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Work can feel like a prison of restrictions for some employees.Last autumn, when Anna, 33, a team leader in the communications field, started showing signs of burn-out, her boss encouraged her to contact the occupational doctor, which Anna did. "The doctor said that the problem was that our whole work community was over-worked. I wasn't the first one at our workplace to suffer from burn-out."

She had been doing two people's work for the last six months, as she was given all the duties of a colleague who had been laid off when the company had to downsize. "The boss promised that the situation would not continue for more than six months, but it dragged on and I didn't put my foot down. I worked in the evenings and on weekends."

When Anna returned to work from a short sick leave, the boss wanted to see her face-to-face. At the one-to-one meeting, the boss told her that she was not coping with her work. "Apparently only people who are prepared to work really hard can cope at our workplace. When I asked for some examples of the problems, the boss could not name one task I had failed to do properly." Instead the boss claimed that as a single mother of a small child Anna was not team leader material.

"That seemed unfair as I had never missed work because of my child," she recalls. After the meeting, the boss started transferring Anna's tasks to a colleague, until in the end she found she had dropped down a rung in the company hierarchy, as she had lost all her team leader duties.

Other employees were not informed about the changes that had taken place, so they still regarded Anna as the team leader. The situation went from bad to worse in a matter of a few weeks when the boss communicated important work matters to the rest of the team via emails that were never sent to Anna.

"There were occasions when I didn't perform a task simply because I was never told about it. Behind my back, my boss said to the other employees that I wasn't up to the job and thanks to my incompetence things were going pear-shaped," Anna explains.

Hazy distinction

The line between dubious sanctions and bullying at a workplace is hazy, with treatment that some people consider to be a sanction seeming like bullying to others, while a third person might shrug the whole thing off. No statistics on the frequency of inappropriate sanctions have been compiled, but data on the related phenomena is more readily available.

The 2013 Quality of Work Life survey by Statistics Finland shows that around 20 per cent of employees have witnessed discrimination at their workplace. According to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, around six per cent of employees feel they have been subjected to bullying. The numbers are high compared to other European countries: only Austria has a larger proportion of employees who come across discrimination, unjust treatment or bullying at work.

Sanctions and discrimination come in many guises: shutting a person out of activities, keeping information from an employee, thwarting a person's advancement opportunities and unequal treatment regarding payment and work shifts. Colleagues, underlings and a boss can also be punished by treating them with disrespect.

Even though the legislation on equality forbids discrimination on the basis of age, health status or family connections, people often feel these are the real reasons behind their inappropriate treatment. There are cases where grounds for inappropriate treatment cannot be found. According to the Quality of Life survey, 11 per cent of employees believe they have been subjected to unfair treatment because of favouritism, saying that they are not popular in the workplace or have fallen out of favour with someone.

Experience first-hand

Outi, 28, who works in customer service in the legal field, has first-hand experience in getting on the wrong side of the management. The situation at her work had been inflamed for some time and problems in the human resources management were putting a strain on Outi and her colleagues.

Last spring, Outi had discussed the atmosphere at work with a colleague in her free time but the company's HR manager became privy to the conversation and asked to see Outi the following day. "The tone of our chat wasn't threatening, but it was made clear to me that they were disappointed in my conduct and that the company matters should not be whispered about anywhere. After that, I felt I was under constant observation and in the end I got ill," says Outi, who is not sure why she was singled out for the chat.

Bullying and unfair sanctions mainly occur in workplaces where other problems are also rife. "Studies have found that inappropriate treatment and bullying are more common in workplaces that have problems in the distribution of duties and the organisation of tasks," says Maarit Vartia from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

She says that the problems commonly seen in these workplaces also include incompetent management, uncertainty about the fields of responsibility and breakdown in information flow. To prevent problems at work from coming to a head, it is important that employees and management are able to discuss the issues and look for solutions. If a boss becomes concerned over an employee's exhaustion or absences, they should bring this up in conversation.

Vartia stresses that talking about problems and giving feedback on work performance is not the same thing as a ticking off. "The goal of talking about issues is to find a good solution. The way employees approach their superiors when they think that there are problems within the work community or the way the management works is just as important.

In Anna's case, the situation, which involved keeping her in the dark about work matters and talking about her behind her back, lasted for three months. She only dared to tell the company's top management about her boss's behaviour after she found a new job.

"I don't believe that acting earlier would have changed my situation in any way, and in the end, I only decided to bring up the matter to help my colleagues who remained in the company. This was a couple of months ago but as far as I know the company management has done nothing to intervene in the situation in my old team," she says.

Vartia emphasises that an employee not only has the right but also a responsibility to report inappropriate treatment to their employer. "Finnish labour and occupational safety legislation states that an employer must intervene in the situation as soon as they become aware of it."

Support available

Employees can turn to a shop steward, occupational safety official or occupational health services for help and support in dealing with workplace problems.

If the problem concerns the terms of an employment contract and the employee is for example transferred to different duties or loses duties without proper grounds, then the shop steward is the right person to turn to, while an occupational safety official deals with cases of bullying at work. Only a small fraction of cases concerning inappropriate treatment in the workplace are reported to occupational safety authorities.

"Last year, we received under 400 reports on inappropriate treatment or workplace harassment," says Tanja Välke, a lawyer at Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland, adding:

"Many workplaces already have guidelines on dealing with harassment cases in place. It can well be that a majority of conflicts are solved within companies."

Occasionally, a superior becomes the victim of unfair sanctions, which can include similar treatment as when an underling is at the receiving end: subjecting the person to isolation, disrespect or bullying.

Välke has also seen cases where an official complaint is used as a means of punishment.

"We occasionally receive reports where it is obvious that for example someone whose employment contract has been terminated wants to put the employer in an awkward position by reporting them."

Sometimes the sanctions have valid grounds even though the person at the receiving end does not think so. Välke says that in some of the cases they have investigated the party that the report concerned had been justified to take the measures that caused the complaint.

Vartia also says that there are always two sides to a story and the superior's actions may have had valid grounds.

"But the employee must be explained these reasons. Yet again, this highlights the importance of discussing the problems and needs for change that arise in a work community," Vartia explains.

Anna and Outi's names have been changed at their request. The 2012 barometer on working life by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy was also used as a source for the article.

Linda Pynnönen – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Lauri Voutilainen

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