The Lasting Impact Of Workplace Harassment And Toxic Work Environments

01.03.20

Subjects names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Even before issues of toxic work environments and workplace harassment started infiltrating our newsfeeds I knew this was a growing problem. And that’s because I had more friends who had experienced some form of harassment at work than those who hadn’t. I had more friends who had been bullied or berated at their jobs than those who felt seen and supported.

Writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And with the average person spending 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, it’s scary to think about the long-term effects these experiences can have on a person. How being bullied at work might implicate the way we approach relationships outside of the office. How readily we accept future job opportunities. The kind of parents we become. The undeniable changes to our mental and physical health. And not just in the short term, but in the many years that follow. 

In recent months, three stories in particular have proven just how quickly and ferociously a toxic work environment is cultivated. In December last year, The Verge published a damning report about popular luggage brand Away. The article revealed that the company’s CEO, Steph Korey, had consistently and relentlessly mistreated staff and created an atmosphere of fear within the business. Leaked documents showed Korey routinely intimidating employees on public Slack channels. Away banned employees from emailing each other, instead asking that all conversations take place on Slack so that executives could monitor them. What resulted was those executives dishing out increasingly harsh feedback and reprimanding people for seemingly small mistakes. Four days after The Verge published their investigation Korey stepped down and was replaced by former Lulumelon executive Stuart Haselden, though she remains an executive chairman. In January, beauty fans were shocked to learn that Mecca Cosmetica had also been accused of mistreating staff. Hundreds of employees and customers came forward to Instagram account Estée Laundry – the beauty industry’s most notorious watchdog – with stories of bullying, profiling, unrealistic staff expectations and general nastiness. The Mecca Cosmetica Head of Retail later issued an internal, company-wide email to their staff acknowledging the complaints and provided “message points” to communicate to customers if the topic was raised. And back in 2017, a former female Uber engineer made allegations about the company’s sexist, chaotic and aggressive culture – “a Game Of Thrones political war” – she called it. Among other things, she claimed her manager had propositioned her for sex over a company chat page three weeks after completing her induction training. When she reported the conversation to HR she was told by upper-management that the man “was a high performer” and they “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part”.

But of course not all experiences are as blatant as those mentioned above. Like so many forms of abuse, this stuff exists on a spectrum. TTC reader and teacher Anna found the staff culture at her school really uncomfortable: “A group of my colleagues created an exclusive group and named themselves ‘The (school name)’s Finest’. They had exclusive dinner parties, some of which were hosted by the principal. They would openly gossip about other staff members and one of my colleagues walked past them at lunch laughing at a photo of her on Facebook.” Anna wasn’t just isolated from her peers, she and her friends were purposefully left out and then made the topic of malicious conversations. This type of bullying is incredibly subtle and often hard to articulate, which is why by the time a worker’s claim arrives on the desk of RTW Specialist Hannah, it has usually been going on for anywhere between six months and two years: “My work specialises in helping injured workers return to work, and I specifically look after psychological injuries – the most common being anxiety, adjustment disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And usually it’s more than one for each worker.” Hannah told me that most workers delay seeking help because they either hope it will resolve itself, internalise and second-guess the circumstances of the injury, or don’t know where to go: “Aside from the more common options like a company’s HR department or a government agency like Fair Work, another great option is to consult your GP. If you can’t afford a GP, contact a university support counsellor or any of the alternative free mental health services. Most importantly, create a plan with your healthcare provider for how you can return to work/maintain working, and create a paper trail. This is so important. Keep a record of the dates and places in which situations occur – hopefully this won’t be necessary but if the situation ever escalated you want to be prepared.”

After pouring through readers stories I was shocked by how many of them involved inappropriate comments or gestures; from grazing a colleagues breast while getting into an elevator and slapping a female colleague’s bottom, to comments like the one Georgie witnessed: “When working in the support office for a clothing brand, one of my female colleagues asked the senior buyer when his expenses would be submitted, he responded: “I don’t know, when are you going to sleep with me?”.” And for Sophia, it was sexually-explicit comments made by her boss while completing her jockey apprentice: “On one occasion while looking for a shovel in the shed he said, “I’ll bend you over my knee and spank you as punishment, but it won’t be punishment because you’ll enjoy it.” On a separate occasion, while discussing a story in the news about a child rapist in Auckland he said, “Makes a 53-year-old and a 19-year-old not look so bad right!” (those were our ages at the time). I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it because my career was under his control due to the apprenticeship, and the nature of the horse industry meant that if I made the decision to leave or request a change in environments I likely wouldn’t get another job because I’d be known as the girl who cries “sexual harassment” over nothing.”

Like Sophia, many employees are either too scared to voice their concerns or simply don’t know who to talk to. Who to trust. Auckland reader Lucy waited two years before the anxiety, migraines and stress caused by her boss Tim led her to file an official grievance to the company’s CEO, COO and HR Manager demanding an investigation into the sexual harassment and bullying she experienced. “In 2016 I began working as the Executive Assistant to the Managing Director of a private equity firm. The bullying started off as pretty innocuous; on a work trip Tim got drunk and accused me of flirting with a colleague, resulting in me crying and telling him how inappropriate his comments were to which he threatened to fire me. But things quickly escalated. From the beginning of my employment, Tim requested that I be available to answer all of his phone calls and texts while I was on holidays and during the weekend, which I never complained about. He would often send up to seven WhatsApps in the space of one minute and then text, “Why the fuck are you not responding?” and “Where are you?”, and then proceed to call me and scream down the phone. I was constantly asked to lie for him; covering his tracks when he drank too much and spent thousands of company dollars at bars, being asked to book trips for him and his girlfriend on the company AMEX and then lie to senior management on his whereabouts. On one occasion he called me in the office to tell me he was going out with a male colleague and said, “If I ever hear that you’ve said anything to Rhi or Hattie (their girlfriends) about what we are doing or where we are going I will fire you.” I said, “Okay”, and he said, “I am not joking.” I vividly remember a work trip to Munich during which we took clients to Oktoberfest. He kept picking me up and carrying me around despite me begging him to leave me alone, and he threatened to fire me when I wouldn’t skull my beer. The worst moment came when he spilled his drink all down his face and then, in front of our clients, lifted up my dress to wipe himself clean.” The company ultimately settled the dispute, paying Lucy a $20,000 bonus in return for her signing an NDA that prevented her from going public, “I’ve always felt stupid that I settled for that.”

Now this next comment from Hannah – the RTW Specialist – is crucial. I want you to read it and then re-read it. “A lot of workers blame themselves, I commonly hear things like, “You’d think at my age I wouldn’t care about this.”, or, “I can’t believe I’m so affected by this because I know it sounds silly.” But it is so important for readers to know that no one can tell you that your perception of an event, situation or environment is wrong. Yes, there are different sides to every story, but each side is true to that individual person. Which is to say: if you believe you are being bulled or working in a toxic environment, then you are.”

“We have definitely seen a statistical rise in workplace mental health claims over the past ten years. In fact, we have meetings about this rise each quarter and are constantly discussing new strategies for how to best triage claims. But it’s impossible to definitively say that workplace bullying in itself is on the rise, because while the issue is being reported more, our parents generation were routinely told to “harden up” which would have created a culture of staying quiet.” Hannah raises a good point: Are workplaces really more toxic than they were ten or twenty years ago? Or have more people simply found the courage to speak up? There is, of course, no such thing as the perfect work culture. Working at a tech start-up will evoke a wildly different environment to working at a prestigious law firm or a small city call-centre. But there is such a thing as the wrong work culture. And that is any culture that puts the mental, physical or emotional wellbeing of its employees at risk.

As Hannah says: “I always say to my little sister: You could have all the money in the world and everything you’ve ever dreamed of, but what would any of it mean if you don’t have the capacity to enjoy it?”


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