By Radhika Jhaveri:
Consider this scenario: You have been accepted for a certain position in a company. The HR has not been very clear about the profile but you desperately need a job and this is the only current option you have, so you accept the offer. You accept whatever terms and conditions they put in front of you (you are thinking about paying the rent, electricity and phone bills and don’t pay much attention to the document that you are signing).
On your first day at work, you are curious, scared, nervous, a little anxious and excited all in equal measure. You are expecting challenging and exciting work and are eager to prove yourself. Your first day is spent hanging around the office with nothing to do and is filled with day one awkwardness. But you expect it to get easier as the days go by. A week goes by, then another and another. But no one talks to you; no one explains to you your job profile. You spend afternoon after afternoon eating solitary luncheons. You are desperately lonely and sad but at the same time, you are getting better at your work. The profile is not what was promised to you in your interview, the work is dull and unexciting but you manage to do it somehow.
After a while, people start noticing that you are smart and getting better at your job. It generates fear and insecurity among those who have been there longer and they start harassing you. They employ a number of tactics – spreading rumours about you among the staff, ganging up and making sure you fail to perform at the required standards, setting unrealistic targets, declining leaves etc. All initiatives that you propose are rejected while you are constantly chided for not providing ‘intellectual inputs’. Your work is appropriated by your superiors and credit due to you is entirely denied. You get called into meetings with your boss and get yelled at in front of all your colleagues. You start coming home drained of all energy and wake up with immense lethargy and no willingness to go to office in the mornings. But you drag yourself out of bed anyway and go to work. After a while, it just gets too much and you come home every day with tears in your eyes. Eventually you quit. Does this sound familiar? If yes, then it is possible that you are a victim of emotional harassment at the workplace.
Work place harassment is not a topic that usually finds its place in popular discourse. Sure, sexual harassment at the workplace finds mention every now and then but other forms of harassment are largely ignored. Hours of internet research on emotional harassment and/or bullying at the workplace brought certain key aspects to my attention about its nature. Yelling, screaming, giving the ‘silent treatment’, giving a cold shoulder and excluding someone from the group, put downs, insults, excessively harsh criticism, withholding information and setting of unreasonable targets are all examples of emotional harassment.
We all face emotional abuse at our work places but we rarely talk about it. Any voice that tries to draw attention to this reproachful act is quickly silenced. We are counselled against fighting back and pointing out the abusive treatment that is meted out to us. We are told that this is the way things are and we better get used to it and be quick about it. Verbal abuse has been normalised over the years and it is not only ignored but accepted as a common work place phenomena. Bosses are rude, impolite and obnoxious and there is not a thing we can do to change that. Superior high-handedness is something we are taught to expect and learning how to navigate our way through company politics is expected out of all of us. After all, we do behave as though company hierarchy is a rule of nature and must be accepted as such.
Emotional abuse or harassment is as real as sexual harassment and is a bitter reality of the work place environment. It results in, among other things; depression, anxiety, nervousness and a gradual erosion of self confidence. It forces workers to quit their jobs because of the effect it has on their mental and physical well being. Victims are unable to hold on to their jobs and thereby suffer enormous set backs in their careers and their financial stability.
The causes of work place harassment are disputed. Some believe that the blame lies with the victims for they provoke such behaviour from their co-workers and superiors while others, like me, disagree. To me, the problem lies with the fact that most workplaces still follow a hierarchical organisational structure. A structure wherein one individual is placed in a position of power over the other is bound to result in abuse and harassment, especially when grievance redressal mechanisms are altogether absent. Power is a corrupting influence and as Lord Acton famously said, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
The Stanford Prison experiments conducted at Stanford University led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s revealed the influence that power had on human behaviour. His experiments uncovered how otherwise normal human beings turned abusive, resorted to torture and did and said things they would not have otherwise said or done. Much has been written about the nature of power and many social experiments conducted to prove its influence over people. However, not much has been done to ensure a level-playing field at work places. We need to spread awareness by talking about workplace harassment because most victims prefer to bear the abuse in silence instead of speaking up. The longer we remain silent, the higher the chances that the issue remains in the shadows, unacknowledged but all the while growing larger and stronger.
India has laws that safeguard employees from workplace discrimination and harassment. Article 15 in the Indian Constitution prohibits the state from discriminating on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth in various day-to-day activities. Some of the other Acts that help safeguard labour rights include but are not limited to: protection under the Equal Remuneration Act 1976, Industrial Employment (Standing Orders Act), 1946, Persons with Disabilities Act 1995, Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 etc.
However, India has no comprehensive Act that can safeguard the rights of workers, especially when it comes to emotional harassment. Instances of employees being able to seek redressal and claim damages for the abuse that they encounter are incredibly rare in India. In most of the cases, the employee is forced to leave his or her place of employment at the risk of not finding paid work elsewhere. In most companies, where members of the staff do manage to get their voices heard, attention is diverted to the quality of their work rather than the nature of their complaints. This treatment of those who come forward with their complaints serves as an example for others who may in the future dare to report their superiors for misconduct. It is not easy to drag a company to court for an individual. Apart from the expense of filing the law suit; the chances of an individual employee being able to match the might of a wealthy and powerful corporate body is extremely low. Such a fight would not be unlike that of David and Goliath. The company may counter sue the employee just to make an example out of him or her. There is also the added risk of being viewed as a litigious employee which may harm future prospects of being hired. The only recourse that an employee can resort to is to leave his or her job.
Different people react differently to authority, especially one that is abusive. Most of us adjust ourselves to it. This meekness is not necessarily a reflection of our true selves but merely a coping mechanism that we develop in order to survive. I have seen most of my colleagues employ varied coping mechanisms to deal with difficult superiors and co-workers. Violence and injustice are a reality of everyday life. It is juvenile to expect bullying and harassment to disappear from society. However, it is not unrealistic to demand that such incidents be reported and action taken against perpetrators. As adults, most of us are going to have to spend maximum amount of our time at the workplace. In such a scenario, it makes no sense whatsoever to allow abuse to continue and refuse to speak up against those who perpetrate it.
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