Work culture, coercion, compliance: Thoughts in the wake of Harvey Weinstein

By Tara Diaz

In light of the recent allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the biggest questions people are asking is, why did it go on for so long?

The truth is there is no single answer, but something came to me last night as I tried to force myself to sleep: What if our work dynamic is playing a small but relevant part in all this, a work dynamic that is not only anti-women, but in fact anti-people? How does work affect our well-being and why are employers getting away with such destructive behaviour? Have we created a work culture and mindset that discourages people – but women in particular – from speaking up, a mindset that purposefully belittles those who haven’t been dealt the best hand?

For over thirty years, Harvey Weinstein has coerced women who have been victims of his abhorrent behaviour while working for/with him into remaining quiet, and it all supposedly happened right under the noses of those closest to him (celebrity or otherwise). But, was there an element of denial going on? Did a toxic organisational culture based on fear, power imbalance and a false value system enable this to happen? I will come back to Weinstein later on.

We see the phrase ‘go above and beyond’ frequently in employment discourse. It’s mentioned on job descriptions, during interviews, and at meetings. But where do we draw the line with a phrase like that, a phrase that has become an emblem for good work ethic? ‘Above’ is meaningless unless in comparison to something defined and ‘beyond’ could be anything. This attitude to work is problematic because work should not be an aspect of life that always demands more, to the point of exhaustion – particularly not in comparison to family, friends and life.

People are already under a lot of pressure to succeed, especially young people at the start of their careers. This contagious ‘above and beyond’ mentality seems to be becoming a damaging epidemic that both feeds into and feeds off a shared unease over our progression in life. It’s a vicious feedback loop that legitimises people doing things outside of their job description, a loop that ends up hitting those at the bottom the hardest. And if staying within the confines of your job description seems lazy to you, consider why you feel that way. Is it fair for your employers to increase your workload without rewarding you? It is justified that they pay you less than your colleagues for doing the same work, or that they manipulate you into skipping your already unpaid lunch breaks? Is it fair or are they taking the absolute piss? I’m glad you got it. Yes, they are taking the piss.

And it doesn’t stop there, because this ‘you must do everything in your power to succeed’ approach to work also succeeds in fuelling more unjust behaviour from the people who employ you.

In many countries such as the US and the UK, putting work before your physical and mental health has become the norm. If you don’t, you are not willing to do ‘what it takes’ to go up the ladder. Let’s look at some of the things employers are getting away with today, most of which are legal.

Employers are gifted the right – pretty red bow and all – to treat employees like production machines.  In the US, employers don’t legally have to give their employees any paid leave and if they do, it’s not mandatory they take it. The UK’s zero-hour contract option means the employer does not need to guarantee their employees a set amount of hours, often challenging what should be a worker’s right to a fixed number of minimum hours and pay vital to achieving a stable livelihood. This is great for companies who experience fluctuations in trade throughout the day, such as fast food companies, because they can send their employees home or on disproportionately long breaks whenever it’s quiet and they want to save cash. The same goes for supermarket chains that, despite paying their employees a good starting salary, have been reported to call them in during out-of-work hours instead of hiring an adequate number of employees to carry the heavy workload. Again, this helps the company save money; the employees are pretty much on stand-by and work three times as hard due to the lack of staff.

I have personally been a victim of the zero-hour contract, a structure that is presented as in the best interests of employees and a way to offer flexible working patterns. The reality is very different. While working in various bars and restaurants, I often had to abide by a schedule that was packed with evening shifts. The schedules were not always dished out fairly, which meant that only certain people got to enjoy evenings off, while others were stuck doing the same dirty work, week after week. Not only were these unsociable hours, but the workload was greater because of how busy it would get in the evenings.

One time in particular, I was employed by a chain pizza restaurant in Covent Garden. Here, our manager would demand we come in 15 minutes before our shift started for a quick ‘briefing’ (if we were doing a double shift this would amount to 30 minutes for both shifts). This time was unpaid but he made it clear this was what was expected of us and even scolded us if we were late to the meeting. He had no right to force us to be there yet we were led to believe it was our obligation to attend. It might not seem like a long time but if you get a calculator out and start multiplying all those 15 minutes by the number of shifts you’ve completed, they will turn into hours, hours of unpaid work.

Similarly, the first boss I ever had as a bartender would send me on unpaid 3-hour breaks in the middle of a double shift because he wanted to ‘stick to budget’. Additionally, he would sometimes send me home early if he felt like it. This would often mean I’d end up getting to work for 10am, would go on a break at 12pm because the pub was quiet (I wasn’t even tired at this point), and I’d start work again at 3pm only to be sent home early at 5:30pm. I’d do what felt like a full day’s work for a mere 4.5 paid hours.

This degrading behaviour was not limited to treating us like robots. It extended to uncomfortable physical encounters as well. Rather than simply asking us to move if we were standing where he needed to be, the manager would put his hands low on the waists of the female staff to move us out the way and I often caught him peering at my workmate’s breasts. We complained about this in private but never felt able to directly say anything to him as we were scared; he was the kind of man who would punish you with an extra crappy rota or simply fire you. Fortunately, that particular manager was dismissed for entirely different reasons, but not one of us felt supported enough to complain about him before he lost his job. It’s ludicrous to think that the unpredictable hours he was making us do were, and still are, technically legal and that his inappropriate behaviour is widely considered the norm.

Unfortunately, this experience as a bartender was not a unique one and over time I have learned that if you’re a barmaid for over a month, it’s common to be disrespected in some way by both customers and male superiors alike. I remember another bar I worked in for instance, where a group of greasy regulars would come in all the time and lurk around the bar, gawking at the female workers or making lurid jokes and we, scared to be seen as disrespectful, would always laugh nervously before pretending the glasses needed to be polished. Again, we were scared of the consequences of speaking out.

Often when we are confronted with these types of situations, we don’t react in the way you’d expect. If your boss suddenly puts his hand on your leg, a million thoughts will run through your head and by the time they’ve removed it, you begin to question how you might be affected if you do raise the issue. You’d like to feel as though there were a safety net in place to catch you but this is not a feeling many companies want to provide or in some cases, don’t know how to.

Aside from having to accept unpredictable hours and inappropriate and uncomfortable behaviour as a female employee, ‘above and beyond’ workplace culture also normalises overtime. In Britain, it’s normal to work up to a whole day’s work more each week with only approximately 35% of workers getting paid for that overtime. Reducing the time reserved for lunch, or even skipping it altogether is not uncommon either, but in doing so, we are handing over free labour to the companies we work for because we feel it’s what’s expected of us. Often this behaviour derives from employees mimicking their colleagues in the hope of not being labelled an underachiever. Even managers and supervisors do the same thing, so the general consensus is that this is what you need to do to achieve a similar status.

In countries like Norway, there is a strict clock-out time, an example which is set by those above. In Norway, the boss-employee relationship tends to focus on the notion that both are benefited by the other. Meanwhile, in the US, if an employee is awarded holiday, they don’t always take it or only use a small portion of it. Often this is down to the companies deterring them by making them feel like nonperformers for using their entitlement. A workaholic mindset pervades many American work places, with many people feeling like they would lag behind if they went on vacation despite the earnest attempts of their employers to encourage them to do so. Others feel they would not be able to get their assignments done in time, something they are unwilling to admit to their bosses for fear of seeming irresponsible or ill-equipped to do the job. And let’s not go into all the out-of-office e-mailing, a habit that derives from having too much on one’s to-do list.

Employers need to do more to change the work value-system and instil some solid measures to reduce the amount of energy and hours we are over-dedicating to work. It’s clear that most employers don’t see the benefits of having entitled employees who refuse to work for free, but there are huge rewards from having a less divisive partnership between employer and employee. It leads to happy energetic workers who more importantly feel like they are being rewarded for their work as well as playing a vital role towards the success of the company without sacrificing their personal lives. Whether it’s 15 minutes of lunch every day or 3 hours of unpaid labour, sacrificing your personal time all adds up.

The current work code has instilled a ‘we owe them’ mentality in all of us. From employers to team leaders, from team leaders to managers, from managers to CEOs; we are all being sucked into this divisive psychology that trickles into other areas of life, including gender equality.

Circling back to Harvey Weinstein, I should say that I am not entirely laying the blame for his consistent modes of abuse remaining hidden for so long on mainstream work culture and patterns of behaviour as employees, but we must look at how this overbearing mentality might help dissuade someone from reporting inappropriate behaviour at work, sexual or not.

I cannot speak for the Weinstein victims but I can imagine that by the time they left the hotel rooms, offices, restaurants and parties where the incidents took place and exited the buildings, they were looking back on his sexual advances like a nightmare that would quickly lead to unrelenting emotions of vulnerability and anguish. Even if they’d reported the incident, which may have undeniably helped dissipate their loneliness in a situation such as this, there was no certainty they’d be devoid of any repercussions, personal or career wise.

If a woman is sexually assaulted in a working environment and then doesn’t say anything, she has unintentionally put this so-called work ethic above her happiness, but this attitude is something most of us help instigate. Even if a woman does want to speak out, support from others can play a huge part in her doing so. If I chose to talk back to those greasy customers of ours, would I have had the right support from my male and female colleagues or my manager? It’s possible some of them would have supported me, but I was already subconsciously being suffocated by this whole notion that if I ‘went against’ my role in this way, I’d seem paranoid or over the top and might even be punished for it. Time went on and it was just easier to not say anything.

We must ask ourselves why female workers are choosing to stay quiet as opposed to revealing any wrong-doing to themselves by those with more authority and what amount of blame can be placed on a divisive environment within the work place.

You don’t have to be a keen observer to notice that the women on Weinstein’s harassment list were mostly young at the time they fell victim and in the initial stages of their careers within the movie industry. Evidently, Weinstein played a status game, taking advantage of his established power and position of authority. If you put this idea into a less sinister context, isn’t that what many employers do every day? Employers don’t have to be bullies or predators to get you to do things that are not in your contract. The game of the ever-striving employee, reaching for the top, going above and beyond, seems to take over the way we think so much so that when one day our boss or a very important client decides to do something wildly improper and threatening, as women we don’t say anything for fear of stepping out of line or being viewed as disruptive, difficult or of questionable work ethic. As my own experience taught me, sometimes we can even doubt what we’ve experienced, convincing ourselves that ‘it wasn’t bad enough to report’ or ‘it wasn’t like that’ even though we know deep down it was. All too often it is just easier to accept inappropriate behaviour because to make ourselves visible in that way could damage the professional mould that has been created for us, a mould we’re often too terrified to alter because we can’t be 100% sure there won’t be a fall if we do or anyone to catch us.

Admittedly, there is a huge difference between an employer prompting you to work over-time and asking you to give them a ‘massage’, but these small injustices act as a rock on a scale that dictates the balance or imbalance in the work place. It enables those on top to take advantage of those at the bottom. But we are also to blame. We have become excellent game players willing to ‘go above and beyond’ in the name of work. We are such good players in fact, that the bar we’ve set is needlessly high, so high that we are terrified of falling beneath it.

This, in turn, has created a toxic work culture that tends to waver rather than reinforce the support placed behind a woman. When it comes to personal wellbeing, hierarchy should equal zero. A fearless work place is the starting point.

***

About the author

Tara Diaz is a twenty-something film blogger who lives in London. Like many of us, she has a case of retromania and loves dissecting the 80s and 90s classics. She is also a self-professed horror junkie. She’ll watch them all: the good, the bad and everything in between. If you’d like to see more from her, feel free to read or follow her blog at www.filmfrolic.wordpress.com.

Image credit

CARRYING THE SUN UP THE HILL, ROLLING THE MOON BACK DOWN by Laura Berger (https://www.lauraberger.com/)

Editor

Lucy Wheeler

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