“Collateral damage,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is an “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target,” especially “civilian casualties of a military operation.” It’s also a term that helps us to rationalize the suffering of noncombatant civilians as the inevitable (and thus vaguely justifiable) costs of war.
Though most commonly used in a military context, the term resonates with my understanding of how some organizations regard the mistreatment of employees, especially bullying, harassment, and discrimination. No organization, explicitly or implicitly, considers bullying and abuse of workers as its main objective. (Okay, a few seem to come close…) Rather, in identifying organizational priorities, we’re more likely to hear about productivity, competition, innovation, and profit.
However, when bullying or other forms of mistreatment occur, bad organizations often regard the targets of such behaviors as collateral damage. Hey, bad stuff happens in the rough and tumble world of work, and occasionally some really bad stuff happens — that is, to others. Organizational leaders assume that everything is going well, except for this distracting problem.
In lousy workplaces, a target who complains about wrongful treatment — perhaps someone who previously was regarded as a solid or even outstanding performer — suddenly becomes the expendable other. This especially is so if the aggressor is a popular and/or powerful member of the management team.
Once the target is pushed out, the whole incident is treated as an unfortunate and regrettable annoyance. What a shame, it just didn’t work out because of a personality conflict. The main business of being productive, competitive, innovative, and profitable may now go on as if nothing had happened.
Apparently many others associate collateral damage with workplace bullying. Do a Google search using the terms together, and you’ll see what I mean.