Peter was an excellent worker. He had developed a reputation as a tough nut with a soft heart. He was an advocate for people with a disability and his job was to improve the lives of people with a disability through systemic change. It is a role that Peter took very seriously. Over nearly three decades Peter had been fighting the good fight.
Peter was recognised throughout the country. He had sat on many committees and advisory groups for the Government. He was not without controversy and he could be prone to the unorthodox to fight for the change that was needed. His sense of fairness was strong even to the point that he would fight dirty to ensure people with a disability got a fair go. It’s fair to say he had an enemy or two. But as the late and great Winston Churchill once said, “If you don’t have enemies, you never stood up for anything in life.”
Three years ago Peter accepted a job with a prominent Government organisation. It was Peter’s job to influence change so that inclusion of people with a disability happened. As was his way, Peter tackled this new role in the only way that he knew, head on and with gusto.
He began to kick a few goals. His direct manager was concerned because the more goals that he kicked the more money it was costing the organisation. His manager wanted him to foster incremental change. Peter was having none of this. He told his manager that people with a disability had been fed incremental change for years and that was the reason Australia ranked near the bottom in the world in terms of support and financial outlay for people with a disability.
Peter confronted his manager head on. He was convincing and articulate. He was also very experienced and his networks had great reach. Rather than embrace Peter’s knowledge, skills and contacts for the better, his manager sought to reel him in and control him. She did this through a process that is known as lateral bullying. Lateral bullying, ” …. is a term describing physical, verbal, or emotional abuse of an employee. Common forms of lateral violence include nonverbal innuendo, verbal affront, undermining activities, withholding information, sabotage, infighting, scapegoating, and backstabbing.” 1
Of course Peter’s boss did not use physical violence. She used conniving and malicious psychological abuse. She didn’t use verbal abuse but she would drop mean and subtle comments that aimed to undermine and underpin Peter’s self-esteem and confidence. She would suggest that Peter was, “Not a good fit” for the organisation. She would undermine his ability to complete tasks by deliberately not replying to emails and deliberately delaying approval of processes that were crucial for the completion of projects.
When projects were behind schedule she would refuse to accept that her conduct had contributed to delays and use Peter as a scapegoat. She would undermine Peter by questioning his skills and when projects could not be completed she would say, “We employed you for your qualifications in project management, it’s disappointing”. In this way she would frequently admonish Peter, even though it was her conniving and calculated delaying tactics that were responsible for much of the problems.
Peter also had a disability. Peter’s disability impacted on his communication. For Peter to work effectively he relied a lot on text based communication. Email and text chat software enabled Peter to carry out his duties in the same way as others. Rather than talk on the phone Peter meets people individually online through text chat software or completes tasks through email exchange.
Howevever, for these strategies to be effective Peter’s workmates needed to embrace them. Some did and this made Peter’s life easier in the workplace. Others, however, were stuck in their ways. They refused to use text chat based technologies and worse many simply ignored emails. Often several emails at a time. This made it very difficult for Peter to complete several important projects.
Peter raised these difficulties with his manager. He asked his manager to address the problem. He explained that it simply was not professional to not respond to emails. He also explained that when colleagues refused to reply to emails or make simple adjustments such as using text chat strategies that this not only made it difficult for Peter to complete projects but that it was also a form of indirect discrimination. This, explained Peter, was in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.
Rather then assist Peter by addressing the unprofessional and unethical behaviour of colleagues Peter’s manager blamed him. She told him he was making excuses and that he needed to diversify his communication. No matter how hard Peter argued his case his manager deflected the issue back to him. The behaviour of his colleagues went unaddressed.
And then when projects were unavoidably held up she would call Peter in for disciplinary meetings. At these meetings Peter did not take a back step. He would argue his case. His manager would document the outcome of these meetings and not acknowledge in these documents the arguments put forward by Peter. This abuse took place over two years and got as bad as the manager actually spying on Peter’s private Facebook.
Peter fought her hard. He knew that she was being unfair. He told her so many times. He continued the good fight for a fair go for himself and for better outcomes for people with a disability despite the ongoing bullying of his manager. The crunch came when the manager called him for an official disciplinary meeting for a comment made on Facebook. Peter had done nothing worse than to call delays in a program an, “Ongoing saga”
But it was the final straw. The relentless bullying and calculated psychological abuse had taken its toll. Peter broke down. The manager came round to Peter’s cubicle. Without explanation she handed Peter an envelope and told him that what was within was going to upset him and left. The letter was an official disciplinary letter requesting a meeting at which Peter could answer allegations made towards him. For Peter this was the last straw. Not only had she psychologically abused him over a two year period but she had been spying on him as well!
Peter read the letter and was incensed. After two years of systemic and targeted lateral bullying, that had undermined not only his ability but his self-belief, he had had enough. He went straight to human resources to make an official complaint for bullying and victimisation. As he was telling the human resources representative his story he broke down into body shaking sobs. He cried uncontrollably for the next three hours.
The human resources representative recognised that Peter was in a bad way. She immediately organised counselling for him to occur that same day. Peter called his wife and closest friends for support. It was the beginning of the end.
The final straw happened on a Friday. For the whole of the weekend Peter sobbed and cried. He thought that his career was over. His self worth was shot. He began to question his ability. Being nearly 50 Peter wondered if his career was over. He was frightened for himself and his family. How would they pay the mortgage or the bills? What about car repayments? His family was going to suffer and all because of him. In the darkest moments Peter wondered if it would be eaiser if he was just dead.
Over the next three weeks Peter struggled. He cried everyday. Sometimes just queitly and others times with body wracking sobs. The mornings were the worst. It was like waking to the same thing everyday. The problems hadnt gone away. Everything that he and his wife had worked for was at risk.
In between sadness there was anger. Peter knew what had happened to him was not fair. He complained to his work for bullying and victimisation. He put in a claim to Workcover. He documented everything that had happened to him. His Workcover claim was rejected. His work deliberately stalled on the bullying complaint, even going as far as to claim Peter had never made an official complaint even though Peter had sent several complaints and had had at least three meetings with Human Resources representatives. No doubt his work thought and hoped that he would just go away.
The road back was tough. It involved hopsiitilisation. It involved home treatment and couselling. It involved self reflection and trying to take control. It involved reaching out and seeking help from friends and colleagues alike. It involved medication when Peter realised that he simply could not cope on will power alone. In total Peter was off work for two months. In that time he not only fought his way back to health, fought the system but also found himself a new job.
Even though he had a new job he was determined to ensure that his workplace were held accountable for what they had done. Peter returned to work to serve out two weeks notice as required under his contract. He called his work to let them know he was returning. His workplace showed no great concern for his well being. They didn’t welcome him back with any show of human emotion. Rather they asked that he ensure he had all the relevant paper work confirming that he was fit to work.
Before returning to work Peter did not announce his resignation. He wanted the pleasure of telling his manager to her face. On his return to work he met with his manager. The conversation went like this:
“Lets see the paper work”
“Ok here it is.”
” Can you explain this to me.”
“Its simply a certificate from the doctor that confirms that I am now mentally fit to resume duties.”
“Where does it say that.”
“There and again on page three.”
“Oh ok, I see. Thats all in order. Now lets set out some conditions for your return to work.”
“Before you do that I want to tell you I have resigned.”
“Oh – Oh .. Um ..Oh .. I see”
” Yes my last day is two weeks from now.”
Peter then went on to tell his manager that he was resigning because the workplace was a mess. It had a culture of inactivity, backstabbing, lack of responsibility and allowed bullying to happen. He told his manager he intended to hold all concerned accountable, particularly her. Through all that she sat in silence. She did not acknowledge anything Peter said. Instead she simply outlined a few tasks that needed to be completed and then astoundingly asked Peter if he would like a morning or afternoon tea for a farewell. Peter looked her straight in the eye and said, “No thank you that would be awkward, I have nothing more to say.”
Half an hour after this meeting Peter received an email from his manager that simply said – “SEE ME IN MY OFFICE” Dutifully Peter went to his managers office. She told him that he could go home that very day. She said that they wanted to make sure he was fit and healthy for his new job. She said that for the next two weeks they would pay him in full. Peter said, “Thats fine ill just email my colleagues and networks to thank them and say farewell.”and got up and left.
Peter’s first task was to email his advisory committee. He thanked them and expressed how much he had enjoyed working with them. He confessed that his leaving had not been in pleasent circumstances and bid them good luck. Peter went to lunch and when he returned his email had been deactivated denying him the opportunity to farewell the rest of his colleagues and networks. He got up and left without so much as a goodbye.
As it stands Peter is now happily employed in his new job. He has not given up on the bullying complaint to his old workplace. They, of course, are being as difficult as possible. They have threatened him with legal action should he say anything that they consider deafaming of them. Accountability and basic humanity are not part of their vocabulary.
Everyday many people are bullied in the workplace and experience much the same and even worse than what Peter experienced. A recent survey from PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC) found that managers paid lipservice to workplace mental health issues such as bullying. Less than half thought it was a problem and 43% stated they thought that it did not warrant their time, energy or investment. This is despite the fact that workplace mental health issues through abseenteeism and associated workcover complaints are costing Australia $10.9 billion every year.
But PWC also present data that suggests that for everydollar that a workplace invests in workplace mental health, including bullying, it gets back $2.30. This is more than a 100% return. Yet still too many workplaces sweep mental health in the workplace under the carpet. Its a no brainer. Its simply good business to knock workplace mental health problems such as bullying on the head. Dont let what happened to Peter happen to anyone in your workplace, take action.
For more information go to www.headsup.org.au.