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WARNING: Making a complaint about Workplace Bullying can be Dangerous!

6th of March 2018 | Author: Naomi Holtring

Many workers fear making a complaint about workplace bullying, as they see it as a career ending move, and for very good reason. If governments are serious about stamping out bullying, they need to look at how their own departments handle cases of bullying and harassment.

The details of a worker and a NSW government department who cannot be named due to confidentiality – a Gag Order, which is aimed at protecting them and hiding the truth.

The employee, let’s call him Manuel-Jose, worked diligently at this department for 6 months, never taking a day off, never late, learning his new role and throwing himself enthusiastically into his work.

From the day he started, his manager seemed to have it in for him. There were numerous incidents where he was singled out and humiliated. One such event was when he was visiting a client’s home. He’d been there for over 2 hours and he asked to use their bathroom. Upon return to the office, his offsider (who is friends with the manager) told his manager that Manuel-Jose had disrespected a Muslim woman’s home. Manuel-Jose was horrified and could not think of what he may have done wrong. He was told he should not have asked to use her bathroom. Manuel-Jose said he needed to go, and asked what he should do next time. He was told to wear adult nappies.

This is just one of the many humiliating situations that Manuel-Jose faced with his manager and her offsider.

One day Manuel-Jose asked if he could leave at 4pm as he needed to attend an important event, and that he would make up the time later. He was told yes, and then at 3:55pm, he was called into the manager’s office for an unplanned meeting. There was no notice, no agenda supplied, no time to grab a pad to make notes, no idea what it was about, no opportunity to ask for a support person to be present. The meeting included a list of issues, that she had identified – most of these had already been resolved before. Manuel-Jose left after 5pm, and missed most of the important event he had planned to go to.

Manuel-Jose was extremely upset, and he could not sleep that night. At around 4am, he got up and decided to write an email, he sent a grievance which outlined his concerns. At that time of the morning and being extremely distressed, he did not make the best decisions. He sent the email to his manager, to his union rep and to the other manager who had accompanied him to the home where he used the bathroom. The email to his manager bounced, as it was incorrectly addressed, and she did not receive the notice that he would not be in that day.

Manuel-Jose’s grievance was investigated and many of the manager’s actions were identified as bullying.

It is what happened next that most employees fear, about making a bullying complaint. Unbelievably and without cause, Manuel-Jose was served with a series of 11 allegations against him, so the process direction changed from his grievance complaint to a formal investigation of him. There had been no complaint about his behaviour prior to his grievance about bullying. Although most were found unsubstantiated, the investigation against him found him guilty of the following:

  1. the email he sent outlining his grievances at 4am, was inappropriate as it came from his own email address, but with his work signature.
  2. He sent an article he had written in his studies about another case of bullying, which had major tragic outcomes. They deemed it as a direct threat.
  3. They extracted his emails and found one with an “inappropriate photo” of himself which he had sent to his colleagues. In an office where there is a lot of grief in their everyday work, it was quirky and meant to be light-hearted to lift people’s mood. The photo is that you see in this article. He was sitting bare chested with his hair over his face (about to have a haircut) and the caption “Manuel-Jose letting his hair down.” It was even used for his 60th Birthday invitation to his friends and family.

As a result of the findings of the investigation, Manuel-Jose’s contract was terminated.

Manuel-Jose suffered a great deal from anxiety and depression due to the bullying and the investigation, which is further bullying, sanctioned by the organisation, adding to his psychological impairment. To this day he is being treated in hospital, as an outpatient for these conditions. He received workers compensation for the stress the bullying put him under, but payments have now stopped, because he has been deemed able to work for 5 hours a day.

He has applied for well over 100 jobs. One of the jobs he applied for was with the same department, but in a different office. He was successful to the level of getting an interview. The day before the interview he was told not to come in. There was no reason given. Upon checking with the minister’s office, he has been told that the “misdemeanours” he was found guilty of, are in his permanent record, and this information is being provided to potential employers. With the damage to his reputation and negative referencing, what hope does he have of securing employment?

Had this situation been handled effectively through mediation or facilitated discussion (where appropriate) at an early stage, Manuel-Jose would have been able to express his concerns, the bullying behaviours could have stopped and he would still be employed by his department – a win/win situation where workplace safety and productivity are restored. Instead here has been a huge waste of time, money, staff resources, a great employee lost his job, his family is suffering financially, he has been badly traumatised and remains unemployed. Everyone in this case has lost.

Sadly, this scenario is not atypical. The anti-bullying message from many quarters is falling on deaf ears, and departments are making very bad decisions indeed.

For bullying to stop, better, more informed and intelligent processes need to be in place. Early intervention of all conflict, and complaints of bullying can stop their escalation to serious problems. Training for all workers from the CEO to the most junior needs to be provided to ensure each worker has the knowledge and skills to identify, prevent and manage incidents of bullying. Managers, supervisors and team leaders need to learn how to effectively and fairly handle reports of bullying and harassment.

Those who have been bullied in their workplace need to be protected, not punished. All large organisations need to utilise an external bullying complaint service hotline, where grievances are dealt with in a confidential, impartial manner where helpful strategies, assistance, and advice can be provided. When necessary, complaints can be dealt with by an external department or ombudsman who specialise in handling complaints of bullying harassment and unresolved conflict – not a department’s own management, who may have an agenda of managing people out.

Bullying statistics of every government department need to be provided to government as proof of genuine attempts at resolution, outcomes and the integrity of Work Health and Safety processes. Departments would need to remain in contact with the independent bullying complaint service until the situation has been properly and completely resolved, the bullying stopped and the target of bullying, safely enjoying satisfying work.

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