Tuesday 15 September 2020

Harrassment at work

 It goes on. and on . . . and on . . . and ON! For pity's sake can we stop doing it? It's pathetic that grown up people are behaving like spiteful play-ground bullies. The latest case is Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin a lecturer in mathematics in UCD who was stalked by one of her older seepier blokier colleagues for two years from 2015-2017. Eventually she secured an injunction forbidding him to approach her. Ní Shúilleabháin can do the math to realise that 2017 is more than 2 years ago. This month she wrote about it in the Irish Times. And why not? We need to realise that bullying, intimidation and harrassment in college is not only a matter of protecting students. It means supporting and protecting anyone who is further down the pecking order than the emotionally crippled perps. Yes perpS because there's more than one; it's probably closer to say that there's one in every department of any substantive size. 

In the wake of that new wave of indignation the President of UCD Andrew Deeks issued a reputational damage-limiting apology: In a statement, Prof Deeks said: "I am greatly saddened that one of our colleagues experienced such traumatic events over an extended period, and I apologise to Aoibhinn on behalf of UCD. I also apologise to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care." To which Dr Ní Shúilleabháin tweeted "I’m very surprised to be reading about an apology from UCD President Andrew Deeks, since I haven’t received one or any communication from him on this matter". That tells me that objectifying employees goes to the very top of the chain in UCD; t'bugger couldn't pick up the phone to speak directly to the actual person who had been made miserable and fearful on his watch. Because of policies, procedures and due process <ha!> which he endorsed. All he cared about is how shiny are his own optics. They've cleared up the misunderstanding since.

I know I've written Nobody died but about one case in my alma mater. There an aggressively ambitious, widely published, much sought after for talks, scientist didn't think that a meeting with his students had been successful until one of them was in tears. He's still in post. In contrast to Tim "Nobel" Hunt who had to resign for saying that girls sometimes cry. This August Commissioner Phil Hogan was forced, most unwillingly and ungraciously, to resign because he'd been a multiple scofflaw on his Golfgate visit home from Brussels. A subset of the commentariat was saying that the very same ambitious, self-certain traits that got him in trouble that weekend were actually essential to his success as a politician and negotiator. That's plausible but bollix: real men don't punch down.

For pity's sake can we stop doing it? Because I've just been told of another case of deeply inappropriate behaviour from a senior manager to his subordinates in a multi-million dollar enterprise which preens itself on its gender and diversity inclusivity and general great-place-to-work-ness. A whistle was blown and The Board of Trustees appointed an HR consultant to investigate the several complaints. None of them was found to be bad enough to merit demerits let alone a sacking. This outcome is a win for the Board of Trustees because nothing to see here and they can continue believing their fictions.  For me the problem seemed to be one of statistics rather than optics. The HR hatchet-man [and appallingly for the optics it was a man!] treated all the interactions as series of independent events. But they are not independent! They all involve Probby O'Manager.

As so much, you can do it in Excel! Imagine that PO'M is line manager to 8 sub-ordinate Effectives. Over a certain time-period, they all have 20 interactions [meetings, memos, e-mails, phone-calls] with their boss. Assume these contacts are all essential for business, because otherwise one of the parties could be made redundant. And assume that everyone keeps records of when PO'M stepped >!whoa!< over the line of propriety and professionalism; then you'd generate a table like this:

Now imagine that Probby is valued for a certain brash get-up-and-go-ness. Like Phil Hogan he's known to be a tough no-nonsense negotiator who gets a lot out of his team and wins many contracts for the business. An appropriately briefed HR-hatchet will cut Probby some slack: it's just his manner, don't be so sensitive: so we'll allow half of the interactions to be a bit sketchy and only investigate if there seem to be a significant excess of over-step. The appropriate statistical test for comparing countable numbers of events against an expected values given a particular null hypothesis? That would by the ChiSq χ² test; been there before. Essentially we're doing that classic statistical test of tossing a coin multiple times to determine if there is a heads-bias. You toss a coin 10 times and you expect 5H : 5T but you shouldn't be surprised if 6H : 4T came up, or even 2H : 8T. But you'd begin to think fishy to toss that coin many more times and clock 20H : 80T. Even poor Fiona who gets so much grief that almost every interaction causes an eye-brow lift, her life isn't statistically different from acceptable. Ed plays rugger with Probby and is locker-room inured to trash-talking.
But if, as you should, you tally up all the interactions and perform the  ChiSq χ² test on those data, then it's much clearer that there is a Problem with Probby and he should be sent on a course or handed his cards. 
Finally back to the HR briefing. There are ways of framing a question to elicit different outcomes. During my very expensive education, I learned that Latin has three sorts of interrogative:
Neutral using ne. Do you want to join the team?
tune id veritus es? Do you fear that?
Question expecting the answer yes using nonne.  Surely you wish to join our team?
nonne me amas? Surely you love me? 
Question expecting the answer no using num. You cannot want to join that team.
num dubium est? Is there any doubt?
You can imagine the Board saying "We've had this awkward complaint, could you investigate making sure that due process is followed, we don't want a kangaroo court here."
OR "This is a very serious indictment which could have serious implications for the enterprise's reputation and profitability; we need a root-and-branch investigation of company norms, company culture, actual hiring and promotion practices. We will not tolerate even the hint of bullyism, intimidism, sexism, racism, gayism or agism. This is not a matter of the Mission Statement, this is about real people whose welfare [and <ahem> productivity] we care about"

1 comment:

  1. Timely Blog as I'm doing an assignment on both Transparency and Advocacy in International Development World. See 2018 Oxfam and Save the Children. Despite rhetoric with regards to transparency, SEA by aid workers was not deemed to be necessary to be made public because 'its just a few bad apples' and the optics would be negative. Look at how much good work we do, wouldn't want a small number of instances of bad behaviour to impact that would we? Advocacy is important because it would seem that nothing changes without loud beating of drums and protests, and even then it can take decades. Also the underlying issue seems to be a) it isn't that bad, b) the victims don't really matter and c) patriarchy blah blah blah. Look up most questioning in SEA cases of the victim and it won't surprise you that more people don't report, especially those in a closed loop environment of work where a reputation of being 'difficult' is hugely impactful especially when uttered around a board table or yearly performance review. I've had the statement muttered at me during performance review discussions for the wider team (with suitable side eye) "Yes, Yes, but can you leave the equality stuff out of this particular discussion please?". #NotAllMenButAGoodProportionToMakeLifeDifficult.