I am a victim of workplace bullying
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is commonly described as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a particular individual (or even a group) that creates a risk to health and safety. It can take the form of direct or indirect bullying.
Workplace bullying is endemic
Within Australian executive culture, workplace bullying is very common and at times seems to be approaching epidemic proportions. If you have been a victim or workplace bullying, the consequences can be devastating.
Being a victim of bullying can make your daily work life intolerable. Where such conduct occurs, this cannot in any way be justified on grounds of “reasonable management action”. Conduct which is characteristic of workplace bullying is all too often part of an orchestrated campaign that has as its endgame your resignation.
Power relationships and hierarchical positions
Bullying can occur in unexpected ways and the victim does not necessarily have to be in a lower hierarchal position to the perpetrator.
Bullying can be categorised from top-down i.e. from senior managers to middle/lower managers or from bottom-up i.e. from staff to middle/senior management. Lateral bullying can occur between senior staff at the same level. There is a final category that should be noted i.e. in reverse.
This is a situation where the person who claims to be the victim is in fact the perpetrator. Such a person often acts in conjunction with other staff members for the purposes of engineering a resignation of the real victim. This bizarre behaviour can occur in the context of any type of workplace bullying.
Categories of workplace bullying
In considering bullying as a species of human behaviour, it can be useful to distinguish its different forms and the context in which it can occur.
Direct bullying is where the bullying behaviour itself is capable of causing the victim to feel humiliated, undermined, disparaged or threatened. Bullying of this type can take the form of offensive language, commenting upon a person’s appearance or the spreading of malicious rumours.
Indirect bullying is behaviour which – if taken in isolation – would not of itself qualify as bullying but actually forms part of a pattern of behaviour which fits the definition. Examples of this type of behaviour include the withholding of information that is vital for you to perform your role, excluding you from committee meetings or staff functions, allocating you tasks which are beyond your core competency, or setting timelines that are difficult to achieve given the poor allocation of marketing or other company resources etc.
Mobbing. There is also an emerging phenomenon known as mobbing. This occurs where informal alliances are made between staff who seek to target a particular individual for removal from the workplace. Even staff who are not directly involved with the targeted individual may be enlisted to “join their voice to the chorus” out of fear of appearing sympathetic with the targeted person.
A behavioural trifecta
Bullying in the office is often experienced when you are dealing with disordered personalities. Behavioural scientists have identified a group of 3 personality traits where problems of this nature can occur i.e. narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy.
For the narcissist, the focus is on defending their poor self-esteem with arrogance and a sense of superiority and entitlement. For the machiavellist, the motivation is money, power and influence with an attitude of “doing whatever it takes to get what you want”. For the psychopathic personality, the motivator is dominance and control. Despite their sophisticated charm, the psychopath is characteristically abusive with no empathy for others.
What is common amongst all three disorders is the manipulation and callousness demonstrated towards the victim of their bullying.
If the perpetrator of the bullying you are experiencing appears to exhibit one or more of the above traits, then you need to be realistic about the prospects of resolving the problem.
Where your employer’s culture is bureaucratic, rules-based and hierarchical, often only lip service is given to the health and safety implications of bullying.
Lodging an internal grievance complaint in organisations such as these can produce a defensive response and shifting of blame. However, there can often be a tactical advantage in taking such a step as it may help to (legitimately) “set up” an Adverse Action claim under the Fair Work Act 2009.
Defensive responses are even more likely to occur by the filing of an external bullying complaint with the Fair Work Commission under the Fair Work Act 2009. Every case has to be considered on its merits.
However, the limitations of the Fair Work Commission bullying process are underscored by the fact that it is not designed to award monetary compensation to the person being bullied. Its aim rather is to achieve orders that can deal with the bullying and allow the person to “return” to the workplace. Fair Work Commission orders can certainly be highly inconvenient for an employer.
Nevertheless, if the situation in the office has become so bad as to necessitate the filing of such an application, one has to wonder whether it is “worth the candle” and if you would be better off navigating your way out of that workplace. The often-destructive nature of office politics cannot be underestimated. If senior management is simply going to ignore or soft- pedal its own grievance procedures, then the end result will probably be continuing psychological assault and your exit from the company.
You need to adopt a strategic response if you are a victim of workplace bullying
When faced with workplace bullying, your contractual position needs to be urgently reviewed.
When assessing your situation, issues we would usually discuss include the following:
The importance of maintaining an up-to-date record of what has happened
Keep a contemporaneous diary of the bullying incidents i.e. date, time, place and what was said and done to you and each of the circumstances where it occurred. Remember, if a complaint is to be filed, it will need to be specific, and it will be invaluable to have access to timely diary notes.
Deciding as to how you will respond
Depending on the gravity of the incident, you will need to make a decision as to whether you say nothing or file an (internal) complaint. If the conduct in question is repeated, unreasonable and having an adverse effect on you, then you should complain to the HR Manager without formally invoking any internal process.
Whether or not to invoke the internal grievance process
If complaining to the HR Manager does not progress the matter in any meaningful way, then consider using – if it is available – the internal dispute resolution process. That may resolve the problem.
However, even if no resolution is achieved, that may have strategic benefits. If you are subsequently penalised because you invoked a grievance process, that may open up an Adverse Action claim under the Fair Work Act 2009. Essentially, the Adverse Action provisions provide that, if an employee is treated adversely because they have exercised a workplace right – e.g. utilising grievance procedures – then that confers on the employee a valid cause of action.
Deciding whether to request an external investigator
If the complaint is to be made against the CEO or someone to whom the internal investigator reports, then you might be able to request an external investigator. However, you would have no right to such a request unless your contract of employment made provision for it or the company’s grievance policy provided for it. Certainly, the appointment of an external investigator is going to be considered by the company as an escalation of the issue and may not be without “political” consequences for you.
Triumph of pragmatism over revenge
If, having attempted to use the internal grievance process, nothing has been achieved or is likely to be achieved, then you may need to seriously consider an exit from the company.
You may just have to accept that, because of the toxic culture of the workplace, the working environment is unlikely to ever significantly change. It may be that the “dark triad” of narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy are simply too deeply rooted in the corporate culture and will probably never change.
In addition, you need to recognise that bullying claims will not result in monetary compensation unless there is an “angle” of discrimination/Adverse Action to the complaint. That cannot be ruled out, but no assumptions can be made as to whether it is worthwhile pursuing.
The choices you may face
As an executive leaving an employer because of its bullying and toxic culture, your choices may come down to:
- making excuses as to why you need to move on and leaving quietly in the hope that you can minimise reputational and financial damage; or
- “setting up” a (legitimate) argument of Adverse Action/discrimination and using that as a lever for enhancing an improved exit package. Whether such an approach is feasible depends on whether you had invoked any internal grievance process, what the outcome was and what you say was the subsequent adverse treatment that you suffered.
Surviving a toxic workplace culture can be traumatic and can be made worse if the exit process is mishandled. Bullying is often subtle and can come in many shapes and sizes and from unexpected people within the office.
Many organisations are often in denial and can be all but paralysed in dealing with the situation effectively. It is all very well for employers to have grievance policies and HR departments. However, this can come to nothing if they lack the will to enforce such policies in the face of strong – and disordered – personality types.
If you have taken the decision to leave the employer, then you should do your best to ensure that you “close the chapter” on that period of your life with the company. Navigating an exit from the company in the context of bullying and acrimony can be particularly difficult.
It becomes even more important that your exit terms should be set out in a comprehensively prepared Deed of Separation and Release. You need to pay particular attention to the reputational issues arising out of your departure and that your subsequent career will not be jeopardised by the very people who have been the cause of your departure in the first place.
Take early legal advice if you believe you are a victim of workplace bullying.
The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for individual advice regarding your own situation.