This Monday marked the beginning of Anti Bullying Week in the UK. Often concentrated on schools and educational institutions, the week seeks to bring attention to this particular behaviour and encourage those that are being bullied to seek support, raise awareness and work with communities to eradicate bullying. It is a common misconception that bullying is something that stops once you leave school environments, as it is as much a behaviour you may encounter in the workplace, after leaving university.
From the responsibilities companies and brands have to their employees, to knowing when to opt out, it can be difficult situation to navigate - especially with few reference points as a new graduate. We sat down with Caryn Franklin MBE, Fashion Commentator and Professor of Diversity, to learn more about what constitutes bullying, how to approach the situation professionally, and the importance of putting your mental health and well being at the centre of your world. Whether this is something you’ve personally experienced or seen happening in companies, working together through small acts of kindness
If you are struggling with bullying in the workplace and need support, remember, you are not alone. Below Caryn outlines many ways to recognise bullying, cope with the next steps and resolve the toxic situation, always putting yourself first. You shouldn’t have to feel regularly anxious at work and always have the right to say when you feel uncomfortable. If you need anymore guidance, Bullying UK exists to help. Learn more about their resources here.
What constitutes bullying in the workplace?
What everybody needs to understand is that bullying doesn’t actually stop once you leave school. It continues is every organisation, in every institution. Where you have people with insecurities and need to make themselves feel better by dominating other people, you will experience bullying. Interestingly, there are studies that show that there is a relationship between a high-stress environment and bullying. Fashion is a high-stress environment, because there is this need for speed at all times.
Young creatives may well find that when they’re getting into a place where there is a lot of stress around deadlines and long hours, that comes with someone behaving in a bullying way to enforce delivery. What we do know, is that fashion produces 'tyrannical leaders.’
What is a tyrannical leader?
A tyrannical leader is someone who rules through fear. There are effectively two really powerful emotions in a work place. There is love, of what you’re doing and your environment and the people, and there is fear of what the environment will bring, how of will make you feel, whether you will be good enough, and whether or not you will be undermined.
What would you say are the key indicators that you may have found yourself in this kind of work place?
Well, I think when someone is making personal comments, that seem to be deliberate and repeated. Bullying is a very specific behaviour, that can be quite low-level.
When they are constantly being observed by someone else, in such a way it makes them feel uncomfortable, and when that person is perhaps dismissive of their ideas, or ignores requests of clarification from the bullies, or a project approach or ignores requests for support, where it is needed, that what we can begin to feel in ourselves - and this is where I would urge all young creatives to really tune into their gut-instinct, because it’s a very powerful perimeter for our safety, and to tune into – What do they feel when they wake up in the morning? Is it excitement about going to work or is it “I hope I don’t run into that person”?
That’s the first indication that they are feeling undermined. They can’t be their best selves, that this person is someone who makes them feel insecure.
At that stage it’s important to actually vocalise what’s going on – “I think, I’m being bullied”, and to talk to other people – “Is it just me, or do you find this with this other person?”. And, to most importantly, create a journal, a diary.
So that you can’t say “Oh, I’m sure I imaged that”, or “I’m probably a bit tired”, “I didn’t come up with as many ideas as I normally do”. Don’t put it on yourself! Just create a diary when you think, “I was at the meeting and yet again, you know, whomever talked over me, said my ideas weren’t very good, and didn’t do the things they said they would do after the meeting, which I said I needed”
Then you can actually begin to see that a number of times during a day or during a week, you have had the experiences with this particular person that makes you feel uncomfortable.
The second thing that you must do, is talk that to one person and just say (maybe with support) “I don’t feel there is good communication us, and I’m just letting you know, and these are the examples… I don’t need you to agree with me, but I’m just letting you know”. So that is a point where the bully can be observed, that the bully is not getting away with it. A big part of bullying is that it’s quite subtle and the bully prides themselves that nobody else knows. It’s a power game. Continue to keep that journal.
“Look, we’re not communicating and I don’t feel l can deliver my best work for the company; there were a couple of times when I asked you to do something to support me, and it hasn’t happened, and I really hope that perhaps you had a bad month and that this can change, but if it doesn’t I have to take it to my line leader, or have to take it HR, because I’m not doing my job well”. So now that the kind of bully has a recognition that you’re not going to be intimidated.
If you start recognising these patterns of behaviour happening around you, what rights do you have in that situation?
A company should have some kind of charter around work place bullying. And so, that’s quite important when you’re looking for a job. In that, you are able to say: “could you tell me about preservation of mental health of your employees, particularly in relation to stressful environments and bullying?”, “Do you have anything in place?”. This should be a point that you ask the same way that you ask about the hours you’re expected to do, the wages you can expect to receive, the hopes for all promotion opportunities, because, what you’re doing is saying to your employer: “I take full responsibility for my mental health and my resilience, and I need to know what you have in place for me”.
Often young people are so grateful to be given a chance that they don’t even check the hours that they are expected to work, or the full job role or the people that they work with. As you become more experienced, you check these things, because you may choose not to take this job, it may not suit you.
If the company says something like: “well, we’ve never thought about it, we’ve never had an issue”, you can say: “well, I’m sorry to hear about that, but what if you did have an issue? What steps would be in place?”. Because there should be some Human Resources, there should be something that you can take to the company, so that this person may receive a warning from the company. I haven’t checked any kind of government or industrial guidelines, so I’m going to leave you to do that, but there must be something. But, you know, it does tend to depend on the lead within the company, and this is where we come back to high-stress environments, which produce tyrannical leaders, who are very focused on profit, on deadline, on survival.
It’s also important for the young creative to look at that environment and work out whether it is actually, and this is where I want to credit this book that I think all young creatives should read, whether is it actually, as the author Farah Liz Pallaro calls, a heart-driven company or a fear-driven company.
The university often trains you to be a skilled technician in some way, or skilled creative thinker, but it can’t take full responsibility for the lessons and the journey you will make as a human being. And that is part of your practice, you know. I spent thirty-seven years working in the fashion industry and I am still learning those skills, but also how to take good care of myself and how to listen to what I need.
Do you have any tools or ways to build your confidence in the work place, so if this situation does arise, you deal with it confidently?
What are your needs in any given situation? What are your boundaries? Are you someone who understands that you have to recharge your batteries? You have to make sure that you are doing things–that there is a ratio between doing things that feel like chores and very hard work, and things that feel fun and give you sense of job satisfaction, whatever they are. So, recognising your boundaries, what you need to flourish as a human being, whether it being in a personal relationship or a professional relationship, is something that you can begin now and that you will carry on doing for the rest of your life.
Practicing speaking clearly about the situation; to say: “I’m sorry, I haven’t exactly understood exactly what is needed. Can you repeat the information, so I can make clear notes, or can you give me clearer guidelines?” or “I have a question. Could you answer this?”. So, being very clear about the information you’re receiving… from anybody. Personal and professional.
Being very clear about what constitutes situation in which you feel that your gut instinct is trying to alert you. So, that means listening to your emotions; you can’t suppress them. You cannot keep thinking: “I’m feeling upset, I’m feeling fearful, I’m feeling miserable. There must be something wrong with me, because I can’t tolerate all of this. Maybe I’m just over-sensitive”. Your body is trying to tell you these things for a reason, so you ‘re being able to feel these things and to say: “I need to act”. The word emotion contains the work movement, if you take away the e, you have word motion. And so, your emotions are telling you to do something, so don’t suppress them – act upon them.
One thing that you ought to do, you actually say: “I don’t believe this environment is good for my mental health. I tried to tackle this, but I don’t have good leadership, I don’t have people around me who are in touch with their own need for good mental health, because they’re all stressed. And so, I’m going to remove myself, I’m going to give my notice in”. Because ultimately, we have high level of mental… poor mental health, which could lead to bigger things for the sufferer. And it’s never worth… you know, being in a situation that is a job, it’s never worth suffering mental distress in a work place environment, because you feel like somehow you should toughen up.
How can we work together to support one another to overcome any kind of workplace bullying?
We’re not on our own when things begin to happen, and we look at the company for support, but we need to be really clear about where we get that support from and why we are untitled to it. And the other thing that I think is very, very important, is be prepared to extend support to others. Be prepared to help someone who seems distressed. Be prepared to be a kind ear.
The study that showed that acts of kindness from coworkers are those powerful, and that, you know, we’re going to a system and we expect acts of kindness to come from leadership, but if you have tyrannical leadership they often don’t. So, don’t wait to be shown kindness – give it! Because what happens is, someone who receives an act of kindness will pass is on, not once but up to three times. So, someone who’s generally kind, genuinely kind in a working environment will create an infectious kindness by putting it out there for others – that takes confidence. You can’t put kindness out there because you want to immediately reciprocate it. It won’t necessary be reciprocated, but it will be passed on in the system, and so you may receive it at another point from a random source.
Here at Graduate Fashion Foundation, we hope that you’ve found Caryn’s words inspiring and will use them as a source of vital information and clarification. What’re you waiting for? Now is the time to start a journal to ensure that you’re in touch with the reality of your work experiences, and start putting out into the world, what you want to see more of - kindness.
Words and Interview by Annabel Waterhouse-Biggins