April 14, 2009

Bully for who?

On a Friday afternoon last November, a general manager at a city council was marched from his office and suspended for "serious and wilful" misconduct. He had no idea what he had done, or to whom.

After a weekend of heart palpitations, a letter from his boss arrived on Monday, outlining bullying allegations from three of his 10 team members. One of the complaints was that he had tapped his watch to indicate a report was late; another was that he had not taken a subordinate's advice.

"I was devastated and in shock," says the 55-year-old, who was sacked a week before Christmas because of the alleged bullying.

"That first weekend was the worst - I was suicidal. It's the first time in my career that anything like this has happened to me."

He is one of 24 people who have talked to Adelaide psychologist Moira Jenkins for her study "Sticks And Stones Will Break My Bones But Names...", in which she interviews those accused of workplace bullying. (Read a previous Mysmallbusiness story on Dr Jenkins' initial study here.)

Until now, research has focused on the victim's perspective, but Jenkins was keen to hear from the alleged bullies - all of them managers at middle to senior levels - as part of her PhD at the University of Adelaide on workplace conflict management.

What led to the complaint, how was it dealt with by the organisation and how did the accused feel? "Bullying is not a black-and-white issue," says Jenkins. "Some of the people I interviewed had experienced unfairness in the way the allegations were investigated; some were bullies and had got away with it lightly.

Most were crushed by what happened." Jenkins found the alleged bullies were just as affected by the experience as people she had interviewed for an earlier study on victims of workplace bullying; two of the accused were suicidal and one had post-traumatic stress disorder. "Being labelled a bully can have long-term consequences," she says.

The thread that linked all 24 stories was workplace conflict. "Bullying allegations do not come out of the blue," says Jenkins. "People say they do, but when you talk to them there's already been conflict."

In the general manager's case, conflict started after he joined the council and had discussions with two of his managers about their unsatisfactory performance. He had a mandate from the CEO to improve productivity and financial management - but that CEO resigned a few weeks after he arrived.

Within days, the two managers filed written complaints of bullying and harassment. A couple of months later, another manager added his voice to the accusations, leading to the general manager's suspension and then dismissal.

"They wrapped it all up in the suspension letter," he says. "No one came to talk to me first."

The general manager believes he is the victim of what is known as "upwards bullying", when workers undermine a manager. "I had called them on aspects of unsatisfactory performance, so I was branded different or difficult. And I was. That's why the previous CEO recruited me."

In her study, Jenkins found performance or behavioural issues with subordinates were often the precursor to a bullying complaint against managers.

For example, a public service manager told Jenkins how two occupational health and safety staff, whom she had questioned about their apparent slackness, went on sick leave, did not attend performance management meetings and then filed workers' compensation claims for stress caused by bullying.

Jenkins' observations are backed by employment lawyer Peter Vitale, principal of CCI Victoria Legal, who says: "Claims of bullying and harassment in the course of disciplinary procedures are almost the rule rather than the exception these days."

Are workers too quick to cry "bully"? Jenkins words her answer carefully.

"Bullying, when it does occur, is a serious problem. But some workers might be too quick to frame conflict as bullying. Human resources takes more notice when the word 'bullying' is used." She defines bullying as repeated, targeted behaviour towards somebody that is likely to humiliate them and undermine their confidence.

European research published in 2003 suggests that 10 to 20 per cent of workers will label work conflicts or negative performance reviews as bullying, when they are not.

Adding to the issue is the lack of conflict resolution guidelines in many workplaces. Sure, nearly all major companies have a policy on investigating complaints, mindful of their obligations under state occupational health and safety legislation.

But initial conflicts are often left to fester until, Jenkins says, there is an explosion - a formal internal bullying complaint, union intervention or even a workers' compensation claim for stress, depression or anxiety.

Many of those accused of bullying told Jenkins they would have liked to meet the complainant and talk it through, but the complainant refused.

Half the complainants chose not to use their organisation's bullying complaint process and others refused mediation to resolve the conflict, despite compulsory mediation being a feature of most tribunals and courts nowadays.

The result, says Jenkins, was those she interviewed felt disempowered and unfairly treated. Adding to their distress was, in some cases, a perceived lack of support from their boss.

Jenkins says managers are sometimes reluctant to ask for help in the early stages of conflict with a subordinate, as they think they should be able to cope and that to complain may be a career-defeating

Once a complaint is filed, some bosses withdraw support because they don't want to be seen as biased. Increasingly, managers who are accused of workplace bullying are hitting back through the courts.

Last July, for example, the Supreme Court of NSW found that Sydney West Area Health Service had breached Dr Lynette Downe's employment contract by continuing to suspend her after its investigation dismissed allegations of bullying against her.

The former council general manager is discussing options with his lawyer, including suing for breach of contract. After four months, he is still unemployed and has discovered other managers at the council have suffered a similar fate.

"I'm keen to get justice and I want some accountability," he says. "I used to feel secure and stable. Now I feel shattered."

If you have been accused of workplace bullying and would like to take part in Moira Jenkins' research, go to aboto.com.au or email moira.jenkins@adelaide.edu.au

From: http://smallbusiness.smh.com.au


Anonymous said...

Dec 29th 2006 - this blog

The new paradigm of university administration, with its emphasis on flexibility and avoidance of committees, carries with it an increased risk of corruption and malpractice that the earlier paradigms strove so hard to eliminate. It is interesting to note that the University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest and possibly most prestigious, has felt impelled to institute a code of conduct and an anti-corruption strategy in what the Vice-Chancellor described as an attempt to ‘foster an atmosphere of honesty and fairness.’

...One aspect of corporatisation of deep concern to many is the loss from universities of the role of critic of society, a role which is compromised when universities become subordinated to market forces as a result of the reduction or elimination of tenure, casualisation, the market-orientation of research and teaching priorities...

From: William W. Bostock, AntePodium - An Antipodean electronic journal of world affairs published by The School of Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington
The above provides some context within which executive academic decisions related to disciplinary issues of academics, as well as management bullying occurs. Academics are not treated as the citizens described by Chomsky, but rather as 'employees'... One's loyalty is not to academic independence and scholarly debate, but rather to the corporation...

Aphra Behn - and we all now know what is happening in the world of big business....

Anonymous said...

I was recently reminded of just how much my alma mater is now a corporation rather than an institute of higher learning.

I attended a number of alumni functions a few weeks ago and I finally got to meet the current head of the department where I did my Ph. D. I mentioned that I'd been turned down for a faculty position there It was a position for which I would have been most qualified, as I taught for several years at a post-secondary institution as well as several years of industrial experience, including research and development. I had thought that being a practitioner of my profession would have counted in my favour.

Uh-uh. I was told that the department wanted to hire the usual young "up-and-coming" talent who could have a long career and make significant contributions blah-blah-blah. His answer was no different than what I'd heard in the rejection letters I received from companies I had applied to.

The university where I had spent so many years as a student is no longer concerned about the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom but in profit margins and money-harvesting.

How sad....

El Cid