21.07.20
Thoughts

Behaviours at work

 

I remember one of the disappointing surprises on entering the workforce in 1998 was that people can behave badly at work. I look back at myself now and can’t quite believe how naïve I was. I had actually truly believed that adults set the example and that any poor behaviours witnessed at school or in the playground were due to immaturity and would be left behind on entering into the grown up world.

 

I had been fortunate enough to not have had that bubble burst until then.

 

Some adults, it turned out, were not embarrassed to be snappy, grumpy, short and “off” with colleagues who in many cases were hardly known to them. They just happen to be there in a certain rank in the work hierarchy.  I found it embarrassing and awkward then and still do today.

 

Some, of course, had a reputation for unpredictability. We would share stories of poor treatment in solidarity and would feel special if they were decent to us on occasion. What should be normal behaviour has an elevated position if it is not normal for the person who has set the normal standard as low.

 

We soon established who the colleagues were that were consistently approachable, professional and pleasant and took up a disproportionate amount of their time! Emotional labour really should be recognised as it is very time consuming.

 

Personally I found both praise and poor behaviour almost equally embarrassing and would prefer to avoid both. I regret the occasions when I feel that I let myself down and am fully aware that apologising does not really cut it.

 

The reality is that we spend so much time at work through several stages of our lives and that leaving our troubles and stress at the door can be difficult and is more difficult for some than for others. The bigger issue is the acceptance of a lower standard of behaviours as normal. If standards are not maintained, much of the core of corporate culture is lost.

 

As I write this now, although that perspective was childish and naive, it reminds me that it should not have been and I think about it often. I think about it more when younger employees are treated poorly. The gap between them and my children is smaller so the hurt feels closer.

 

As a mother, like many of us, I focus a lot at home on behaviours and being kind. Am I simply setting them up for the same fall or should I be explaining that in the same way that children at school can be mean, adults can too and actually behaviours don’t really change that much? The differences are that at school there is, in theory, somewhere to go and complain without risk, and at work that is not the case.

 

Not long ago, I delivered some training on behaviours and sexual harassment to junior lawyers and in a room of over 20 young adults. Their response was that they would never complain or tell anyone at work but ultimately would look for another job if they were treated poorly or were sexually harassed. Saying anything would in their view be career suicide. There was no exception. That therefore had not changed in twenty years.

 

I advise daily on the risk of poor behaviours and whether or not they fall within legal wrongs and also how to mitigate against the legal risks. It is the risks that are not easily quantifiable that are more difficult to address. Retention of talent, less openness about mistakes, effect on recruitment, increases in time consuming grumbles and grievances and management time taken up picking up the pieces that is more difficult to get to grips with.

 

– Tania Tandon

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