Tra­di­tional v/s dig­i­tal PR? Mi­gra­tion or Mar­riage by Paul Hitti ‘I get shivers when I hear or see her name’

Bul­ly­ing is per­va­sive and of­ten tol­er­ated in the public re­la­tions in­dus­try. What can be done to help stamp it out?

ArabAd - - CONTENTS - By Iain Ak­er­man

Bul­ly­ing can take many forms. From the sub­lim­i­nal, pas­sive ag­gres­sive type that is of­ten trace­less, to ver­bal abuse in front of oth­ers. All of it is harm­ful.

If you think none of this is rel­e­vant to the re­gion’s PR in­dus­try, think again. It is a prob­lem that is alarm­ingly preva­lent, with few will­ing to dis­cuss or address the fact that em­ploy­ees are be­ing men­tally and emo­tion­ally bul­lied, lead­ing to dis­tress, anx­i­ety and an­guish. Some are even be­ing made to feel phys­i­cally un­safe.

The na­ture of PR it­self doesn’t help, with a re­ac­tive in­stead of proac­tive ap­proach to the busi­ness lead­ing to project-to-project work­loads rather than com­fort­ably long lead times that al­low for lat­eral and strate­gic think­ing. The end re­sult is pres­sure and stress.

“With the pres­sures of ev­er­con­stricted dead­lines, shrink­ing bud­gets, sys­temic hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­tures, merg­ers (which ul­ti­mately tend to trans­late into re­duced head­count), cul­tural dif­fer­ences (and vari­a­tions in how some em­ploy­ees adapt to a new en­vi­ron­ment), there are ever-com­plex fac­tors that very eas­ily lend them­selves to a sit­u­a­tion where staff are bul­lied in our re­gion,” says one of the Mid­dle East Public Re­la­tions As­so­ci­a­tion’s (MEPRA) board mem­bers. They pre­fer to re­main anony­mous.

“Bul­ly­ing can be at­trib­uted to many fac­tors, but of­ten one be­comes a bully by cir­cum­stance. What of­ten de­ter­mines this, or brings out the ‘bully’ event more, is the struc­tural set up. The main ques­tion is, does the de­part­ment set em­ploy­ees up to fail or suc­ceed? If it is the former, then it in­duces pres­sure and anx­i­ety, which in turn leads to bul­ly­ing. It is a se­ri­ous prob­lem. The per­va­sive­ness of it and the tol­er­ance of it is also the prob­lem.”

The tes­ti­monies of agency staff mem­bers re­veal at­mos­pheres of dread,

in­ti­ma­tion and fear, cou­pled with dis­trust and an­i­mos­ity.

For ex­am­ple, the prob­lems for one young ac­count ex­ec­u­tive, who wishes to re­main anony­mous, were caused by a strat­egy di­rec­tor at a Dubai-based agency that had re­cently un­der­gone an ac­qui­si­tion and merger.

“In a nut­shell she ab­so­lutely loathed me and it was made bla­tant in meet­ings, emails and one-to-ones at her desk,” she says. “It be­came ‘a thing’ and my col­leagues would al­ways come up to me and say ‘wow, what’s her prob­lem with you?’ I was at the agency for a to­tal of eight months. Af­ter about six months when­ever she would shame me in meet­ings I couldn’t help but start act­ing de­fen­sively.”

Up­set, she sent an email to the agency’s hu­man re­sources de­part­ment, de­tail­ing what she con­sid­ered rude, con­de­scend­ing and de­grad­ing be­hav­iour by the strat­egy di­rec­tor, as well as in­stances of in­tim­i­da­tion.

“I won­der how she is in com­mu­ni­ca­tions when the last thing she can do is speak nor­mally to a per­son,” she con­cluded in her email. “I’ve seen her be this way to oth­ers as well. I do not con­sider her a team leader or a mo­ti­va­tor, and I find it so hard to work for some­one who has per­sonal is­sues against me and talks to me so con­de­scend­ingly for no rea­son. I would never usu­ally talk back to some­one su­pe­rior to me but it has come to a point where her be­hav­iour is [so] in­hu­manely rude that I can’t help but speak up be­cause I know I have done noth­ing to de­serve this.”

She was asked to leave the agency two weeks later.

“They never replied to me but they did ac­knowl­edge re­ceiv­ing the email when I fol­lowed up and asked,” she says. “Un­til this day I’m not sure to what ex­tent my fall­ing out with her im­pacted the loss of my job, as there were many who were let go shortly af­ter any­way. But this woman scarred me so much that I get shivers when I hear or see her name. I never saw her again but I did fear bump­ing into her some­where in Dubai.”

Her ex­pe­ri­ence is by no means unique. An­other former em­ployee, who also re­quested to re­main anony­mous, de­scribed be­ing be­lit­tled in client meet­ings, threat­ened, and es­sen­tially os­tracised by a di­rec­tor who took a dis­like to him.

“I was work­ing in a new cen­tralised con­tent team that I had been re­cruited to join,” he ex­plains. “The team con­sisted of my­self and a di­rec­tor, who had an is­sue with the fact that he had been promised that he could build his own team. Need­less to say, I was not part of his plans, and it be­came im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that his in­ten­tion was to make life so dif­fi­cult that I left.

“On one of our trips to Abu Dhabi he spent the jour­ney telling me ev­ery­one he knew and how im­por­tant he was in what seemed like an ef­fort to as­sert his author­ity and in­tim­i­date me. He also be­lit­tled and made fun of my re­li­gious be­liefs, things which I have learned to take on the chin, but don’t ex­pect from a di­rec­tor that I just met.”

He was in­creas­ingly side­lined and his ideas re­jected, forc­ing him to seek work with other direc­tors within the agency.

“This an­gered him fur­ther, but de­spite speak­ing with HR on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, noth­ing was done,” he says. “Even­tu­ally, I sent him an email in re­sponse to his be­hav­iour and was al­most fired for stir­ring things up, un­til a col­league stepped in and ex­plained what was going on. Through­out this time, I con­tin­ued to ask for work, and on sev­eral oc­ca­sions I was told there was none and that I could go home. Af­ter con­sult­ing

with HR, I did not fol­low his di­rec­tion. The man­age­ment were sup­port­ive af­ter they knew what was hap­pen­ing and gave me some very in­ter­est­ing work that al­lowed me to excel, but I left af­ter six months.”

In al­most two-thirds of cases, bul­ly­ing is car­ried out by a man­ager, mean­ing most peo­ple are re­luc­tant to speak up for fear of los­ing their jobs.

“The mem­ber of staff that is sub­jected to bul­ly­ing will un­doubt­edly play it out in their heads whether they will be lis­tened to if they choose to ap­proach up­per man­age­ment,” says the MEPRA board mem­ber. “In some or­gan­i­sa­tions there is no open door pol­icy for th­ese sorts of com­plaints. How­ever, in oth­ers bul­ly­ing of any kind is not tol­er­ated, though em­ploy­ees are not al­ways in­formed that their rights to a men­tal-abuse-free work­place is pro­tected. The bot­tom line is that no em­ployee should tol­er­ate bul­ly­ing.”

She says that ap­proach­ing a man­ager or the per­son do­ing the bul­ly­ing may not al­ways be the right ap­proach to take, “be­cause nat­u­rally there will be a de­fen­sive stance, or non­cha­lance or de­nial of what is going on, ag­gra­vat­ing the sit­u­a­tion even more”.

“An em­ployee should thus ap­proach the re­port­ing line above the bully, and de­liver a mes­sage in con­fi­dence (prefer­ably in writ­ing),” she says. “Whether it is to a chair­man of a board and ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber of man­age­ment that would have a say in the mat­ter, man­age­ment tend to al­ways want to hear from staff, es­pe­cially if there is mal­prac­tice tak­ing place. Af­ter all, a mis­use of a com­pany’s as­sets in­cludes dis­re­spect­ing other team mem­bers, and bul­ly­ing is a form of dis­re­spect and abuse.”

For those who don’t think this is a prob­lem, work­place bul­ly­ing can cause phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal health is­sues and can poi­son the cul­ture of an agency. It also re­duces pro­duc­tiv­ity and wors­ens staff re­ten­tion in an in­dus­try al­ready plagued by a short­age of ta­lent.

“It is al­ways im­por­tant to con­front bul­lies and show them that their ac­tions are wrong and in­ex­cus­able,” says the MEPRA board mem­ber. “Un­for­tu­nately, this usu­ally takes going above them in or­der to set the sit­u­a­tion straight. If the high­est level of man­age­ment is re­luc­tant to address it, then the or­gan­i­sa­tion is the wrong fit since there is a mis­align­ment of your val­ues and theirs.

“Stand­ing up for what is right is ev­ery per­son’s obli­ga­tion, as a form of re­spect to their be­ing. How­ever, if bul­ly­ing is a way of push­ing the per­son out of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, in­stead of han­dling an am­i­ca­ble de­par­ture, then the em­ployee must also be hon­est with them self and must not rule out this pos­si­bil­ity. Es­sen­tially, some bat­tles are worth fight­ing and oth­ers are not.”

Em­ploy­ees are not al­ways in­formed that their rights to a men­tal-abuse­free work­place is pro­tected. The bot­tom line is that no em­ployee should tol­er­ate bul­ly­ing.

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