When faced with cases of harassment, the worst response is silence. It comforts the perpetrator in their feeling of impunity, even gives them the feeling that their actions are acceptable and prepares the ground for future misbehaviour once the current victim gets away – if they can. Not speaking out makes the behaviour of a bully seem normal or acceptable to the other colleagues and even the hierarchy.
Union members must speak up and encourage others to do so when faced with harassment. Not just to ensure justice for the victim but for other, practical reasons: a bully who is caught out just once will probably be treated leniently by management but if people speak out systematically and repeatedly then the hierarchy will be forced to think and things are likely to move. Sadly, the first victims of a given individual most likely won’t be helped but their action clears the way for others to be saved. It’s a form of solidarity.
But that can’t really happen without the support of a Union. The victims of harassment are fragile and cannot manage the process alone, particularly since, even in well managed cases, getting things back to the status quo ante so that the victim feels that everything is back to normal (and normal sometimes becomes idealised) is next to impossible. Things won’t be like before. The corrective measures available to our administration when, rarely, they act, are of basically two kinds. Either they move the victim to another role or, in the worst cases, they are offered sick leave and then invalidity. Both of which are perceived by the victim as a defeat because, whilst they lose their post and all they have been dealing with, or when they are put on invalidity, the perpetrator keeps everything including their rank.
Only rarely does the victim get compensation and it’s even rarer that the perpetrator is punished. All these things contribute to a feeling of impunity and it’s time something changed. To bring that change about, our Union, possible with others, has to put in place a system which avoids harassment happening, encourages victims and onlookers to blow the whistle and listens out for colleagues in difficulties. We also have to force the administration to put in place a system to provide remedies which mainstreams the needs of the victim and helps them back into the normal life of the organisation under the best possible conditions and compensates them whilst punishing the perpetrators.
In order for that to be possible, we’d need :
- To know what the situation looks like in the workplace. To know what kinds of harassment are present and how bad it is (harassment is also a cultural phenomenon with a certain amount of regional and cultural variability). To know the profiles of victims. Assess the frequency of complaints where they happen. That takes different ways and means which are complementary: obtain official statistics, carry out our own surveys, create a network of observers, and in fine create an observatory in public administrations.
- “Educate” our members etc. and sensitize them to the issue of harassment. Nothing will happen unless the members of our organisations, at least the most active ones, are aware of the scale of the problem and the damage it causes both to the individual and collectively. Training should be given to active members. Create a protocol for interventions.
- Inform colleagues and create confidential communication channels. Make colleagues aware of harassment done to others. Create publications that cover the subject systematically. Establish confidential contact points.
- Make harassment a cross cutting issue in all our contacts with the administration to create awareness and prevent it being an issue in all procedures, including selection, training (on arrival and on posting to management) and assessment. Train the colleagues involved in the social dialogue.
- Demand disciplinary measures and more robust action against perpetrators. Accompany victims systematically during the complaints procedure.
It’s an ambitious plan, certainly, but which can be summed up in a sentence. Zero tolerance for harassment so that colleagues and the institution can recover lost dignity.
Juan Pedro Perez Escanilla
Secrétaire général de l’USB