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It's tough dealing with a bully

Shouting, screaming, constant criticism and humiliation by her boss led Jane to make a formal complaint. Then her troubles really began


Much has been written of the detrimental effects bullying has on an individual. Unfortunately, I have learnt the hard way that there can be hidden dangers facing a person making a complaint, and these can be just as damaging as any ‘injuries' suffered due to the bullying behaviour in the first place, indeed perhaps moreso. In pressing for an independent hearing of my bullying complaint, I found dealing with management, my union, my peers and an occupational health physician much more damaging to my health than anything my ‘alleged' bully ever did.

Before my bullying occurred, I was passionate about my job. I knew I was not perfect at it, and never claimed to be, but felt that I was learning new skills all the time. I had held a number of responsible positions over a period of 20 years in a government department and several voluntary organisations before this employment. I was happy with my life and had a clear vision of where I was going and enjoyed many things.

Ten months into my dream job, the shouting, criticisms, and constant humiliations began — they lasted for over three months. Most of the events took place behind closed doors.

In bullying literature, you are told you should tell your ‘alleged' bully that you find their behaviour unacceptable. I did this on two occasions — it made matters worse. I finally complained when the shouting started in front of other people. I thought my case was simple and clear-cut, but I hadn't reckoned on bureaucracy, deliberate delays, collusion between employers and unions, ignorance, patronising behaviour, and incompetence, as well as isolation by my peers.

The following ‘myths' are things that I believed before I embarked on my original complaint. It scares me now to think how very naïve I was.


Myth Number 1
If there is an anti-bullying policy and procedure in your employment, your employer will implement it fairly


In retrospect, I feel the existence of the anti-bullying procedure in my employment was mere tokenism. I was not a valued employee, having worked there for just over a year when I made my complaint. My boss had been in place for over 30 years. Although complaints had been made against her over the years, nobody had previously made a formal complaint in writing.

For almost two years, my employers used every trick in the book to prevent me having an independent hearing which would in my opinion have exposed the bullying behaviour for what it was. They hoped I would simply go away just as other employees had done before. The net result of these delays was crippling, both emotionally and financially. For an organisation which purported to have a caring ethos for the staff and the people it served, it failed me miserably.


Myth Number 2
Your trade union will be your advocate and advise you appropriately


Ten minutes before my ‘informal hearing' on my bullying complaint, my union informed me that they had negotiated an apology from my boss. To get this so-called apology (my boss admitted only to intemperance on a number of occasions), I had to take responsibility for my own poor performance. I agreed, simply because I wanted to continue working in my job without harassment. Unfortunately, the whole focus then changed.

To cut a long story short, every thing I did ‘wrong' was written down and I was informed by my employer that I could be fired. In negotiating this ‘apology', my union failed to anticipate what could happen. Their biggest failure was to separate bullying and performance issues. Just because they considered my performance inadequate did not give either my boss or the organisation any reason to treat me the way they did. Later on, I also felt my union was extremely ineffective in counteracting the deliberate delays by management when I decided to press for an independent hearing following the almost farcical first informal hearing.

My union never seemed to get the point that I simply wanted a hearing and I would walk away. For me, recognition of a wrong was far more important than the financial compensation (sweetheart deals) that they put pressure on me, on a number of occasions, to accept. In general, I feel they showed little sensitivity towards my fragile mental health, caused largely by the delays which they did not seem to be able to prevent. Additionally, they were downright patronising at times - being emotional didn't mean that I had suddenly become an idiot. In my opinion, one individual is small fry in comparison to the much bigger deals negotiated on a daily basis between employers and unions. I believe unions have been emasculated because they are too used to negotiating deals in order not to upset the status quo.


Myth Number 3
Your colleagues will support you


When I started this job, I had been told "lick up to your boss and you will be grand". I found this an incredible attitude and simply couldn't revert to being a ‘schoolchild' at 42 years of age. However, I did not consciously rebel against my boss. I too wanted to fit in and be a success at my work. I never, as was stated by my boss in response to my complaint, deliberately sought to undermine her authority. In retrospect, I believe in not keeping to the unwritten code in my workplace, I drew attention to myself and suffered the consequences.

When I complained my colleagues were initially supportive, but after the hearing I was virtually isolated by my peers, with one exception who, unfortunately, left after six months. This virtual isolation was following an order from management that I was not allowed to work independently and every error I made was written down. I had to sign my name to these errors for posterity. My anxiety grew and grew and my confidence deteriorated rapidly - and, yes, I made mistakes. At that stage, I very much regretted having complained in the first place. I stuck it for five months but worrying about work took over my whole life and my mental health collapsed, so I went on sick leave.

One of the hardest things about this experience has been the attitude of the vast majority of my colleagues towards me - it has caused me a lot of hurt and confusion. Possible explanations for their ostrich head-in-the-sand position are:

they saw where the balance of power lay, especially when my performance was being obviously monitored in the way it was (group dynamics?)
they didn't want to become the focus of attention in supporting me, as attention might be drawn to them
the so called bystander effect in psychology - they expect other people to help and simply do not see it as their role.
Or maybe, just maybe, I expected too much of them.

Whatever the reasons, I sincerely hope that I would not close my eyes to a colleague so obviously in distress. I have found their lack of compassion towards me in a so-called caring profession the worst betrayal of all. I had worked well with people for over 20 years. It will take me a long time to trust work colleagues ever again (if ever).


Myth Number 4
Occupational health physicians will be neutral


In my opinion, they are not — they are employed by your organisation and do not necessarily act in your best interests. Mine recommended my return to work to the same environment before I had an independent hearing. Furthermore, on the basis of three meetings (lasting two hours in total) I was diagnosed as suffering from ‘pre-existing low self-esteem'.

Yet this person did not know me before the bullying began. I was proud of many things that I had achieved in my life. If I was, indeed, suffering from ‘pre-existing low self-esteem' did that make me an inferior person? Did it justify the behaviour of my boss whose behaviour seemed to have been totally excused? Following her report, I was threatened with dismissal if I did not return to work. The distress caused by this report is hard to quantify — even now it affects me.


Even though I know that my troubles are small in the scheme of things, I have felt overwhelmed by my last work experience and my life has totally changed since then. As I have said, I found the process involved in taking a bullying action more damaging than the original bullying behaviour. Sometimes I still ask myself how some individuals who turned a blind eye, or who denied me my right to have an independent hearing, can live with themselves. Each person must, obviously, make his or her own choices.

I simply would like people to be aware of the possible hidden pitfalls involved in attempting to go through the ‘bullying system' — and system is what it is. I fought hard for a period of two and a half years to have my voice heard. Without the emotional support of many people, I would not have survived the process. I have been very angry with myself for ‘failing to cope', and at other people to a degree I never thought possible. However, I never saw myself as a victim, nor do I today, and I know I did the right thing in standing up for myself.

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