Do we make mountains out of molehills in our workplaces?

Do we make mountains out of molehills in our workplaces?

Posted: Tuesday 1 December 2015. Author: Capita HR solutions.

We are a hardy bunch here. Famed for our ability to laugh, in particular at ourselves. Blessed with a cynical constitution, looking sideways at the world yet powered by hearts of gold that allowed us to navigate our way through the worst of the troubles. We are realists; resilient and self aware. Aren’t we?

Now consider this: in America, over the last couple of years a new term, ‘micro aggressors’ has become more and more commonplace, especially on college campuses. Micro aggressors are words or actions that on the surface seem innocent but which could actually cause offence or insult.

Now some of these are clear cut and it’s easy to see who offence can be caused. Telling someone they speak very good English simply because they have a different skin tone to you for example. Absolutely, I get that.

Other examples, however, can leave you scratching your head a little. “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” is something you shouldn’t say apparently. You could also find yourself advised not to equate opportunity and success with hard work, in case you cause offence. Indeed the rush to find these micro aggressors in everyday life is making the US a haven for those white knights (is that an MA in itself?) who rush to protect people from being offended, irrespective of what the ‘victims’ themselves think.

Now while we are very good at pointing across the pond, rolling our eyes and laughing at the latest craziness our American cousins come up with, maybe we should start taking a little look at what goes on in our workplaces. Are we just as over-sensitive? Do we make mountains out of molehills? Maybe not yet but are we heading that way? Micro aggressors are not new inventions, they are simply a categorisation tool and we certainly can and do say things in the workplace that might fall fit within that definition. It’s how we react is the key.

Now before we go any further; I’m perfectly aware that every employee has the legislative right to raise a grievance at work. There are also many solid and justifiable reasons for doing so. In fact I believe that sometimes it’s actually very courageous to take this course of action. Consider the employee who is surrounded by sectarian imagery all day long, the person who is the recipient of unending sexual commentary or the worker who has moved from a different country and is told to ‘go back to where you came from’. Are these genuine grievance issues? Absolutely.

The problem is, however, that we are in danger of becoming conditioned through a seemingly ever increasing blame culture, becoming so eager to seek ways in which we can be offended that we are in danger of losing our sense of proportion.

We can start to see personal slights everywhere, even when the premise is patently ridiculous. A colleague borrows your stapler? It’s not a crime. Your manager gives you negative feedback during your appraisal? Maybe you just were not performing this year. Someone in the office doesn’t laugh at your joke? Could be they just don’t share your humour? Just because something makes a person feel bad for a while doesn’t make it worthy of raising a grievance. In fact escalating minor issues not only wastes everyone’s time and can create a bad atmosphere at work, it can also detract from genuine issues that really do need addressed.

So let’s take a breath the next time we get upset and think things through before taking action. Sometimes people just do or say stupid things that are out of character. Is there anyone reading this that can say otherwise about themselves? We are human and we will all make mistakes. Often the person who has upset you may not even realise they have done so and an informal discussion with them can resolve matters without creating further tension.

Of course there will be times where employees really have been treated badly, where informal resolution just doesn’t work, or is inappropriate and matters need to be made formal. If this is the case then there are a few things that you should consider.

Where you can you should provide tangible examples of what you are complaining about. Details like dates, times and witnesses. Note incidents down when they arise and are fresh in your mind. In workplace investigations hard evidence is key; emails, letters, screenshots, CCTV and so on. Oral evidence sits much further down the reliability order. It can be so much more subjective; open to distortion, influenced by personal bias and subject to the vagaries of memory.

So how do you know when to walk away and when to take matters forward? It’s not easy, but the next time you feel you have been treated poorly take time to really think about what has happened and consider this in a holistic context.

Firstly ask yourself: do I really need to make a formal complaint or should I just calm down and put things in perspective? Consider if nine out of 10 other people would objectively think this was unreasonable behaviour.

Secondly consider; can I speak with the person informally and sort matters out privately? Finally, if you conclude that you need to make a formal complain consider if you can help matters along by providing tangible evidence of what has been happening.

Ultimately perspective in the workplace is a very valuable commodity, one which was not equally divided among us. We are also not all machines; we make mistakes and where possible we should make allowances for this. We should also, however, have the courage to take matters forward when necessary and also support others right to do so. The secret lies in knowing the difference, so before we introduce or enable a culture of victimhood in the workplace lets all give a little pause for thought and consider what the right thing to do is.

Capita HR solutions