Friday, December 07, 2012

Bully For Me

Attack (2010) Kodakotype by Pants

I thought I'd end on a real downer this year - everyone is far too cheerful in December. Right now I'm enjoying a blissful beach holiday but my year, my real year that is, was not what you'd call textbook marvellous. Below I publish in full an essay chronicling my real-life experience. It is all-too-common in the world of work. 

That's So Pants will be back in 2013. 

Bully For Me
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffster sidekick Xander asks, ‘How? What? How?’ when confronted with yet another routine implausibility occasioned by their unfortunate luck in living over a Hellmouth. Token adult Giles responds, ‘three excellent questions.’ And then they run. Sometimes running is the right thing to do.

For thirteen awful months, it appeared I too had moved to a pretty location concealing a Hellmouth. I was the victim of workplace bullying – not something I really expected at the age of 57 and entering into a job I thought of as a gateway to retirement. I’d moved from the thick-of-it atmosphere of community development work in some of the most troubled and disadvantaged parts of Central London to an area of country Victoria renowned for its natural beauty, laidback lifestyle and decided absence of burnt-out cars, crack houses and crumbling council estates.

Recently, the Hellmouth rose up and spat me out again, without warning or ceremony. I was ‘made redundant’, spuriously. I didn’t fight it – I didn’t want to take the chance that I’d win. I walked. No, I ran.

Now that the dust has ceased to swirl, I’m left to expand upon and ponder Xander’s three excellent questions. How did this happen? What exactly did happen? How do I make sense of it in a context which appears to make no sense? I keep thinking about the definition of a Hellmouth - ‘from beneath you, it devours.’

Let’s start with the ‘what’. I moved from the Olympic borough of Hackney, East London, which had been my home for twenty-five or so years to country Victoria in 2008. It was mostly because of the Olympics that I chose to return to the birth-mother country. My flat was opposite the Olympic site. It was a good time to sell for all the obvious reasons.

I had a few years of faffing around in the blogosphere, making bits of art and minding my own business when, quite out of the blue, a job came up in our local council which was a perfect match for my curriculum vitae. 

Right off I’ll admit a few things about myself. I hadn’t worked for three years and I was a bit feral. I’ve always been very self-contained and never had much patience with small talk. I was to learn that there is a very narrow definition of what a woman, especially an older woman, can be in some workplaces. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit bohemian but you must signify this by dressing in funky shoes and colourful scarves. I’ve never been one for conforming to stereotypes. That I was not easily categorised did not work in my favour.

For the first time in my working life, it was made obvious to me that I was, well, old. I didn’t connect particularly with anyone but that didn’t bother me. I was perfectly capable of enduring people prattling on about their children/grandchildren/dogs/bicycles for at least a couple of minutes a day and I endeavoured to do so cheerily. I’ve never relied on work to provide me with intellectual nourishment, although it’s always nice if you end up sharing an office with someone who’s got a PhD in Linguistics, as happened on my last job.

My boss and I were at loggerheads from the beginning. He was a standover man, with no capacity for restraint. It quickly became apparent that I was working in a place where rules of conduct were applied sporadically. If you were favoured, you could pretty much do as you pleased. Like many bullies, he was skilled at manipulation and could be charming when it suited. He was also like one of those cops who know where and how to hit so that the bruises don’t show. He was blessed with a ready patter and weak senior managers who were more than willing to gloss over any murky methods as long as they were delivered results.

The converse was also true. If they didn’t like you, they could and would do whatever it took to get rid of you. I won’t go into specific details. Suffice to say that all the standard tactics were deployed in my case. I received threats of dismissal that weren’t lawful. I was isolated and information that I needed to do my job was withheld from me. I was widely disparaged by my boss who ridiculed my ideas and practices at every opportunity, despite my many years of experience in my field. I was undermined at every turn. And, I was constantly accused of being strange and suicidal – that’s surprisingly common. I may be ‘strange’ by the narrow conventions of country Victoria, but I’m certainly not suicidal, even after this ordeal.

You’ll simply have to believe me on all this – I request an extension of trust from you, the reader. Many bullying victims must ask this of their fellow citizens as bullying is notoriously difficult to prove. Skilled bullies with willing allies can easily engineer a situation that leaves the victim without the backup of a witness. People can and will deny that things were said, if they are scared or if it serves their own interests to do so.

I don’t want to get all caught up in the relativism of degree. How bad was the bullying? How bad were the injuries? We either believe bullying of any kind is wrong or we don’t. Any concept of acceptable levels of bullying is vulnerable to exploitation. And yet, our bullying laws are focused on measuring actions and impact by increment. Employers have a duty of care to employees to protect each and every one from mistreatment. My experience is that, when an incidence of bullying occurs, the employer flips into damage-limitation mode and completely denies it’s happening.

In July 2012, The Federal Government launched an inquiry into workplace bullying with public hearings taking place in Melbourne. Hundreds of people made submissions about their personal experiences. Many believe that stronger laws are required. In Victoria we have ‘Brodie’s Law’, named for Brodie Panlock, a teenager who committed suicide in 2006 after being relentlessly terrorised at work in a Melbourne café. A convicted bully can receive a jail sentence of up to ten years, apparently. But no one has even been charged under this law.

My union paid for me to see a top Melbourne compensation lawyer. It turns out that the law is only of use to you if you are severely injured either mentally or physically and that this injury is not connected in any way to a pre-existing condition. The only other recourse through the law is to prove that you have been sexually harassed.

This explains the attempt to pin the ‘suicidal’ label on me. If an injury could be proven, my employer would need to create the impression that I had arrived damaged, so it set about meticulously building up a documentary picture of me as a dangerous oddball.

Another assumption is that victims won’t make a complaint against a bully for fear of being further humiliated and victimised. Having done it, I can tell you that this is exactly what happens.  Once I had made a complaint, I was put into a bogus ‘performance monitoring’ situation with a set of criteria that might have been written by Dr Phil. I was to demonstrate ‘active listening’ skills and I was not permitted to disagree with anyone. I was to ‘avoid making comments of a personal nature that might be perceived as reflecting a lack of self-confidence or motivation.’ Might be perceived? So, no more quoting Dorothy Parker, then.

I had to look up ‘active listening’. According to our Wiki friends, it is, ‘a communications technique that requires the listener to feed back what he hears to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what he has heard.’ What am I, a nine-year-old? Thanks a lot Dr Phil. Forgive me but I think even pre-schoolers are allowed to disagree with teacher these days.

The union complained. How were these criteria, er, measurable, exactly? The complaint was ignored. The performance monitoring stayed in place for the rest of my time there but it was never interactive. If I was being monitored against these criteria, the results were never shared with me. That wasn’t really the point. It was another pre-emptive strategy. You say you’ve been bullied and your employer says you need disciplined performance management. I should point out here that I was never once disciplined. If I wasn’t doing my job properly, my employer should have either sacked me or mentored me. It chose to do neither.

Research by the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission suggests that somewhere between $6 billion and $36 billion is squandered in lost productivity through workplace bullying every year. That there is such disparity in this estimated range is telling. No one really knows how widespread bullying is in our workplaces and just how badly it affects those directly and indirectly involved.

I can tell you something about my own situation. I found myself uncharacteristically ineffective at work. I’d had a fifteen-year work history with barely a sick day. In this job, I had nearly five weeks off work with stress. After I’d made the bullying complaint, I was dragged from process to process without result or even the sense that there was anything vaguely human about it. I became, to all involved, a set of unpleasant tasks comprising a case.

On my doctor’s advice, I made a WorkCover claim. It was rejected by my employer’s insurance company who ordered it not to settle. I applied to the Conciliation Service. A wodge of paper the size of the Sydney Telephone Book was delivered to my door. There were pages and pages of ‘evidence’ that was simply made up. I had disclosed very little about my personal life so, to make up for this shortfall, my colleagues were invited to fabricate one for me out of what little they thought they knew. In this way I acquired an imaginary cat and a fondness for a ‘Japanese form of yoga’.

It took weeks to wade through this guff. I had to explain to the union lawyer that ‘the imaginary cat called Barney’ was in fact a fictional character that I had invented along with two others for a blog narrative I had been running regularly for six years, long before I had returned to Australia and started the job. I must have mentioned it in passing at some point and the Chinese Whisperiser had whisked it into a pathological behaviour. Fiction writing is apparently taboo in country Victoria, along with being old and uncategorisable.

A process server delivered a letter to me at home that could have gone in the post. He said sheepishly, ‘sorry, I don’t read ‘em, I just deliver ‘em.’ Clearly, he thought me some kind of criminal. It was humiliating and deliberately done to intimidate.

The Conciliation Hearing I had spent weeks preparing for was cancelled at the last minute because my employer refused to conciliate. ‘They can do that?’ I gasped incredulously. They sure can. Who’s going to stop them? This is the weakness in the system – if one can even call it that. The employer can refuse to cooperate. It’s easily enough accomplished. They simply have to brass it out until you give up, and most people will.

For a situation like this to go on for so long without anyone once having a reality check requires high-level collusion. My boss was a vicious bully and his boss was weak and clueless. That they were in cahoots isn’t surprising – they were mutually dependent. But there were many others who saw what was happening and did not speak up. And there was a whole Human Resources team who co-conspired. Some of my colleagues approached me with a belated warning that the best way to get on in the organisation was to not make a fuss over anything and to attach yourself firmly to one of the favoured mover/shakers. That was not my way. I was not working in a fried chicken franchise, I was a public servant.

My now ex-employer was exceptionally well-practised in methods that are as crass as they are clichéd. ‘Classic bullying tactics,’ said the doctor. ‘These people are notorious,’ said the union. ‘We see this all the time,’ said the lawyer. But, it keeps happening. The ‘processes’ unravel like an infinite ball of wool unless there is willingness on both sides to find a solution. When nothing gets resolved, people end up just wanting it all to go away.

To return to Xander’s final ‘how’, my question is – how is it that no one is prepared to admit that something is wrong when it so obviously is? As the saying goes, ‘the only thing required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’ I know that most of my colleagues weren’t bad people. Some of them felt sorry enough for me to sympathise but I’m pretty sure most of them felt I should have taken some responsibility for drawing attention to myself. Have we really not managed to evolve beyond blaming the victim? Are we not adult enough for genuine openness, transparency and debate?

If you truly believe someone under your supervision to be suicidal, is the correct response to taunt that person? Brodie Panlock was taunted to her death right here in Victoria six years ago. You’d think HR people would be fairly strict about that sort of thing, yet, a Human Resources Manager and a Director were present when my boss accused me of being suicidal. How come no one thought it was wrong? If you sincerely believe an employee has hallucinated a house pet is the correct response to write it down in their personnel file and not bother broaching the subject with that person? If someone had actually had the wit to ask me, the misunderstanding could have easily been cleared up.  The blog is open for all to see.

A culture has been allowed to fester in a large public sector organisation around a couple of personality types, and this is not appropriate in a multicultural society. I was used to an environment of immense cultural diversity. I’d worked with Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zoroastrians, Rastafarians, Catholics and even the odd Anglican. I’d had colleagues who were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender as well as some who were parents and grandparents. I’d shared offices with witches and druids and people who support West Ham. It was not considered polite to take a prurient interest in what your colleagues got up to out of hours, no matter how incredulous you might have been that anyone would support West Ham.

I was aware that I had moved to what amounted to a white-bread monoculture but I certainly wasn’t expecting the cultural fascism that confronted me. It was as if I had emigrated to the 1950s. And there seems no appetite for change. Those who survive it wear their legacy like a Purple Heart. It’s like a public school ritual where, having been abused yourself, you abuse the next lot. It felt like everyone was in a coma from which they’d no desire to be woken.

As in all horror stories, the end came abruptly. Firstly, the bullying boss up and left on suspiciously short notice. I was elated. I was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I couldn’t claim a direct hit, I felt my pain hadn’t been in vain. The Hellmouth had opened and swallowed the monster. My glee was not to last. Two weeks later a letter arrived on my desk. I was to be made redundant.

You could say it was a one-all draw.

The redundancy was completely bogus, of course. My employer hadn’t even bothered to mock up a chart to explain the ‘restructure’ that had rendered me obsolete. Union guy questioned it and was told by a visibly annoyed HRbot,

‘Well, we didn’t draw a picture or anything. We’re telling you now.’ It really is that simple. Union guy had been KO’d by the power of audacity. And that is precisely why no amount of new legislation will eliminate workplace bullying. My union was struck dumb by the intractability and sheer daring of my employer and could offer no effective response. It is quite frightening when you realise that people have suspended humanity on your account.

Where cooperation ceases, hostility begins. To eliminate bullying from the workplace, employers must scrutinise with scrupulous honesty their own moral behaviour. It took a collective effort of self-delusion to sanction what happened to me and I know that these people have done the same and worse to others. My ex-employer is certainly not the only one behaving badly, but it has a reputation stretching well beyond this shire of which it should rightly be ashamed.

After 57 years, my number had come up. The bully with my name attached appeared and deprived me of my right to employment free from harassment and victimisation, and no one did anything to stop it. I was outraged but my outrage proved impotent. My protestations were about as useful as a trying to fight a vampire with a black pudding. Like the residents of Sunnydale, CA. I’ve had to get used to the prevailing order.

Xander: This is just too much. I mean, yesterday my life’s like, ‘Uh-oh, pop quiz.’ Today it’s ‘Rain of Toads.’

Willow : I know. And everyone else thinks it’s just a normal day.

All Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotes from Wikiquote.