Isolation and Hostility in the Workplace

Whatever we personally think of them, the animal rights protests between Brisbane and Melbourne on Monday 8th April got attention! They created conversation, and catapulted animal rights into mainstream media. The ensuing commentary ranged from calling the protesters heroes (just to split hairs, they were mainly heroines 😊) to ridiculing and threatening them. It was to be expected. The greater the disruptive action, the greater the reactive pushback. Nobody who took part in the protests would have expected much else. Amongst Vegans, though, the protesters were largely lauded for taking the courage of their convictions to the streets.

But not all Vegans were happy with the protest. One complaint that emerged, was from someone who admitted they were going to get hell from their workmates the next day. This person was genuinely anxious. They had already been experiencing isolation and hostility in their workplace, and expected it to escalate. Isolation and hostility are serious things. They undermine our happiness, our productivity, our mental and physical health, and our relationships both inside and outside of work. If we experience hostility from people outside of work, we have the option of removing ourselves from the situation, and seeking better company elsewhere. Granted, finding better company isn’t always easy, and we may still experience some isolation, but we have the freedom of not associating with those who give us grief. This is a lot harder, if not impossible, to do in the place where we earn our living.

Our workplace managers may or may not be effective at dealing with this, or ensuring the team they manage is inclusive of everyone – even if we wanted to approach them for help. This may be because the managers themselves are biased, and/or are in a management position for reasons other than having good people skills. Human Resources can let us down, too, because their strategy may be to only try and encourage the ‘outsider’ to make more effort to fit in, rather than encourage and teach inclusivity in the whole workplace, as well. Having said that, there could be some HR people who are now beginning to change their strategy.

Add to this the fact that managers are busy. They have their own workload, and often don’t have an inkling of anything being wrong until the sh*t hits the fan. It’s their job to keep their finger on the pulse, but businesses aren’t usually in the habit of allowing time for a manager to manage the well-being of their team, as well as their productivity. So managers wait for the problems to come to them. Which puts the onus on us to present a coherently thought out case to them, with evidence of the problem, and often the desired solution, too. All the things that are almost impossible to do when we’re feeling vulnerable and isolated, and we can hardly arrange our thoughts coherently for ourselves, let alone for a manager who might or might not be receptive.

I don’t advocate not approaching our managers or HR people, but they aren’t always supportive, and we can find ourselves very much on our own. Not least because we can also be instrumental in our own isolation, simply by having little clue how to navigate being a Vegan in a non-vegan world. Maps and role models are thin on the ground, especially in the workplace. It can be very difficult to see how we might rectify our isolation – and possibly the hostility we receive as well – when we’re right in it. It’s only afterwards, or with outside help, that we can see clearly what a beneficial course of action might have been.

Personally, I had no idea of how to successfully be a Vegan in a non-vegan workplace, and did all the ‘wrong’ things. I got defensive, I sulked, I felt ganged up against, I thought my workmates were evil for not seeing the error of their ways, I boycotted events (yeah, that hurt them), and I extracted petty revenge (don’t ask). Yep, a real success story. To be fair, some of my workmates did try to be accommodating, but I didn’t really know how to help them accommodate me. Sounds screwed up? It was. Having Vegans in the workplace is an evolving dynamic, and we’re learning as we go.

What I didn’t really understand then, was how much it was up to me to take the lead on this in a non-confrontational and constructive way. Which is easy to write now, but was impossible for me to see then, especially as the instruction book on that seemed to have gotten lost. If I didn’t know how to be a Vegan in a non-vegan workplace, my workmates had even less idea. As much as we would like someone else to take the lead and make it okay, it’s up to us to do this.

How we take the lead depends on our work environment. A bunch of rough co-workers in a tough industry aren’t going to nod their heads in a kind and understanding manner, when we explain that we want respect and inclusivity. Some workplaces are savage, and those workmates could be hard nuts to crack. I would have to bow to others’ experiences within these industries to get a handle on how that’s best done. However, I would venture to say that one of the best strategies when we start being given a hard time by our workmates, is to invite them to have a chat with us later about it. Don’t get defensive, don’t try for one-upmanship, don’t try looking down on your workmates, and don’t shut down – these things can be taken as vulnerability, and bullies love that. No matter how much hostility or rubbishing we get, from however many people, just keep inviting them to have a chat with us sometime. And then make sure we have some answers.

There are a bunch of common questions or challenges that get thrown at us, and it would take a long time to cover all of them here, but Earthling Ed does a pretty good job of it in his free e-book in the link at the bottom. It’s quite an extensive read, but he lists all the topics in chapters, so it’s easy to go to the one you specifically want.

If we don’t have an answer to a legitimate question, don’t be afraid to just say that we don’t have the answer right now, but offer to look it up and come back with it. If it’s a stupid statement or question designed to try and trip us up – and many of them are – we can say that we feel there’s something not quite right/logical with that, so we’ll think on it and come back with our answer. Naturally, many questioners will take this as the win they’re desperate for, and perhaps openly scoff at us for not having an off-pat response. We can’t control that, we can only control our own behaviour, and be the grown-up. The upside is that we get stronger for doing this

And refer to the definition of veganism as often as needed, particularly noting the underlined part – Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

The main thing is to remember that that feeling hostility or isolation at work is a serious issue. We’re not just being snowflakes – it has far-ranging negative effects. From my experience, I would recommend to start a discussion with someone about it who will be empathetic. It may be best to start that discussion with someone outside of the workplace, and who can identify with our experience, rather than someone inside the workplace. Someone who will let us ramble, without telling us immediately how to fix the issue – believe me, our heads will not be in the right place for that straight away. Someone who will help us gradually mold the ramble into coherency. Eventually, we might come up with a plan together to enact at work, or to present to our managers. If appropriate, or desired, perhaps the person who helps us may even be there with us when we present our case.

We do need to have a certain amount of robustness to be in the world – it doesn’t benefit us to go around being over-sensitive about everything – but we also need to try and recognise when things are genuinely not okay, and have the courage to reach out. It doesn’t matter if we hardly have the words to express what we’re feeling (by the time we’re reaching out, our heads are often a mess), but with an empathetic listener, the words will come. If the first person we ask to listen to us doesn’t pan out, don’t give up, try someone else. Or write it down. Just get it out – even if it’s only a little bit at a time -where it can be heard or seen, and then examined. And know that we will have work to do on this. Keeping it in the shadows might feel safer, but is it really?

Giving the problem of isolation and hostility in the workplace a form, making it a real thing, will help to us to address and overcome it. It may not change everyone’s attitudes and opinions, but they can be tamed.

Earthling Ed’s ebook:


Header pic by Adrian Dorobantu.


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