Is bullying and harassment in the eye of the beholder?

Culture, language, industry play a part

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

For this post, I had originally planned on further exploring last week's theme of slacking off in the workplace. However, a few readers’ comments got me thinking about what I believe is an even more interesting topic.

Essentially, that topic would be: “Is what amounts to bullying and harassment in the workplace dependent on organizational and local culture, the industry and the individual in question?”

While certain types of behaviour should universally be condemned, the short answer is “yes.”

To some extent, bullying and harassment are in the eyes of the beholder. Therefore, even if you don't believe your behaviour crosses the line, if someone else could potentially feel threatened or intimidated, it's likely you’ve gone too far. (Nevertheless, it’s important to understand holding people accountable through regular performance management isn’t bullying.)

It’s like the argument some people make against the universality of what we in the West consider inalienable principles of human rights. Some critics argue our notion of “universal” human rights is based on a certain amount of ethnocentrism — meaning we sometimes judge human rights practices elsewhere through the paradigm of Western values.

I agree with one person who commented on last week’s post that management practices I referred to related to a different time and place and, to a certain extent, a different culture. Obviously, no one is advocating such an approach today.

No unique ‘Scottish’ approach

But I’m also a little perturbed some people seemed to have a somewhat jingoistic attitude, believing my post stood for the proposition that management practices in Scotland are universally archaic and should be condemned, while also patting ourselves on the backs and congratulating ourselves on how enlightened we are here in Canada.

I thought my post made it pretty clear — contrary to cartoon stereotypes in the media — Scotland doesn't have a uniform, homogeneous culture, either at work or otherwise. In fact, it’s a very diverse country with significant regional differences, where people speak three different languages and many distinct dialects.

As mentioned, most people who worked in that supermarket weren’t used to being spoken to in such a manner — especially not by someone in such a senior position. They were shocked at first because they were used to a different organizational culture and communication style.

And while I believe the assistant manager in my earlier post leveraged Glasgow “tough guy” stereotypes to his advantage, he was a “paper tiger.” At no point did he threaten physical violence or suggest our jobs were in jeopardy.

Once people got the joke, they would frequently burst out laughing when he shouted: “You. Are you skiving?”

They also felt completely free to decline the extra hours when he said: “You. You’re working late tonight. Think of the money.”

Even though there were subtle differences, people eventually got the joke because there were more cultural similarities than differences (perhaps Scots understand deadpan humour and sarcasm better than Canadians). And even here and now, I would consider his behaviour “borderline” at worst with respect to bullying and harassment.

Doing things the ‘wrong way’

Nevertheless, I would never recommend such an approach anywhere. But — much like a post my colleague Todd Humber wrote a few weeks back — it’s interesting to observe how companies and individuals that seem to do things the wrong way can still be effective at times. (Whether they would be even more successful employing recognized best practices is another matter.)

However, the manager concerned did do at least one thing right. He got out of his office, walked around the store, talked to customers and got to know his employees.

Industry and organizational differences

I also think it’s very easy for people in a white collar environment in 2013 to judge management practices in a different industry and a different era (after all, 1993 was 20 years ago). It was the nightshift in a supermarket, after all, with no customers present.

Therefore, the environment was decidedly blue collar. While I’m not arguing such workers don’t deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, the reality is managers in such environments do communicate with their employees much differently than those in a white collar environment.

However, in recognition of individual and cultural differences, the focus on bullying and harassment and the existence of legislation dealing with those issues, such an approach cannot be condoned anywhere in this day and age (including Scotland, which isn’t the backwards place many people make it out to be).

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit   

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