“I didn’t mean it” is no excuse

By Pauline Rennie Peyton, Organizational Consultant and Psychotherapist

Workplace bullying and harassment is about impact, not intention, says a U.K. organizational consultant.  “I didn’t mean it, I was just joking” is no excuse.

All people—no matter what their age, status, race, or sexuality—have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in their place of work. However, people in minority groups are more vulnerable to being bullied and harassed than those from majority groups. In my work as a consultant to organizations on all aspects of workplace bullying, I have dealt with people whose lives, both at work and away from that setting, have been severely affected—in some cases, ruined—by bullies.

Here, in the UK, we use the term “bullying” to refer to a specific form of harassment: persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behavior, including abuse of power, which causes the recipient to suffer stress. It is no co-incidence that we use a word that that people associate with the playground. Like the child bully, the adult bully most often picks on his victim as a result of some perceived weakness that he/she thinks can be exploited. Bullies are usually very clever at recognizing people’s vulnerabilities and using them to create a hostile working environment.


“A woman’s place…”

Many endure bullying because they are are made to feel that anyone outside of their culture would think that they are “making a big fuss over nothing”

On being promoted above her male colleagues, a female manager in an engineering company was continually being undermined by the men, who not only challenged her authority at every opportunity but also subjected her to comments about her lack of a male relationship. Anything she said that her male colleagues did not agree with was immediately blamed on her “hormones.” This constant harassment was making her stressed and anxious; bad enough when it came from her junior colleagues, but when a senior male colleague joined in it became unbearable. In the end, she gave up the career that she had worked so hard to achieve.

Those who are minorities in the context of the workplace can sometimes be members of groups that, traditionally in the wider society, are majority groups. Interestingly, they are no less immune to bullying behavior. For example, lone male managers, working with a team of women who know each other well (and who historically have been without strong management) can be bullied and made to feel totally inadequate at the hands of the majority group—in this case, the women.

Overt remarks about a person’s belief system, culture, or religion are regarded appropriately, if not always legally, as harassment and bullying if they offend. On the other hand, bullies may pick on a racial minority in the office without necessarily referring specifically to race, ethnicity, or visible cultural difference. Many people in these groups endure unwelcome comments and behaviors from their colleagues year after year because they are made to feel that they should be able to put up with it and that anyone outside of their culture or religion would think that they are “making a big fuss over nothing.”


Cashing in on others’ vulnerabilities

An older Asian manager demanded “the girls” fetch his dry cleaning and lunch, serve him tea, and vacuum his carpet.

They felt that disobeying an older man was disrespectful and not an option.

We all have characteristics or traits that we prefer not to talk about in certain contexts or have them referred to in a public arena. This is especially true if they are not relevant to our ability to do our work. People with disabilities are in this category and they don’t want to be treated differently or have the disability constantly referred to.

Some people think it is their right to make comments about someone else’s personal issues. One secretary, who was forever battling with her weight and had finally accepted herself as a big woman, was given a large box of chocolates as a thank-you gift for carrying out a particularly difficult piece of work with good grace. The gesture was completely wrecked when her manager said, “they will be gone by lunch time, the way you eat,” and walked off with a huge grin on his face.

Older women working in support roles within organizations can be vulnerable to harassment and bullying. A woman in her early sixties found herself the target of a torrent of abuse from a bullying male boss whose particular favorite taunt was “who else would employ you at your age?” The positive ending to this scenario was that one of his competitors heard about her and eagerly employed her. He saw her age and experience as an advantage and not something to attract discrimination.

It is a disturbing tendency that minority groups have an increased likelihood of being on the receiving end of bullying and harassment in the guise of humor. Both employers and fellow employees need to be aware that bullying and harassment disguised as humor is still bullying and harassment.

Seek help: While there may not yet be direct legislation affecting it, bullying and harassment is still against the law

Heterosexual people are less likely to have jibes and jokes made about what they do in their bedrooms, and the way they dress and present themselves in the world. They are also way less likely to be fired, beaten up, or arrested for it as well. I remember the case of a young gay man, Charles, who worked in a London office and was constantly picked on for the clothes he wore, and his general demeanor, by his very straight-laced manager. The young man’s style of dress was acceptable in terms of the organization’s dress code, which specified only that men were required to wear “collar and tie.” Unlike his boss, who always dressed in a white shirt and corporate tie, Charles chose bright colors and vibrant patterns. This annoyed his manager who regularly said “I find your dress-sense most disappointing for a man.” While this may sound like a very mild reproach, it was delivered in a tone left no-one in any doubt that he was deliberately using words that seemed bland and neutral so that he could not be later accused of using demeaning language. But this kind of continual, unrelenting harassment, along with insults such as ‘I think I need to bring my nine-year-old daughter in to help you with your spelling,’ eventually pushed Charles over the edge. He was not only in such a despairing psychological state that he couldn’t go to work, but also afraid to speak out because he thought no one would believe him. Finally, he was dismissed on the grounds of gross non-attendance.


“All in good fun”

Consult the HR department to learn your employer’s Equal Opportunities Policy, Dignity at Work Policy, or other policies, and also who to talk to

Minority groups are often bullied by racial jokes; in the UK, Irish jokes are prevalent. Regrettably, no minority group is exempt from lewd and offensive humor. People on the receiving end or within earshot of the abusive banter often find it difficult to ask the perpetrators to stop for fear it will only escalate. Yet, ignoring this behavior is no solution either as it is unlikely to stop and, as times goes on, the recipient may feel it is too late to do anything, having tolerated it for so long already.

“I did not mean it, it was only a joke, we were only having a bit of fun” is not an excuse for harassment or bullying behaviors. The important thing to remember about bullying behavior is that it is not about the INTENTION of the perpetrator, but its IMPACT on the recipient.

I was recently called in to mediate in a case of unintentional bullying. The perpetrator—your stereotypical SWM [single white male], let’s call him Mike—had been accused of subjecting his two younger female assistants to sexual harassment and innuendo. The charges arose from his habit of commenting on their figures and clothes – comments such as “Don’t you look sexy today; did you dress to look good for me?” and “That’s a terrific dress, it really shows off your body.” When Mike was notified that his staff had brought a formal complaint against him, he was genuinely shocked. “But I’m always so nice, to them,” he said, “I remember their birthdays, buy them ice-cream in hot weather, order in cappuccinos, pay them compliments on their appearance … how can they say this about me?” Clearly, in this case, Mike needed to be re-educated out of his insensitivity (rather than disciplined for deliberate harassment), and mediation was needed to resolve the deadlock in the office. Because everyone in this scenario was sincere in their desire to deal with the issues and learn from them, my task was made much easier and the results were swift and successful.

What Do Other Villagers Think?

Do you believe that your ethnicity or gender has influenced how you are treated at work?

Yes – 85.32%
No – 10.60%
Not sure – 4.08%

[IMD-wide Poll, April 2002]

In another case, a law firm consulted me about problems in their accounting department. The chief accountant was an older Asian man who had been with the firm for many years. His support staff consisted of younger Asian women. The atmosphere in the accounting department was noticeably strained to everyone in the firm and it had reached a point that people dreaded having to deal with anyone working there. When I first met the accounting staff, none would admit that there was any problem. Finally, one of the young women confessed that she felt that her manager treated her in a demeaning manner. He would demand that she should bring him a cup of tea whenever he felt like it. He would send any of the “girls” out to collect his dry cleaning, buy his lunch, and similar errands. He would insist that they performed duties such as tidying his office, vacuuming his carpets, etc.

When I asked why the women didn’t complain or point out that they were not being treated with respect, they responded that it would be disrespectful of them if they disobeyed an older man which, in their culture, was not an option. Yet, they were deeply resentful of his expectations and—understandably—this was reflected in their attitude and productivity. For his part, the accountant said that he treated his staff no differently to his own daughter, who never complained about it. Part of the solution was getting everyone to agree that a way had to be found to combine the company’s culture with the individuals’ culture in a way that no-one felt compromised and everyone felt equally valued.

In any situation of bullying, the best recourse is always to seek help. While there may not yet be direct legislation affecting it, bullying and harassment is still against the law. Find out what your employer’s Equal Opportunities Policy, Dignity at Work Policy, or any other policy that covers bullying and harassment, says and also who to talk to first. It may be the line manager, if he/she is not involved in delivering or colluding with the inappropriate behavior. The alternative is to speak to the Human Resources department.

Organizations can only ensure that their policies are being adhered to if they are informed about what is going on. The situation of people who are being bullied and harassed at work and having to leave and find another job—without ever saying a word to the people who can actually do something about it—must be stopped. Now.


Pauline Rennie Peyton is an integrative psychotherapist who lives in London, England. Her specialization is workplace bullying. She consults to organizations—ranging in size from the largest multinationals to single-entity businesses, and encompassing the laws of many countries—and assists in policy writing and implementation, training, investigating, mediating and counseling both victims and perpetrators of bullying. Dr. Rennie Peyton’s book, Dignity at Work (Routledge) is profiled at the website www.renniepeyton.com.

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