Bullying is pervasive and often tolerated in the communications industry. What can be done to help stamp it out?
Bullying can take many forms. From the subliminal, passive aggressive type that is often traceless, to verbal abuse in front of others. All of it is harmful.
If you think none of this is relevant to the region’s comunications industry, think again. It is a problem that is alarmingly prevalent, with few willing to discuss or address the fact that employees are being mentally and emotionally bullied, leading to distress, anxiety and anguish. Some are even being made to feel physically unsafe.
The nature of advertising and PR itself doesn’t help, with a reactive instead of proactive approach to the business leading to project-to-project workloads rather than comfortably long lead times that allow for lateral and strategic thinking. The end result is pressure and stress.
“With the pressures of ever-constricted deadlines, shrinking budgets, systemic hierarchical structures, mergers (which ultimately tend to translate into reduced headcount), cultural differences (and variations in how some employees adapt to a new environment), there are ever-complex factors that very easily lend themselves to a situation where staff are bullied in our region,” says one of the Middle East Public Relations Association’s (MEPRA) board members. They prefer to remain anonymous.
“Bullying can be attributed to many factors, but often one becomes a bully by circumstance. What often determines this, or brings out the ‘bully’ event more, is the structural set up. The main question is, does the department set employees up to fail or succeed? If it is the former, then it induces pressure and anxiety, which in turn leads to bullying. It is a serious problem. The pervasiveness of it and the tolerance of it is also the problem.”
“Employees are not always informed that their rights to a mental-abuse-free workplace is protected. The bottom line is that no employee should tolerate bullying.”
The testimonies of agency staff members reveal atmospheres of dread, intimation and fear, coupled with distrust and animosity.
For example, the problems for one young account executive, who wishes to remain anonymous, were caused by a strategy director at a Dubai-based agency that had recently undergone an acquisition and merger.
“In a nutshell she absolutely loathed me and it was made blatant in meetings, emails and one-to-ones at her desk,” she says. “It became ‘a thing’ and my colleagues would always come up to me and say ‘wow, what’s her problem with you?’ I was at the agency for a total of eight months. After about six months whenever she would shame me in meetings I couldn’t help but start acting defensively.”
“It is always important to confront bullies and show them that their actions are wrong and inexcusable. […] If the highest level of management is reluctant to address it, then the organisation is the wrong fit since there is a misalignment of your values and theirs.”
Upset, she sent an email to the agency’s human resources department, detailing what she considered rude, condescending and degrading behaviour by the strategy director, as well as instances of intimidation.
“I wonder how she is in communications when the last thing she can do is speak normally to a person,” she concluded in her email. “I’ve seen her be this way to others as well. I do not consider her a team leader or a motivator, and I find it so hard to work for someone who has personal issues against me and talks to me so condescendingly for no reason. I would never usually talk back to someone superior to me but it has come to a point where her behaviour is [so] inhumanely rude that I can’t help but speak up because I know I have done nothing to deserve this.”
She was asked to leave the agency two weeks later.
“They never replied to me but they did acknowledge receiving the email when I followed up and asked,” she says. “Until this day I’m not sure to what extent my falling out with her impacted the loss of my job, as there were many who were let go shortly after anyway. But this woman scarred me so much that I get shivers when I hear or see her name. I never saw her again but I did fear bumping into her somewhere in Dubai.”
Her experience is by no means unique. Another former employee, who also requested to remain anonymous, described being belittled in client meetings, threatened, and essentially ostracised by a director who took a dislike to him.
“I was working in a new centralised content team that I had been recruited to join,” he explains. “The team consisted of myself and a director, who had an issue with the fact that he had been promised that he could build his own team. Needless to say, I was not part of his plans, and it became immediately apparent that his intention was to make life so difficult that I left.
“On one of our trips to Abu Dhabi he spent the journey telling me everyone he knew and how important he was in what seemed like an effort to assert his authority and intimidate me. He also belittled and made fun of my religious beliefs, things which I have learned to take on the chin, but don’t expect from a director that I just met.”
He was increasingly sidelined and his ideas rejected, forcing him to seek work with other directors within the agency.
“This angered him further, but despite speaking with HR on a number of occasions, nothing was done,” he says. “Eventually, I sent him an email in response to his behaviour and was almost fired for stirring things up, until a colleague stepped in and explained what was going on. Throughout this time, I continued to ask for work, and on several occasions I was told there was none and that I could go home. After consulting with HR, I did not follow his direction. The management were supportive after they knew what was happening and gave me some very interesting work that allowed me to excel, but I left after six months.”
In almost two-thirds of cases, bullying is carried out by a manager, meaning most people are reluctant to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.
“The member of staff that is subjected to bullying will undoubtedly play it out in their heads whether they will be listened to if they choose to approach upper management,” says the MEPRA board member. “In some organisations there is no open door policy for these sorts of complaints. However, in others bullying of any kind is not tolerated, though employees are not always informed that their rights to a mental-abuse-free workplace is protected. The bottom line is that no employee should tolerate bullying.”
She says that approaching a manager or the person doing the bullying may not always be the right approach to take, “because naturally there will be a defensive stance, or nonchalance or denial of what is going on, aggravating the situation even more”.
“An employee should thus approach the reporting line above the bully, and deliver a message in confidence (preferably in writing),” she says. “Whether it is to a chairman of a board and executive member of management that would have a say in the matter, management tend to always want to hear from staff, especially if there is malpractice taking place. After all, a misuse of a company’s assets includes disrespecting other team members, and bullying is a form of disrespect and abuse.”
For those who don’t think this is a problem, workplace bullying can cause physical and psychological health issues and can poison the culture of an agency. It also reduces productivity and worsens staff retention in an industry already plagued by a shortage of talent.
“It is always important to confront bullies and show them that their actions are wrong and inexcusable,” says the MEPRA board member. “Unfortunately, this usually takes going above them in order to set the situation straight. If the highest level of management is reluctant to address it, then the organisation is the wrong fit since there is a misalignment of your values and theirs.
“Standing up for what is right is every person’s obligation, as a form of respect to their being. However, if bullying is a way of pushing the person out of the organisation, instead of handling an amicable departure, then the employee must also be honest with them self and must not rule out this possibility. Essentially, some battles are worth fighting and others are not.”