Physical and psychological harassment or bullying is one of the most damaging workplace issues -- and according to one expert, the IT industry is not immune to it.
Over the last year Toronto-based employee assistance program provider WarrenShepell intervened in 400 cases involving complaints of harassment and violence within Canadian organizations. These numbers "might not represent specifically the IT world," said Gerry Smith, WarrenShepell's vice-president of organizational health -- but harassment experiences in IT are no different than in any other department.
He added that from a Canadian perspective, it is "extremely difficult to get statistics." There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that bullying happens in the workplace, but people don't seem to want to report it, he said.
'Bill,' an Ottawa-based IT worker whose name has been changed for anonymity, told ComputerWorld Canada in an e-mail interview that he has experienced bullying in his workplace but isn't really sure how to deal with it constructively. He recently started working at a small company where teamwork and a collaborative environment are very important. Despite this, the other day he witnessed a female colleague burst into tears because of psychological harassment.
Bill said his group has a male senior team-lead who gets angry and frustrated with any person in the team if they disagree with or don't understand his ideas or decisions.
"Rather than explaining to the person what he means, he will start harassing the person psychologically by raising his voice and showing frustration, indicating that he has been over this issue many times with that person and he does not understand why the issue still exists," he explained, adding that this is usually done in front of several other people. "Most of the time he will bring up the issue that he is the person in charge and will ignore the fact the success or failure of the team is not just in his hands."
At one meeting, the female in the group, who had undergone many such incidents before, finally broke down in front of the whole team. Bill said he felt "very uncomfortable" at the meeting, and although he wanted to speak up, he didn't know what to say.
"It is very clear that we need some guidelines in our team environment to follow, and if any person crosses these guidelines, (we need to know) how...to confront them," he said.
Sometimes the person being harassed feels it is inappropriate or a waste of time to report the problem to upper management.
'Linda,' a former IT worker in the Ottawa area who also wanted to remain anonymous, said one of her former colleagues underwent sexual harassment -- which could be viewed as one form of bullying -- at a technology firm a few years ago, ironically at a time when the employer was starting to enforce its harassment policies.
Her colleague was French Canadian and her cubicle was located next to a French Canadian contractor who "delighted in discussing inappropriate sexual material in French with other French speaking males in his cubicle and on the phone," Linda said. The manager of the department did not speak French so he was none the wiser.
Linda said her colleague "felt offended for having to listen to that garbage, but didn't feel it was appropriate to mention it to our manager." At a later date Linda approached the manager about it, and he seemed surprised. "But I suspect that the contractor was blacklisted and his contract was never renewed, as I never saw him working for my division after that."
According to WarrenShepell, more than 40 per cent of bullying is colleague to colleague, while almost 20 per cent of bullies are bosses. A bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman, and workplace bullies start early in life -- in the schoolyard.
While character plays a huge part, Linda said she thinks a lot of psychological harassment also happens because of workplace stress. "We all handle stress differently. Sarcasm is often used a stress relief; that becomes harassment when stretched too far. Others hold it inside and become raging storms at the drop of a hat."
Sometimes a boss will take out his or her work-related stress -- caused by looming project deadlines and tight budgets -- on an employee by giving the ultimatum to work late or lose the job, Linda explained, adding that this is especially prevalent in the IT industry these days.
"Most (people being hired for IT positions in Ottawa) are getting contracts instead of employment -- renewal is dependent on [working late]," she explained. "Think about it, layoffs are looming next quarter. The product isn't going to make the deadline, or it was unreasonable from the start. Who do you think is going to be put on the layoff list -- the ones working nine to five or the ones working nine to midnight? I've even heard about some managers actually making these threats."
Unfortunately, the quality of the work often suffers in the end -- which causes even more stress and continues the vicious circle. "The ones working nine to five are writing more error-free code than the ones doing excessive amounts of overtime," Linda continued. "The value of sleep and distraction appears to be forgotten."
In the case of employers bullying IT employees to work unreasonable hours, Linda was skeptical about the effectiveness of anti-harassment seminars. "Unless these employers are relieved of their financial burdens, no seminar is going to stop the abuse."
Smith said another form of harassment IT workers tend to face often originates from the end user. "Especially in the help desk world, you are susceptible to the ire of the end user -- particularly if something that is supposed to make life easier is actually making life more difficult for (them) .... There is this mythological sense that Canadians are complacent, peace-loving people. But ask anyone in customer service to validate that, and you will find that is not the case."
According to WarrenShepell, the business case is clear for employers to take action on this issue. In the recent Kavanagh Decision, Newfoundland was ordered to pay nearly C$875,000 (US$696,268) to one of its employees because the province failed to protect the worker from harassment. Recent changes to the Labour Standards Act in Quebec have also made it easier for employees based in the province to make claims against their employer as a result of psychological harassment.