Harassment in the Workplace

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Not much attention has been given to the issue of harassment in the workplace and its devastating impact on victims be they junior executives or managers in private firms and banks, functionaries in the Civil Service, administrators and employees in parastatal bodies, factory workers, employees in the catering business, salesmen or saleswomen, office clerks and company managers.

As many other issues that have not been assessed and addressed in time, workplace harassment has been passively tolerated as being part of the work culture. Instead of being denounced and stopped, a self-assured feeling of impunity has allowed a culture of harassment to flourish over decades encouraging bullies of all sorts to feel free to make abusive use of their authority over their subordinates.

This is a serious issue and deserves to be fully addressed by employees’ federations, trade unions, private and public authorities. It is high time to sensitize employees on the different forms of harassment that they themselves fail or take time to identify as such and very often their tormentors are not even aware of being bullies. The common occurrences are: yelling, criticizing with no just cause, intimidating with threats of sacking, etc. The list can go on and on.

As far as government and parastatal bodies are concerned, it is no secret that those who are in charge are political nominees who are hired and fired on the basis of their political affiliation. It is common practice in big democracies but the difference is that functionaries are empowered by proper legislation and trade unions to fight for their rights. Mauritius being a small country with a good number of people clinging to the Civil Service for job guarantee, many government employees, semi-qualified, qualified, experienced and high-ranking officials may become a vulnerable lot. Over decades, a culture of impunity that has developed in statal and parastatal bodies has spawned an attitude of arrogance and a tyrannical behaviour among some political nominees.

No one can deny that in some cases, employees are arbitrarily fired; in others, they are harassed especially if they do not have the same political affiliation as their superiors. No one can deny that corruption, cronyism, conflict of interest and other forms of obscure dealings are not uncommon in this country. On account of different political obediences, some employees are likely to be considered as nuisances with a critical eye on the work of their bosses. The latter are often less able and experienced than their subordinates. In a ministry, an employee can find himself with workloads piling up on his desk, a constant shifting of priorities, a leave-this-and-do-that attitude, unreasonable deadlines, and being constantly bossed around.

What is the impact of harassment on employees? More than often, they are initially ashamed and embarrassed. They are not able to focus as work piles up, and feel fear, anger and emotional frustration, and they pull back from friends and family. Stress level becomes so intense that they end up in hospital, others commit suicide as was the case among employees of France Telecom in France. Workplace harassment steals your focus, productivity, undermines your self-confidence and affects your sanity. Unfortunately, the devastating effects have dramatic consequences in some cases.

For fear of reprisals, victims do not dare complain. They are not quitters; they fight to keep their jobs as long as possible. Leaving your job in the private sector in times of crisis is not that easy, neither is it in the public sector. It is high time for government and parastatal bodies to start their self-criticism. Mauritius is a small country and functions like a big village with lots of gossip and information leaking out from the walls of ministries and echoing in towns and villages. So, a handful of people who feel close to the bosses in the ministries cannot claim to be sole holders of truth and dismiss all criticisms levelled at the different bodies.

Harassment violates dignity and creates an intimidating, humiliating and offensive environment. A detailed manual should inform employees on the different aspects of workplace harassment to enable them to come forward and talk it over with their tormentors first, then settle the problem in the presence of union representatives, and finally seek legal advice. How many of them actually do so? People should be made to understand that harassment and intimidation is unacceptable and that those who delight in the victimization of others should be treated severely. Employers have a duty of care towards their staff and must prevent harassment and ensure a healthy and secure work environment for their employees.

* Published in print edition on 10 June 2011

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