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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
How to survive in the workplace
Arguing at work
Try and avoid an office civil war
This is the sixth part of BBC News Online's "kick-start your career" guide

By BBC News Online's personal finance reporter Sarah Toyne

In recent years there has been much debate about creating better working practices.

Many organisations are seeking better ways of working and supporting their staff.

But for many employees the promise of an improved work-life balance is beginning to sound hollow.

According to the Industrial Society, 270,000 employees in the UK take days off due to stress.

And a "sickie" costs an estimated 487 for each employee and 12bn to the economy as a whole.

So, is there any hope for the future?

HAVE YOUR SAY The incorporation of the Human Rights Act is likely to have an impact on Britain's working culture.

The Institute of Management recently warned managers that phoning an employee at home could now be construed as an invasion of privacy.

Dual economy

In the absence of strict legislation, experts say, the gap between the best and the worst employers is widening.

The most progressive companies are offering an array of flexible working policies, childcare facilities and other support to hold onto their staff.

Some provide mentors and harassment advisers to provide counselling and support to workers.

Keith Cocker, a senior consultant for TMP, a human resources consultancy works with companies on behavioural issues.

He says: "There is a pressure on employers to make sure those good people are retained, because there isn't a great abundance of talent in the market place, particularly in the south east."

Despite these positive policies, many workplaces still tolerate bullying, harassment and stress.

270,000 employees take days off due to stress

According to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, nearly two-thirds of companies have policies in place to tackle bullying.

However, almost 10% of employees believe that bullying in their workplace is a problem.

Don't suffer in silence

Anyone who has been bullied or harassed at work can tell you that is a debilitating and distressing experience.

Combining a hectic work schedule with caustic comments and sexual innuendos is not only annoying, but psychologically distressing.

Younger people, who are relatively innocent to the nuances of the workplace, can be particularly at risk.

Imogen Daniels of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says that the effects can be devastating

"The victim's confidence gets eroded and their belief in their skills whittles away to the extent that they cannot get another job."

Imogen Daniels
Imogen Daniels of the CIPD

But while there is a traditional pattern of racism and sexual harassment towards women and minority groups, bullying is not always so clear cut.

Bullying is particularly rife in very competitive environments.

In such an atmosphere, the stereotypes are overturned only to the extent that women bully men, men bully women and women bully women.

Beat the bullies

If you are being bullied or harassed, the first rule is not to suffer in silence.

Mr Cocker says: "Look for some help from your employer, you manager, or the personnel department."

If you are being bullied or harassed it does not mean that you are not good at your job. In fact, you could be so good that you are being bullied out of jealousy.

Ms Daniels says: "Often you find that the victims of bullying are quite good at their job and popular with their colleagues.

"People are threatened by this and are insecure about their own professional and social standing in the organisation."

Tips to deal with bullying and harassment:

  • Speak to someone senior in the organisation. Alternatively, contact a trade union, citizens advice bureau, or speak to a lawyer - most will offer free advice for the first session

  • Keep a detailed diary of events

  • Ask a colleague to write down their observations when a situation occurs. This will not only make you feel better, but will make you analyse the situation and help you to clarify that it is not fair

Civil war

While it may be a jungle out there, if you are having difficulties with a colleague or boss, all you need is perspective, according to Ms Daniels.

She says: "Do not make snap decisions about your colleagues - make the effort to get to know them and do not try and jump to conclusions.

"Your image of them may be different if you get to know them better - the last thing you want is an office civil war."

Imogen's tips:

  • Infighting tends to survive in an uncertain atmosphere. If you are treated like a grown up, there will be more trust.

  • If you become abusive you will lose your credibility - go out for ten minutes or so to cool down.

  • Try and keep a balanced view if you are being excluded by a group.

  • Try not to get dragged into bitchiness and risk adding to the office rumour mill.

    Getting ahead

    It takes more than being a Machiavellian schemer to get ahead in the workplace - you will need to have a focus and to plan ahead.

    Imogen's tips:

  • Ask lots of questions, but know when to keep your mouth shut.

  • It may not always be the most senior people who are important in an organisation. For example, the Chief executive's personal assistant is usually a great seat of power and mine of information when he or she is on your side.

  • 'Reputation management' matters. If you want to climb the corporate ladder you will need evidence of how valuable you are to your company and to consider who you should be telling.

  • Be willing to take some qualifications outside your work time.

  • Realise that your promotions will probably come from people up to a generation older than you, so it is important to know what is important to them and what would impress them.

  • Find an 'ambassador' - try and get a mentor or a coach, not necessarily within your department.

  • Decide what you want and plan your way there - do not be vague.

  • Stay focused and get your self noticed, for example, by offering to give a speech at the Christmas party.

    Further information:

    The Which? guide to employment, by Ian Hunter.

    The Institute of Management publishes a book called "Personnel Effectiveness and Career Development", which deals with issues of career planning.

    Companies can apply for funding from the Department of Trade and Industry's Partnership Fund for schemes to tackle bullying and other workplace issues.

    Tell us about your experiences at work - have you survived in the workplace? Or have you kick-started your career and successfully changed direction? Do you have any tips for job seekers?

  • Send us your comments:

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    Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
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