: does this conversation need a quick video call? Tone of voice, body language and facial expressions are an enormous part of how meaning is perceived. Research suggests that only 7% of meaning can be understood through the spoken or written word alone, compelling evidence to reinforce the fact we must strive for more transparent and open communication especially in lockdown.

Those accused of harassment and bullying could themselves be under immense stress and struggling with their mental health, lashing out and firing away thoughtless messages; both sides are more exposed to misinterpretation when no-one is in the same room. Support for managers, particularly the middle management in businesses, should always be a priority – offering online training courses during this time and making time for 1:1 sessions is more important than ever when collective facetime isn’t possible.

Instant messaging platforms are fantastic and an effective way to create a virtual community – a vital resource right now more than ever. However, the flip side of this technology is that this ‘forum’ structure can actually increase instances of undermining and humiliating on public platforms. The words written in these forums and groups are permanent, and can cause lasting damage, so it’s absolutely critical that bosses are providing private channels of communication and monitoring group chats where possible.

Toxic culture breeds bullying behaviours

Lockdown conditions aside, worrying results from our recent research, The Culture Economy Report, unveiled the uncomfortable truth that 1 in 5 UK workers have some experience of bullying in the workplace either directly or as a witness in the last 12 months, while 1 in 10 workers have experienced this on multiple occasions. An age-old problem with a modern twist, thanks to the prominence of technology and its presence in office culture.

The report uncovers more unfortunate truths that must be addressed. Almost half (48%) of London employees reported experiencing harassment in the last year, suggesting the capital certainly hasn’t changed in the last couple of decades. A further  21% of employees witnessed bullying in the past year, too, definitely a concern. Personally, I find the results unsurprising given the high population density and high-pressure culture there, but this doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

Culture is shifting in a direction where people aren’t tolerating this kind of behaviour anymore and are willing to speak up against it, which is fantastic and I’m pleased to see it. Where before people suffered in silence, compelled by society to ‘stick it out’ for the CV, now employees are less afraid to move jobs and raise grievances. If employers invest in their people moving forward, this will mean a happier and more productive future workforce.

Respectful communication is key

A toxic work culture is a worrying reality for many firms. A harmful culture often means a lack of trust in management which can be the difference between an employee suffering in silence and leaving under a dark cloud, or raising their grievances and asking for help resolving them. Bullying is often invisible, but highly corrosive to productivity and overall employee wellbeing. A strong and positive company culture guided by trust and empathy is the key to success and will strengthen relationships whilst we work remotely.

There’s numerous studies that advocate the productivity garnered from a positive collective work ethic. Staff retention is contingent on ensuring all existing staff are given the room to work effectively and peacefully.

It’s more than a shame that some businesses lose their best people through ignorance of underlying harassment and tensions between employees. What’s needed is attentiveness and genuine, open communication. If people feel they aren’t able to voice their opinion in a meeting, it’s highly unlikely they will want to raise a delicate grievance issue. Above all, we should be aiming to know our colleagues well enough to spot behavioural warning signs when something is wrong, and offer support where needed.

The crux of the matter is how management approaches harassment and bullying behaviours. Results show only 43% of employees think their grievance claim was handled well, demonstrating that more trust in leadership and better management training are essential. We can’t monitor every conversation, every veiled insult on instant messaging platforms, but as a rule we can encourage respectful and open communication through a working culture even in the digital realm. As we make plans to return to the office, employers must grasp this opportunity to weed out the underlying issues behind inappropriate behaviours, or risk widespread productivity corrosion.

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