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Helping someone you love who’s being mistreated at work
The characteristics of mistreatment and harassment at work are in many respects similar to abuse at home. Both typically involve an in-balance of power in an important relationship, as well as economic or emotional interdependence. Most often, this asymmetric relationship involves a dominant male and dependent woman, but this is not always the case: we are now aware that abuse can occur in the home or office, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
Signs of workplace harassment/mistreatment
Kelowna [British Columbia] Women’s Shelter (KWS) has developed a list of signs that a woman is at risk for domestic violence. The KWS list provides a lens for our understanding of unhealthy workplace relationships between an employee and a supervisor or someone higher-up in the organization.
Here are some danger signs (based on the KWS list) in a relationship between a supervisor (S1) and a subordinate (S2):
- Increased intensity in the relationship
- S1 blames S2 for its negative behavior and errors
- S1 refuses to respect S2’s boundaries
- S1 attempts to control all aspects of S2’s work-life
- S1 exploits S2’s good nature and weaknesses
- S1 expects special privileges and denies rights to S2
- S1 believes in their superiority and treats S2 as inferior
- S1 isolate S2 from co-workers and friends at work
- S1 is unpredictable
- S1 has few friends in the workplace and appears estranged from family
The person is “different” from the mainstream
Diversity, inclusion, and equity are common themes in contemporary workplaces. Large companies may have one or more prominent positions focused on building a diverse and inclusive workplace. The Ontario government has asked public, private, and non-profit sector organizations what employers can do “to enhance workplace opportunities for Indigenous, Black and racialized employees.”
What does this mean in daily work life, relationships with bosses, or interactions with teammates? The person you want to help may be vulnerable owing to differences in skin color, religious beliefs, manner of dress, country of origin, way of speaking, or sexual orientation. Individuals with physical disabilities are also potential targets. Conscious or subconscious bias and racism are potent motivators for harassment. So the persons’ ‘difference’ from the mainstream might make them them more susceptible to workplace harassment and mistreatment.
How to help your loved one or friend who’s stuck in an abusive workplace relationship
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and Ontario’s Human Rights Code protect employees from violence, harassment, and discrimination in their workplaces. This protection includes the right to be free from harassment, such as bullying and sexual harassment. Providing this information to the person you are helping is a first step to getting them to a better situation.
Also, being a supportive ‘ear’ for your loved one or friend to discuss the workplace situation is helpful. Asking probing questions to help them see and better understand what is happening is also an important step in moving them toward recognition and recovery.
However, psychologists and social workers tell us that people in abusive situations are often resistant to recognizing what is happening. The person who is an object of harassment may be so beaten down by this mistreatment that they come to doubt their competence. They may blame themselves or make excuses for the abuser. For example, they may say:
- My supervisor was having a bad day.
- I feel sorry for my manager because they’re getting divorced.
- I make too many mistakes.
- I’m not smart enough.
- If I try harder, things will get better.
- I’ll never get another job.
- If I complain, I’ll be fired.
Sometimes people who get into abusive situations (whether at home or at work) are caught in a cycle of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, which is rooted in a childhood experience. Therefore, helping your loved one or friend recognize harassment for what it is may require patience and persistence, as well as both legal and psychological counselling. Making these resources available to them and giving them the opportunity to work with a professional, who can address and resolve the core issues might be the best thing you can do.
Consult a Professional
Hermie Abraham is an employment lawyer who understands Ontario employment laws, practices in a compassionate way, and can advise you about your rights in the workplace. Contact us today to schedule your consultation.