On 19 August 2015 Le Temps reported that Amazon is again being accused of making life hell for its employees.
How does the situation in Switzerland compare? Swiss companies, and the workplace in general in Switzerland are no better. Cases of employee harassment, including managers and executives, are frequent.
Switzerland offers little protection legally. When it comes to the employees of multinationals, court proceedings can be a nightmare. It is very expensive, time consuming, tedious and painful, with uncertain outcomes and often derisory compensation. It is also incompatible with obtaining new employment.
If employees resist the urge to commit suicide, they suffer terribly, many becoming ill. Unemployment and legal proceedings then complete the mental and physical damage leaving employees irreversibly broken. Some are left unable to work. A study by the University of Zurich, which focuses on the period from 2000 to 2011, found that 45,000 suicides out of a total of 230,000 annually across 63 countries were linked with unemployment. This is around one in five. While Switzerland was well placed in this study, with only one suicide out of seven linked to unemployment, there were still 150 such cases per year.
Victims experience a descent into hell: loss of career, depression, family conflicts, divorce, illness and financial problems can all be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Depending on the severity of the situation, it can take years before they recover from the toxic effects of the abuse suffered. The gnawing sense of injustice eats away at their soul while those around them cannot see or understand their pain.
For their part, employers are rarely convicted or penalized commensurately with the mistreatment they have committed. In one case, a malicious employer even recommended an employee turn to the justice system, knowing that the individual would get bogged down in the process.
Therefore few try their luck in court, especially when they are vulnerable and unemployed. Nor do they necessarily have the financial means to pursue their employer. Reluctantly, injured parties accept amicable agreements, which does nothing to stop the perversity of the situation. The triumphant employer becomes even bolder and less empathetic. Employees become pawns unable to manage their professional futures, their lives, and even opinions. In multinational companies, managers are moved to various projects around the world. Such transfers are attractive to young people in training, curious to discover the world, however for older staff they can be very inconvenient and disastrous for their family life. Others are subjected to very stringent working conditions, and sometimes impossible to live with situations.
Why not leave? There is a misconception that employees always have a choice. What do you do when you get older, when you are a single parent or have specific expertise in a narrow field?
It is also wrong to justify abuse because employees receive high executives salaries. Nothing justifies the violation of human dignity. Never forget that abused employees, working under duress and the fear of tyrannical employers, are more concerned about their own fate than the quality and safety of the products and services they produce or manage.
And just because the media only occasionally speak about this does not mean it is rare. Some cases of abuse can be so subtle that employees are unaware of it until they are burned out. It’s like putting a little poison in their coffee every day.
Mistreatment of employees at all levels is unacceptable in a country as civilized as Switzerland. This topic resurfaces periodically but without politicians reacting and taking effective action. The tragedy is that in Switzerland there is no real structure to help victims, and for various reasons, employees are unable to organise and defend themselves. Those who have experienced workplace abuse prefer to remain silent because they have been humiliated and want to protect their reputation. Many do not dare to mention their situation to their family and friends from fear of being perceived as a failure.
Make no mistake about it, it is not because the media only occasionally reports cases of harassment that it is a rare phenomenon in Switzerland or elsewhere. Instead, it is so widespread that it is considered commonplace. The silence of society, especially the political class, has allowed such practices to become a standard and integral part of work culture. Today more and more young people intuitively feel that this management culture is unhealthy and are already experiencing disgust […] We urgently need to take a critical look at the situation in Switzerland, and take effective action.
By Yasmine Motarjemi
Yasmine is a former Senior Scientist at the World Health Organization and former executive head of food safety at Nestlé.
The original French version of this article was published in the Swiss newspaper Le Temp on 26 August 2015.
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Anti-mobbing activist says
Workplace violence, or psychological terrorization, should carry the same legal penalties as physical violence, as the psychiatric injury is similar, and, depending on the severity, much worse. Although in recent years there is much more information available on this increasing worldwide workplace phenomenon, there is very little empathy or legal remediation in Switzerland. If the intention in Switzerland has been to attract companies by offering tax breaks and lax labour laws, then it needs to consider the consequences. It seems that an unintended consequence is that it gives license to bullies to have a field day, and it is mostly the most diligent, principled and valuable employees who end up being forced to quit with their lives in tatters. Ignorance, incompetence and toxicity prevail, and who wants to work for an organization that is rotten to the core?
The once professionally respected victims may be subjected to a cocktail of human rights violations, be subjected to false accusations, verbal and physical abuse, derogatory name-calling, snubbing, exclusion, marginalization, malicious rumours, lies on their personnel files, aggressive communications, interference with personal belongings and isolation from other colleagues. Some victims are deliberately overworked or given banal tasks, undermining their ability. Colleagues may sabotage the victim’s productivity, perhaps by withholding information. In some cases, perpetrators go as far as damaging the property of victims, interfering in their personal lives, hacking in to their computers, and blacklisting them for future employment. Mobbers, in short, are armed with metaphorical machetes and told to “finish off” their victims by the officials who have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment for their employees.
The typical and predictable course is defamation, isolation and elimination; this familiar pattern provides some psychological insights into how mobbing has taken on endemic proportions in historic incidents. The potentially deadly intent of mobbing is best depicted in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the bystanders looking on, and sometimes joining in on the frenzied attack. In the absence of civility and order, and with the benediction of weak and corrupt leaders, mobbing behaviors can spiral out of control and range from childish game-playing to criminal injury.
As Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry point out in Mobbing: Causes, Consequences and Solutions (Oxford University Press, 2012), “Loss of self confidence and identity, loss of self respect and dignity, loss of sense of belonging, loss of belief in a fair world and in the humanity of others, loss of adequate functioning professionally and socially, loss of mental and physical health, loss of income, loss of lifestyle, loss of coping resources… loss in nearly every domain. ‘Loss of coping resources… a feeling of desperation and total helplessness, a feeling of great rage about lack of legal remedies, great anxiety and despair’. Physical consequences include headaches, gastrointestinal and cardiac problems, impaired immune functioning, thyroid problems and sudden death or suicide. Psychological consequences can include anxiety, depression, or symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as hyper vigilance and intrusive thoughts. On top of this, there are a whole host of negative feelings and consequences: disbelief, shock, denial, loneliness, avoidance behaviour, feelings of powerlessness, inferiority and humiliation. Add to this eating and sleeping difficulties, increased stress and fatigue, and you have a veritable cocktail of personal collapse.”
“The organisation may unwittingly become part of the mobbing by ignoring the problem, or blaming the victim. Indeed, it seems rare that an organisation is actively helpful in addressing mobbing, or that victims get appropriate reparation. Organisations are part of the problem, and are often unlikely to have the resources to respond to individual problems without putting the benefit of the organisation first. For example, people who have been mobbed might follow reporting procedures in their organisation, but the people who respond, such as Human Resource officers or senior managers, have a conflict of interest. To acknowledge a member has been mobbed is to admit liability to some degree, and a failure of duty of care. Not only that, it might involve allegations of misconduct and consequences against its leaders. It seems that organisations often feel it is in its best interest to ignore mobbing, although the cost in terms of employee turnover, group morale, absenteeism and sick pay can be substantial. Not only that, but mobbers are likely to strike again.”
When the victim finally resorts to contacting external organizations for help, or whistle blowing they are fired, and they are abandoned to fight a long, expensive and painful battle for justice. No wonder there are so many employment related suicides in Switzerland!
Thank you, Yasmine, for raising awareness of this serious problem.
Perhaps it’s time for a referendum on this issue? At the end of the day, tougher legislation might attract more companies to Switzerland, and preserve its reputation as being synonymous with human rights.
Thank you very much for this comment which describes well the problem and the sufferering of the victims. The victims cannot turn the page until justice is made. If justice takes several years, that means that their agony will be prolonged for that period and the damages will become irreversible. It is urgent to act. I invite Unions to examine this situation.
I want to say thank you for the article & raising the awareness. So much more needs to be done on this subject; from legal support, impact studies on the fall out from such events, costs (personally, professionally, economically etc., database where incidents can be reported anonymously to track multiple offending ‘managers/superiors’ etc, website on laws/what to do/documenting issues as & when they occur etc. etc.
Yasmine Motarjemi says
I fully agree with your comments. I would like to also mention that this paper was not to give a detail description of tactics of harassment, but a general overview of the deficiencies in the legal and justice systems, which combined perpetuate such a situation. This situation gives free hand to dishonest employers and disempower victims to defend themselves. Yes, a lot is needed. Would you like to join to bring a change?
This situation (mobbing) is so under reported that I am sure the figures in your article are wrong. Why are they wrong? Because it IS being swept under the carpet and people do not have many avenues to to go down to rectify the situation. One thing missing from the article (not a criticism) is that employers can give employees bad work references (reviews) when they leave/forced out of a job position making it even harder to do anything & also making stress & depression more likely. I tried many avenues to bring to justice the person responsible for ruining my career & work reputation. NO lawyers want to know or even take on such a case – even though I had multiple witnesses etc. A study needs to be done that looks into the COST these situation has on the economy…maybe THEN a little more can be done about it.
MOBBING – time to stop it!
Yasmine Motarjemi says
Thank you for your comment. I do appreciate the time you have taken to read and comment.
I believe you have misread the article, as I have not reported any figure regarding abuse or mobbing. The data quoted in the Zurich study refer to suicide due to unemployment.
On the contrary of what you mention, what I have written in the paper is that abuse of personnel is much more prevalent than reported, to a point considered as trivial (please see the last part).
Again thank you for the attention that you have given to the paper.