Does the term “collateral damage” help us to understand how some organizations treat workplace bullying?

“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 civilian casualties 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.

***

Google it

Apparently many others associate collateral damage with workplace bullying. Do a Google search using the terms together, and you’ll see what I mean.

Related post

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011)

7 responses

  1. OMGoodness!! Regarding the following:

    “…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. . .”

    *The only thing missing is my name. Thank you for sharing this article.*

    On Sun, Nov 25, 2012 at 11:27 PM, Minding the Workplace wrote:

    > ** > David Yamada posted: “”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 > suffe”

  2. In terms of the collateral damage or deliberate damage, one way to find how serious companies/organizations are about dealing/addressing/resolving bullying, would be checking their organizational policies. One thing is to say, ‘we have anti-bullying’ policies and the other thing is saying ‘we do have anti-bullying policies and we take this issue very seriously by dealing with bullies ‘this way and that way’ (most anti-bullying policies mention nothing about how such issue should be resolved, and such petty policies that simply exist to satisfy legislators brush off dealing with the issue and provide the perfect ground for bullying behaviors . . .

    Organizations/companies that can articulate clearly their anti-bullying policies and clear solution how such issue should be and will be resolved will not get involved in collateral damage or sweeping the issue under the carpet. It would not be surprising if research would reveal that an average person in managerial role has zero knowledge as to what is bullying, how it affects the victim, let alone knowing how to deal or resolve such issue.

    • In the U.S. at least, because workplace bullying is largely legal, anti-bullying policies are the exception rather than the norm. I think a big test of organizational values and culture will come after legislation obliges them to have policies and procedures. Then we’ll see who takes it seriously and who does it to avoid liability.

  3. So true.

    It seems the issue is “emotional conflict,” not between the bully and target necessarily, but for onlookers. Most people don’t like seeing others in pain, which is normally a good thing, but it can lead to denial. If the target can be blamed for the outcome, it’s easier to accept what happened. Once the group decides the target is at fault, everybody can go back to work and forget about it (at least until the bully abuses the next person).

    Blaming the victim or target must be a natural tendency because it happens so often. When an ethnic group is abused, that’s rationalized away by portraying the victims as less than human. When a woman was raped in this country, it used to be blamed on her clothing; in other countries, it’s her fault for being female. When children were beaten, it was justified as discipline. If patients have a bad outcome, they are often labeled “difficult” patients – not to be taken seriously.

    I think it’s human nature to ask “what did you do to make that person hurt you”? Most of us can’t imagine hurting someone intentionally so when abuse occurs our inclination is to wonder why – to search for a reason. Even people who have been abused have a hard time acknowledging that some people hurt others on purpose. It’s a hard truth, emotionally uncomfortable, but somehow our workplaces need to recognize it.

  4. Once again, Dave, you are right on target. I also want to note the other people who are affected by bullying …. the family members of the target. I experienced bullying/discrimination in 2008 and lost my job in 2009. I have not been able to land a full-time job. Right now, I am working 4 part-time jobs and earning the same salary I earned in 1992. A huge decrease in salary, loss of insurance benefits, stress, identity crises, anxiety about the future …. all of these outcomes of the bullying take a toll on the entire family. My kids and my spouse are collatoral damage of primarily one person’s psychopathy (along with administrators’ inability to manage that person.)

  5. I actually was “collateral damage” in a power struggle between two adminstrators in my company last year. One administrator, and a small group of supporting co-workers, began to apply pressure using various avenues to force the senior administrator into declaring a retirement date. That in itself, smacked of age discrimination, and many of my co-workers became bystanders and just watched the drama unfold. Being on the side of the senior administrator resulted in my having to leave a job I loved and developed over the course of 10 years. I was lucky enough to be able to remain at my company in another division, but the stress of being ostracized, and attacked, by certain co-workers was very distressing, disheartening, and also eye-opening.

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