A few months ago, a much anticipated trial finally got underway in France. The case had made headlines for weeks when, between 2008 and 2009, 35 France Telecom employees committed suicide. A number of them left notes stating that “the company had made their lives unbearable.” It took a decade until top senior managers were finally put on trial for “moral harassment.”
The charges are heavy. The defendants are accused of having “degraded work conditions of personnel that risked hurting their rights and dignity, altering the physical or mental health (of personnel), or compromising their professional future.” If convicted, the defendants face one year in jail and a €18,000 ($19,800) fine — arguably a pittance given the severity of the suffering they inflicted on so many people.
The France Telecom case might be an extreme example of the psychological havoc occupational harassment wreaks on its victims. Senior executives were under enormous pressure to downsize the ailing company’s workforce following privatization — it now trades under the name Orange, one of the largest telecoms in Europe — and get it back into the black.
Because even after privatization France Telecom’s workers continued to be treated as state employees, they could not be fired. So top management decided on a different “solution” — make workers’ life on the job as unpleasant as possible so they would quit. And quit some of them did, only quite differently from what management anticipated and intended.
Anti-capitalist critics might insist that, given that the former France Telecom is a privately held company, this type of occupational harassment is exactly what you would expect. Unfortunately, things are hardly different elsewhere, not even in organizations that wave the mantle of moral superiority, such as Amnesty International.
In mid-2019, Amnesty Internationa announced the resignation of most of its senior leadership. This followed the publication of a report provoked by the suicide of two of its staff members. The report found that the human rights organization harbored “a toxic culture of secrecy and mistrust.” Based on a survey of employees, the report found numerous examples of staff members “experiencing or witnessing bullying by managers,” with numerous incidences of managers “belittling staff in meetings … or making demeaning and menacing comments,” as well as a large number of accounts of “discrimination on the basis of race and gender and in which women, staff of colour, and LGBT employees were allegedly targeted or treated unfairly.”
Amnesty International is hardly a singular case. In fact, occupation harassment appears to occur quite frequently in international organizations, which otherwise take the moral high ground. Take, for instance, the case of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Earlier this year, the ILO celebrated the adoption of a new convention and recommendation to combat violence and harassment in the workplace. It defines “violence and harassment” as “behaviours, practices or threats ‘that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm,’” which should serve as a reminder that member states have a “responsibility to promote a ‘general environment of zero tolerance.’”
It is to be hoped that the new rule will be applied and rigorously enforced by the ILO and all other international organizations. Internal documents readily available online provide a list of allegations of moral and occupational harassment submitted by staff to the ILO Administrative Tribunal. Not all cases have merit. Occupational harassment is notoriously difficult to prove, and organizations will go to great length to protect their reputation even if it means going against the very spirit of their own rules on the matter. More often than not, they will settle for monetary compensation for “moral damages” while rejecting any notion of malfeasance.
Occupational harassment is a serious issue and an increasingly recognized as a major workplace problem. The Occupational Health and Safety Act of Canada’s Ontario province defines it as any “unwelcome words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers, in a workplace. It can also include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or even discriminates against the targeted individual(s).”
This means that workplace harassment goes way beyond the one issue that is most associated with it — sexual harassment. And while sexual harassment has finally been recognized as both a serious violation of a person’s human rights and an act of discrimination, this is hardly the case with respect to other forms of workplace harassment.
Yet workplace harassment inflicts not only profound psychological damage on its victims. It is also costly. And that not only in terms of direct costs, stemming from the thousands of dollars organizations such as the ILO dish out every year in moral damage compensation payments to harassment victims. There is also growing evidence that workplace harassment is one of the causes of burnout — a serious disorder, incidences of which have dramatically increased over the past years.
A recent report noted that in general, people working in places or jobs with “a high level of exposure to psychological risks” such as “low level of autonomy and tense social relationships at work — for example high levels of conflict, exposure to bullying, lack of social support from colleagues, difficult relations with clients or stakeholders, poor-quality leadership and conflicts of ethics and values” were particularly at risk of burnout. In many cases, those suffering from burnout are on medical leave for an extended period of time.
Companies and organizations could save lots of money if they took their own zero tolerance policies seriously, rigorously went after the perpetrators instead of shielding them in order to safeguard the company’s reputation, and protected victims against retaliation. More often than not, perpetrators seem to get away with workplace harassment exactly because victims are dismissed as psychologically unstable, demoralized and discouraged from filing official complaints for fear of retaliation. The result is climate of intimidation, which is hardly conducive to the eradication of workplace harassment.
Earlier this year, UN Women launched a report designed to promote cultural change to end sexual harassment. In a statement, the UN Women’s executive coordinator on addressing sexual harassment (who had coordinated the report) noted that there was “a desperate need to unpick the ease with which accounts of sexual harassment are dismissed, considered malicious or over-reaction. We have to start by listening to victims and survivors if we are serious about addressing their concerns and we must also have effective ways of changing behaviours and ensuring accountability.”
In fact, this should apply to all forms of workplace harassment. Charity, as they say, starts at home. Applied to occupational harassment, the equivalent would be something like cleaning up your act starts in your own organization. As long as zero tolerance toward workplace harassment remains a dead letter at prominent organization like the UN, efforts to fight harassment in the workplace, sexual or otherwise, are bound to represent nothing more than simulative/symbolic politics, at worst inviting charges of hypocrisy — a charge not easily dismissed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.