Harassment at work: don’t forget the circle of colleagues!

For a long time, in cases of psychological harassment at the workplace, people were more interested in the victim or, more recently, in the victim-tormentor pairing. The study carried out by Adélaïde Blavier and Daniel Faulx goes off this well worn track: thanks to a new analysis model, they carefully sift through the context, described by testimonies from colleagues and people in management. And that changes everything…

Xavier: - I am first and foremost a professional. Human relationships are secondary. 
Anne: - He was always telling me that I was useless.
John (in a low voice): - For him, it’s the work that counts. For her, it is human relationships.

Harcelement-2Just a little imaginative effort is enough to transform the article published by Daniel Faulx and Adélaïde Blavier, psychologists and Professors at the University of Liège (1), into a theatre play, or almost. The dialogue and plot are fascinating, as are the heroes: Xavier and Anne, here surrounded by important secondary actors. In a classical performance these secondary roles would play the chorus. They would regularly recite what the main actors do not say, do not suspect, do not know, or do not grasp. But the most surprising thing is that Professor Adélaïde Blavier and Daniel Faulx are not offering us a work of fiction. Xavier and Anne exist (even if here they are given ‘stage names’). They are the protagonists in situation involving harassment at work. A play which brings together numerous realities experienced in the world of work.

To immerse themselves in the stories of Xavier and Anne, the psychologists have followed an original analysis grid: the Liège model. Designed by Professor Daniel Faulx (2) it leans on an innovative principle. One of its cornerstones? Deciphering psychological harassment at work without focusing uniquely on the victim or the tormentor-victim pairing. On the programme: a global and systemic approach. One after the other, the colleagues, the department head and the members of the chain of command involved are questioned and listened to. ‘The challenge lies in understanding the complexity of what has happened, considering and integrating multiple angles of analysis and diversified points of view of the same situation,’ makes clear Adélaïde Blavier. Very few studies have offered the perspective of the presumed aggressor and even fewer those of their colleagues. Yet this new manner of approaching harassment and its dynamic changes in part the view one has of it. Moreover, this work opens the doors to new possibilities of diagnosis, prevention and the support structures offered.

Various forms of harassment

Since Marie-France Hirigoyen (3) ‘popularised’ the notion of psychological harassment, an impressive number of studies – and legislative Acts – have been devoted to it. Harassment in the workplace – a phenomenon which has neither increased nor diminished in recent years – is included amongst its forms. For those who might have had doubts the study by Adélaïde Blavier and Daniel Faulx confirms its complexity and diversity.

Within an organisation harassment at work covers acts of aggression, either direct or more subtle – but which do not have a sexual character –, between colleagues, hierarchical superiors and/or subordinates. True, certain functions within the company seem to lend themselves more to harassment taking place. But appearances can be deceptive! Harassment also takes place within the same department, between colleagues of the same rank or who exercise identical functions. Similarly, a colleague long in the tooth can harass the ‘young guy.’ Or, alternatively, a ‘wet behind the ears newcomer’ might attack an experienced employee, or take on a superior in the chain of command.

What is common to every type of workplace harassment is repeated hostile behaviour on the part of one person towards another, with hurtful consequences for the targeted person. ‘Harassment generally begins in an insidious and progressive manner. In any case – and this is important – it is a dynamic process which develops by becoming worse,’ Professor Blavier reminds us.

(1) Développement d’un modèle multi-niveaux, multi-points de vue et multi-temporel pour l’étude du psychological harassment au travail. Etude de cas. (The development of a multi-level, multi-perspective and multi-temporal model to analyse psychological harassment at work. A case study.)
(2)  Faulx, D., & Detroz, P. (2009). Harcèlement psychologique au travail : processus relationnels et profils de victimes. Approche processuelle, intégrative et dynamique d’un phénomène complexe. Le Travail Humain, 72(2), 155-184.
(3) Le harcèlement moral, la violence au quotidien. Syros, 1998

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