Workplace mistreatment cannot be solved at the individual level
Social ostracism and workplace mistreatment are often reduced to something that happens at the individual level. But the problems may just as well originate in the organisation's overall policy, according to new research.
“The explanatory model often gets stuck in what happens between so-called victims and perpetrators, that someone behaved in a discriminatory way towards someone else. But workplace mistreatment may in fact have a pragmatic function in an organisation. A strategy to manoeuvre out those who do not match the organisation's ideals,” says Anneli Matsson, who recently completed her PhD.
The policy reflected an ideal of perfection. The illusion of being a perfect organisation makes it difficult to articulate problems and inequality.
In the dissertation, she has taken a closer look at a form of workplace mistreatment known as ostracism. This includes practices such as rejection, exclusion outmanoeuvring or being ignored.
The material that forms the basis of the thesis is observations, interviews and review of control documents for a unit within a major hospital in Sweden.
“The unit had been moved from the periphery of the organisation to the core of the medical centre. The management of the organisation had tried to raise the status of this group and highlight their competence; they had the support from senior management.
“Nevertheless, it was clear that there were various types of outmanoeuvring processes going on In the department, and of managers who were ostracised. What I arrive at is that workplace mistreatment is reproduced from structural to targeted level, without clear actors.”
According to the thesis, some of these practices could be traced back to the organisation's brand policy, which was formally superior to other policies in the organisation, making structures of inequality such as gender norms and hierarchies between professions invisible.
“The policy reflected an ideal of perfection. The illusion of being a perfect organisation makes it difficult to articulate problems and inequality. Therefore, silence strategies are developed."
According to Matsson, organisational politics are affected by society's increased demands that individuals make themselves employable and attract employers, while the demands to solve problems are placed at the individual level.
“When certain units within the organisation are ‘customers’ of other units, new hierarchies are created, a strong informal management and more opportunities to make their own interpretations. As responsibility for the work environment is also delegated to first-line managers in practice, it becomes difficult to change structural risks in the work environment. In preventive work environment efforts, it must also be taken into account.”
Text: Anna Dahlbeck & Adrian Grist