Workplace bullying in 2016

You can watch a show like Mad Men and scoff, “At least things are better in 2016, I couldn’t survive in those days.” But as I’m learning lately, you learn to cope in the situation you’re in. We’re quite adaptable, us humans. I’m further realizing that it doesn’t matter what legal protections are supposedly in place, there will always be some pigs more equal than others.

The thing about bullies is that they’re sneaky. The clever ones find a way to cover themselves. They snake around the law like it’s a guideline, rather than a mandated expectation. It’s often commented that technology growth moves faster than the law; well, so does human behaviour.

I am not suffering the sexual or physical harassment that my predecessors fought to protect me from. But this is a new world of pain; one that the law has not and perhaps cannot keep up with. It pains me as a lawyer to know that the law and legal processes won’t always be able to protect the vulnerable. A system I swore to uphold and protect offers me nothing at this point. Because there’s always a way around the law. There’s always a reason, an excuse, a fallback to protect the strong.

Bullying in 2016 looks like this:

· Continually telling staff that documents they produce are “wrong”, without any constructive feedback

· Changing your mind on the purpose of a paper constantly (sometimes three times in the space of 30 seconds)

· Telling staff to show leadership rather than providing firm direction and then demeaning them when they fail

· Requiring staff members to stay late and then telling them the document they produced wasn’t necessary

These are some clear-cut examples. There are so many other ways managers choose to bully in 2016. It’s the roll of the eyes at a staff member. It’s picking and choosing particular staff members to be part of conversations that should be for the team. It’s establishing an impenetrable hierarchy in the workplace.

Other things that may not constitute bullying but still are less than admirable qualities:

· Acting constructively to remove a team leader (i.e. bullying to the point of no return), agreeing to that team leader moving to a different area of the department and completely failing to engage with the team left behind

· Failing to provide any pastoral care to staff — survive or leave as a motto.

· Running a recruitment round that doesn’t meet the legal requirements and pretending it’s merit based

I’m not denying that things are better now than they were in the 1960s. They are. But they’re still not good. My most recent job has exposed me to the most toxic workplace relationships. I questioned my (previous) director about this experience in terms of his work history. His eyes bled pain when he turned to me and said that in his 40 years of working, he’d never been subjected to what he had been in the past few months of our project.

I’ve seen incredibly smart, dedicated people broken by those appointed to senior positions through a “merit process”. I’ve seen colleagues lose jobs to be replaced by thoroughly inexperienced people who are “yes men”. I’ve watched my department set the standard in unfounded PR lexicon about how wonderful and world class a place it is to work, with absolutely nothing to substantiate the claim. I have developed a level of cynicism, which is unhealthy for my 27 years of life.

The current environment may be preferable to what was in the past. But it’s still not good. And we should expect and deliver better for employees in 2016.