Robert Fuller, author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, coined the word "rankism", which is defined as "abusive, discriminatory or exploitative behaviour towards people who have less power because of their lower rank in a particular hierarchy." Basically, rankism is bullying someone of a lower rank.
Tammy, a 30-year-old executive assistant from Ottawa, says that the 18 months she spent working at an insurance firm left her feeling "worthless."
"My boss told me that she wouldn't accept mistakes, and that if I was unsure of how to do something, I should ask questions before attempting to do the work," she says. "But when I approached her, she would act annoyed and irritated, and snap at me that the task was 'a no-brainer.' After months of this treatment, my self-esteem was gone. I felt I could do nothing right. In the end, I was breaking down in tears in the bathroom. I knew I had to leave for my own sanity. After quitting that job, I never wanted to work in an office setting again."
Victims of rankism often suffer long-lasting effects from their abusive situations. As a result of lost confidence, many will have difficulty applying for and acquiring new jobs. Some will seek counselling, and others will require medication in order to pull themselves out of their depressed state.
In Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission protects against bullying and harassment. It says, "Every person who is an employee has a right to freedom from harassment in the workplace by the employer or agent of the employer or by another employee because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, age, record of offences, marital status, family status or disability." It also says "Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability." Bullying or harassment of someone of lower rank, however, is not a violation of the Human Rights Code.
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In order to protect employees from abuse by higher-ranked supervisors and managers, the Human Rights Code would have to change. And in order for that to happen, elected officials in each region would have to promote the issue.
The first step to recognizing rankism as a social problem, Fuller believes, is giving it a name. Sexism and racism went through the same processes before they were finally recognized as abusive, debilitating and unacceptable behaviours.
The growing Dignitarian Movement, a fairly large movement in the U.S. started about five years ago and gaining popularity in Canada, promotes that everyone has a purpose and a right to fulfill that purpose within a fair and supportive working environment. People in lower positions of rank have important jobs to do, and in their capacity as support staff, they enable those in higher positions to perform their roles more effectively.
Unfortunately, not everyone has this enlightened outlook. If you feel that you are a victim of bullying, unfair treatment or harassment because of your lower rank on the employment totem pole, start looking for a new job. If there is a Human Resources person associated with your office, report the abusive behaviour so that the complaint is on record. Should you require employment insurance benefits, you will be asked to provide verification that you had no other recourse but to quit. If there is no HR department at your office, consider getting a note from your doctor. Once you have broken out of that suffocating, stressful atmosphere and found a position in which you are treated fairly, you will be able to thrive and grow as an employee and a person.
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