I had a sadistic “line manager” in a (supposedly) charitable organisation I worked for who was infamous for using the line “can I just have a wee word?” as an opportunity to intimidate and bully staff, paid and volunteer.
As a very nice Anglican bishop once explained to me, having a “chat” about work with someone when you’re in a position of power over them runs the risk of what he called assumed authority. So the intention of the person in authority is irrelevant: the power differential means the employee will feel coerced.
This doesn’t mean that informal conversations shouldn’t take place (said sadistic line manager was very much opposed to any, apart from her own) but that the person with the institutional power needs to make sure that their exercise of it is appropriate, i.e. respectful of human/ employee rights as well as transparent and accountable.
Charitable organisations in particular, as well as the “caring” professions, are not known for respecting boundaries. When religion or ideology is involved, this lack of respect can be justified for the greater or individual good – rather than being identified as abuse. “Wee chats” that take place verbally, unwitnessed or with unexpected and previously unannounced attendance of another authority figure (“I’ve asked Amanda to sit in, I’m sure you won’t mind”), can either be off the record, unlike emails which leave a trail of evidence an industrial tribunal can work with, or written up afterwards with a certain slant prejudicial to the employee.
There’s a lot of this going on at the moment due to unscrupulous use of doxxing: a personal data connecting strategy predating the internet. It’s unscrupulous when used not to bring covert crime/ injustice to light (see the Watergate film, All The President’s Men, for a laudable use) but rather to shut down opposing opinion by embarrassing/ harassing someone at their home or place of work or via their friends or family.
For anyone invited by a line manager to have “a wee chat” about their posts on social media, for example, it can be tempting to just comply. After all, who doesn’t enjoy speaking about themselves and justifying their actions? However, by doing so, you are setting a dangerous precedent. Instead you can answer, politely but firmly, with these points:
- Surveillance of employee social media posts made from non-corporate accounts which do not both name the employee and the company is usually not provided for in legislation/ company regulations. (In other words, it’s probably illegal and exceeding the line manager’s remit.)
- Dignity at Work company policy (there are various names) protects staff from malicious complaint/ doxxing and can result in line managers who further such malice being found in dereliction of Duty of Care and/ or guilty of harassment/ discrimination/ victimisation of the employee.
- Complainers who attempt a did-you-know-your-employee-said-this-on-social-media? strategy can be firstly advised that social media platforms have procedures for reporting posts. So it’s not clear why anyone else should get involved in a parallel process which involves the allocation of staff time and may prejudice collegiality considerably.
The bottom line: if someone on social media is breaking platform community conditions of use, by all means report them (on that platform); if a post is de iure criminal, report them to the police. If it’s none of the above but you find it offensive, and feel that the platform guidelines are not stringent enough, then consider the effect on freedom of speech/ expression if those were more stringent and, if you’re still convinced they need to be, lobby for a specific change. If none of the above apply and you just can’t cope with anyone expressing an opinion contrary to the one you currently hold, perhaps social media isn’t for you. Until you grow up.
Thanks to John Hain for releasing his image Bullying into the Public Domain.