A new UN report was featured in a story on Dec 7, 2022, in Fast Company (1), a media brand self-described as inspiring “readers to think expansively, lead with purpose, embrace change, and shape the future of business.” The article described how the report found workplace violence and harassment are “rampant global issues” with as many as one quarter of respondents indicating some such experience. The article included a sub heading that reads, in part, “now that we know…” seeming to indicate that the publication of the report has opened our eyes to a new workplace issue. To those of us who conduct research in this area it was not news. In fact, the findings of the report are consistent with what the body of research on the issue has found.
Workplace bullying and harassment has been widely researched across the globe and across many sectors and industries. Just a few examples of the prevalence found in the research include a Canadian study by Forum Research (2) in 2018 that revealed one in two Canadians had experienced bullying in the workplace. Studies in the U.S. include those conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (3) that indicate, from their 2021 study, 30% of adult Americans are bullied at work. In New Zealand one annual report (4) indicated 35.4% of respondents reported incidents of bullying and harassment had occurred over the past 12 months in their workplace. As this brief summary begins to illustrate, the issue is extensive and has been widely studied.
So, while the issue and research on the topic are not new, what the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) report (5) marks is the significance of the issue for such a globally recognized institution. The ILO conducted the study in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Gallup, interviewing 74,364 currently employed participants aged 15 and up in 121 countries. It supports Convention 190, that codifies violence and harassment as an issue of equality and occupational safety and health and sees the right to a healthy and safe working environment as a fundamental right in the workplace.
Violation of Fundamental Rights?
The UN report is an important step toward broader recognition of the extent that workplace violence and harassment is damaging workplaces. But, if workers should expect a workplace free of such behaviour as one of their fundamental rights, then why do the statistics on the rates of this damaging behaviour indicate it is such a widespread problem?
Acknowledging and agreeing that the issue requires strong action is relatively easy, especially when considering how prevalent reporting on toxic workplaces has become. The real challenge in addressing bullying and harassment is as hidden as the behaviour itself. In conducting my own research, I met with the leader of a non-profit organization that facilitates networking between leaders across many sectors. As I was looking to interview senior leaders on the topic of negative behaviour in the workplace, I hoped to source some of my research participants through the networking organization. The response to my request revealed the biggest hurdle to addressing the damaging behaviour as I was told “none of our participating organizations would have such a problem.” Given the rates of bullying and harassment published from many sources, it seems inconceivable the issue didn’t exist for any of the members.
Giving a Hidden Issue a Voice
Despite an increase in headlines reporting on toxic workplaces or toxic bosses there still exists a reluctance for organizations to admit that such behaviour takes place. Such an admission would, perhaps, tarnish a public image of a desirable employer or may result in the type of negative publicity most organizations try to avoid. This leads organizations down the path of complex systems of cover up that can include moving the perpetrator elsewhere in the organization, moving the target of the behaviour to another position or, worse, exiting them altogether. Much of the time they simply take no action at all.
If we are to address this issue, we must call out this damaging behaviour. If a workplace free from violence and harassment is truly a fundamental right, then we need to raise our voices when we experience or see such damaging behaviour taking place.
1. Fast Company. Workplace violence and harassment are rampant global issues, says landmark UN report. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90821326/workplace-violence-and-harassment-are-rampant-global-issues-says-landmark-un-report 2. Forum Research: 1 in 2 Canadians have experienced bullying in the workplace. Retrieved from http://poll.forumresearch.com/post/2900/bullying-2018/ 3. New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2021. Retrieved from https://diversityworksnz.org.nz/media/4750/0521-diversity-survey-report-final.pdf 4. Workplace Bullying Institute. https://workplacebullying.org 5. International Labour Organization. Experiences of violence and harassment at work: A global first survey. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_863095.pdf