Yobs on the job

25 March 2006
The Guardian

The stereotypical image of a yob is the hoodie on the streets hurling stones or abuse at passers-by. But some of the worst yobbery goes on in the workplace. And when I compare the testimony of people attacked by thugs on the street with those who were the victims of attacks in their offices, factories or shopfloors, the people most traumatised in the long run are the workers.
Being abused, humiliated or attacked by a stranger is extremely shocking. When I was attacked on a nightbus, I took a week or so to recover properly. But, while I have the occasional flashback, the effects of the attack were mainly temporary. Having interviewed the victims of yobs in the workplace, I saw that most of them are still living with the psychological consequences.

In some workplaces, a "ritualised" form of yobbery has been going on for centuries. Army recruits are "blooded" and "inducted" into the profession by being humiliated. Squaddies can expect to have a pillow case thrown over their head and a hot iron passed close to their skin. It’s then replaced by a cold iron which is plunged on to the skin of the terrified young soldier who thinks he is being attacked with the hot iron.

Similarly, new officers are usually blooded at their first mess, made to eat food that has been laced with laxatives, or stuffed with chillis, and use cutlery pasted with jaw-numbing fluid. The rookie officer is not allowed to leave the table or yell out in pain until the top brass have departed, at which point he is challenged to a humiliating duel which he inevitably loses.

Other male-dominated, hierarchical and long-established institutions, such as the police and fire services, have their own forms of ritualised yobbery. And only a generation ago, many factories, schools, hospitals and offices had their own way of blooding recruits.

Increasingly, employment legislation and the feminisation of the workforce means this kind of yobbery is disappearing. But other forms are emerging. In the media and politics, a bullying, yobbish culture prevails. A number of eminent editors in television and journalism swear and threaten their staff needlessly on a daily basis.

In the political arena, the template set by Alistair Campbell of haranguing enemies and colleagues with verbal abuse is now standard practice. In other sectors, workers are subjected to yobbish behaviour from the people they serve. I listened to a number of stories of medics being attacked or verbally abused by their patients. Likewise, teachers are encountering more verbal abuse than they used to, although physical attacks upon teachers are still mercifully rare.

Bullying and yobbery are intimately interlinked but yobbery is distinctly "theatrical". Many bullies don’t like to be seen. The bully who calls his or her victim into their office to humiliate them in private is not a yob. The bully who loves humiliating people publicly and in a highly dramatic fashion is a yob because he or she enjoys being watched and having their yobbery endorsed by the silent majority.

Some of the most shocking yobbery occurs in the banks and financial institutions of London’s "square mile". When Jill, who worked for more than 20 years at a leading investment bank, told me about one of her previous bosses, she shivered. "He was a very controlling man who demanded that you showed your loyalty to him by trashing other departments. If you didn’t you were very ‘disloyal’.

"He was a little man physically, and seemed insecure because of this because he was forever trying to intimidate people. Virtually every day, he would shout at someone by saying that they were ‘fucking useless, crap at everything, bitches’.

"His behaviour infected everyone else. When someone got a rollicking from him, they wouldn’t turn around and shout back at him, but go to their immediate junior colleagues and shout at them. And then that person would go yell at someone else. And so it went on – a terrible atmosphere of recriminations and hatred in the office. You see, people have to take on a nasty persona in order to survive.

"Once I had tried to assist him with a problem he hadn’t been able to sort. I managed to to it with help from an ex-boss in another department. But when my current boss found out, he went mad. This meant, in my boss’s mind, that I was trying to humiliate him, that I was being disloyal. Instead of saying to me that I had fielded the problem well, instead of praising me, as he should have done if he was following the company’s policies, he chose to hurl abuse at me.

"I can still hear the stream of abuse coming out of his mouth. It was terrible. You wouldn’t have spoken to your dog in the way that he spoke to me. It was worse than any hoodie in the street yelling at you because it felt such a betrayal. I felt betrayed because I had worked so hard for him. I had tried to sort out his problem, and been repaid with this hatred."

Yobbery is endemic. It spreads when victims of yobbery turn into perpetrators. All it takes is for one "disturbed" individual to enter the scene. He or she is usually in a position of power and harangues his or her subordinates, by threatening and humiliating them publicly. If they get away with it unchallenged, the victims and observers of the yobbery have a licence to try it out for themselves on their subordinates. And so a cycle begins.

Another City worker, Fred Troy, told me about his job as a broker. "The ‘pit’ where the money brokers work is like a zoo. It’s 90% men, and the testosterone flows when there are big deals going down. When you are dealing with such large sums of money, emotions run high. Once I saw someone lose the firm 30 grand in the space of a few minutes simply because of his own incompetence. The senior broker was furious when he learned about it. Completely livid. And he went berserk.

"If anyone is caught punching an employee, they will be sacked because that’s employment law. But what goes on behind closed doors is a different matter. If no one important is looking, it’s fair game for someone to put the boot in, particularly if it is justified. And that’s what happened in this case.

"The senior broker couldn’t control his fury. He knew I was watching as he grabbed the broker’s telephone and started whacking him around the body with it. This grown man was just being beaten like a dog, whimpering with fright.

"Seeing it made me think, I don’t want to be the next guy receiving that treatment."

· Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert is published by Portrait at £10.99.

Loutish language: A glossary of office yobbery

Office yob: A theatrical personality, male or female, who dominates other people by making them feel afraid through uncouth, loutish or aggressive behaviour. Sometimes the more benign the corporate environment, the easier it is for the yob to assume centre stage. If they can get away with publicly "shaming" someone once, then they know they are on to a winner. Sedate, boring offices can quickly be turned into vicious places when such a "destabilising" character arrives. Workers are, by and large, like sheep and follow the powerful personality who is intent upon victimising someone. Understandably, they don’t want to be victims themselves.

Briefing room: The place where the office yob holds court with his or her acolytes around them. Hoodies gather on street corners or shopping malls. In an office, the yob’s briefing room can be anywhere where it is possible to gather in a reasonably intimate fashion. It could be in someone’s private office, or by the coffee machine. It might be a corner table in a local pub, cafe or restaurant. In the briefing room, the yob will plan out his or her next "lark" or "prank". The atmosphere in a briefing room is usually very jokey. The top yob will discuss who is "in" or "out" and celebrate some public act of display that they have carried out recently. They will also plan out their next act of yobbery here.

Parade: The strutting walk that a true yob revels in. Drunken yobs do their strutting on city centre streets between pubs and clubs – a parade of binge drinking, happy slapping, macho intimidation, boorish spitting, swearing and street sex. The office yob will patrol up and down the workplace in a highly confident and aggressive manner, chucking gratuitous insults or inappropriate jokes at their chosen victims as they go – head held high, giving the odd wink, leer or glare at colleagues, depending upon their mood. But sometimes they will patrol in silence, or stand ominously over a colleague, watching them, feeling their fear.

Respect: The yob’s definition of respect is "fear". A yob likes nothing better than walking into a room and making it fall silent. They will then control and command the conversation, forcing people to discuss the things that he or she wants to discuss. They like people apologising to them … but enjoy saying: "Will you stop apologising!" They demand respect through unquestioning, unthinking obedience. The yob likes ordering someone to do something in front of an audience and watching them do it immediately, seeing the fear on people’s faces as they stand around doing absolutely nothing.

Battlefield: The territory where the yob chooses to fight. Yobs like open-plan offices if they feel they can dominate a group entirely. Often they will lean over desks and yell abuse at someone, wanting to be heard by everyone else. A yob wants, and needs, to be seen.

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