Case 069 - Public Service

I was a Manager in the public service in an Australia state and about 18 months ago, I returned to work after a two week holiday and was told that I was under investigation for 'serious allegations' of workplace bullying by a number of staff and that I was not able to return to my office or to speak to any one there.

It is now over 18 months since that incredibly traumatic event. As someone who had devoted my career to social justice and dealing with complaints of harassment at work, I was shocked.

Everyone in the HR department has treated me as if I am guilty of a crime yet they will not listen to my side of events. They continue to prolong my suffering with their attitudes, stereotyped views about bullying, and their unwillingness to acknowledge my situation. They instantly assumed my guilt, and gave their complete support to those claiming victim status. I was escorted out of my office before 9 am in the morning on my first day back at work after a two week break, and I was placed under disciplinary investigation.

Readers might be thinking by now that I am one of those bullying managers who has been nabbed and that the department has done a great job to get me out. If that is the case, then read on.....

In my workcover application I described my situation as being the target of an ongoing campaign of harassment by a number of staff since I commenced in the position (over about 3 years). I now realise that what I described was a perfect text book case of workplace mobbing. I have just read Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace and it is unbelievable because it as if the writer knew of my particular case, it is so accurate.

It has also been difficult being a manager who has been mobbed because the general stereotype, at least here in Australia, is that managers are bullies and the staff they supervise are the victims. The issue of upward bullying is not addressed under current policies. There were apparently five of the sixteen or so staff who had made what were referred to as serious complaints of bullying against me.

I now realise I am a third degree victim of workplace mobbing and I don't know if I will ever be able to return to a workplace again, I still experience anxiety, depression, and would not be able to cope without medication due to the maliciousness of the allegations and the way that HR has handled the matter.

The well documented facts that HR were not aware of (and now don't want to know as they can most probably see that they were a little hasty and zealous in their pursuit of a bully manager) are:

I came into an environment with a well known history of bullying problems.

I gained the position over someone who had been acting in the manager's position for 18 months and staff were loyal to her and she remained in the same workplace.

Most staff flatly refused to communicate with me. It was so bad, that later a strategy was introduced to the work group by a psychologist to encourage staff to say good morning to each other. This was a huge step forward! I could not find out basic information to assist me in producing work and I worked most weekends and evenings to get things done. It was as if I were invisible and irrelevant and of little consequence to the day to day operations of the service. This positive strategy was completely undermined by those who did not want to be accountable for their poor behaviour.

I noticed that the environment was one where one member of staff (an older woman and the most junior member of staff) was bullied and treated as if she were despicable, and I would not join in. In fact, I ensured that all staff were aware of workplace bullying behaviours and I attempted to change the culture! I also noticed the aggro to the regional office staff as if they were unprofessional and were not to be respected because they didn't know what they were doing. I tried to change that culture too! Big mistake there........

At the request of staff and due to 'communication' problems, a psychologist employed by HR analysed the situation and identified a problem group (in fact he identified the group that had requested the intervention). He said that I had performed exceptionally well in difficult circumstances. This caused great disappointment with the problem group as they expected that I would be booted out.

A junior member of staff had been disciplined for bullying behaviour and then later on she was charged with a criminal matter, and it wound up in court. Her defence argued that she was on leave because it was she who had been bullied and that the criminal allegations against her had been made up. It was two months after this, that I was unceremoniously told I couldnt go back to my job.

Another member of staff who was completely loyal to this member of staff refused to acknowledge any problems and had been vocal in her wish to 'get rid of me any way she could'. She was devastated that her colleague had been so accused and went to all lengths to discredit and undermine me including telling the other staff she worked with that I was the bad guy.

She worked in the same work environment as a number of staff who experienced, what the psychologist called, 'hostage syndrome'. In other words, they had to join in the campaign against me, or else......risk being bullied themselves.

The departmental management were all aware of the situation and we had strategies in place to address it as best as possible.

However, there was a change of government and our office wound up in a new department and many of those supportive managers from before, left for one reason or another (some of them were also downwards bullied by their managers and/or upwards bullied by their staff - what a great place to work - and it is a helping profession).

No one was aware of what had gone on before and so while I was away, the perpetrator was instrumental in gathering a group of staff to lodge baseless allegations against me of workplace bullying.

The Department, to this day, has not told me what it is I did or to whom. I have been told that the victims fear retaliation so I am not permitted (even after freedom of information requests) to be informed of their complaints. It wasn't difficult to guess who the staff were and apart from the key perpetrator, they were casual or temporary staff who were easily influenced by a more senior person to join in and gang up against me as being responsible for everything that was wrong in the public service -(particularly the casual or part time nature of their employment over which I had no control). Meantime, there are only two of those staff left of the five who apparently complained. There were sixteen or more staff employed at the time and although I have statements of support from them, I am told that is irrelevant, and surely I didnt think those would make any difference.

I am told by HR that once I participate in a disciplinary investigation into my 'bullying' behaviour that I will find out then what the allegations against me are. The investigator has told me that I won't get the complaints until the end of the process after she has interviewed me and the others again (I am not kidding and yes, everyone here in decision making positions seems to think this gives me 'natural justice') I am treated as being very unreasonable for wanting to know now and I am in fact accused of stalling the process.

I remain under disciplinary investigation for complaints against me of bullying. I was successful in winning workers compensation but that was later overturned by another body that said management had taken reasonable action given the complaints they had.

I have attempted to tell HR what has happened to me but it has been extremely difficult as I went into serious depression and anxiety with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was very close to doing something drastic because I had put everything in to improving the culture and making the place work and I was in disbelief that I could be treated in such an appalling manner. Without the help of a good psychiatrist and a loving family who knows where I would be now...........However, I submitted as much detail to them as possible but they say they can't read this material as they could be accused of bias! They don't seem to see, that from my perspective, they have already shown enormous bias against me. In fact, two of the people who complained have been promoted into higher duties, sent on training programs, while I remain on sick leave.

The Department no doubt acted with good intentions but did not look into the allegations before quickly taking disciplinary action against me for reasons that later could not be substantiated. So they then employed a consultant to 'find evidence against me'. This process is commonly referred to as a 'witch hunt'. They came up with some wimpy things like someone did not have a key to the stationery cupboard and that I was 'overly emotional'! It was also said that I displayed no leadership and treated staff unfairly. My competence was also questioned by these staff. There were no examples ever given and the fact that I had received excellent performance feedback from my managers was dismissed as irrelevant. So was the psychologists report as that had been 18 months prior to these complaints. The fact that the psychologist had still worked with the group up until six months before the complaints was also irrelevant. Any thing that could have supported me was irrelevant as the terms of reference for this process was to find complaints against me.

No one in the new management knew me, my background, or what strategies had been put in place with the work group and it was simply more convenient for them to remove me from my position.

I am now researching this area so that I can ensure the issue of mobbing is clearly identified and that people are aware that managers can also be mobbed and/or bullied. I would like to see this introduced into legislation here in Australia.

By the way, the key perpetrator is now acting in my position while I remain on leave under a superannuation pension scheme. I am not allowed to return to work (any work in the public service) until I take part in the disciplinary investigation. Unfortunately, whenever I think or talk about the 'disciplinary investigation into my behaviour' I become extremely distressed. No one seems the least bit interested in the behaviour I have continually endured in the position!

This has been such a nightmare and it sounds unbelievable. I still have to pinch myself and remember that it really has happened. I have found great comfort in reading Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American workplace and through web sites such as Bully OnLine.

Update - April 2003

I have now been advised that my position has been advertised in today's paper (permanently). It's very disappointing as I heard via the grapevine, and have not relinquished the position, or been sacked or otherwise advised. In a country that prides itself on fairness, it is astonishing!

I still don't have any incidents although I have put through the complaint about 'mobbing'. This was the final nail in the coffin to ensure a text-book case of 'mobbing'. I have been 'expelled' without any reason other than gossip and innuendo, discrediting and 'ganging up'. The department has inadvertently (to be generous) joined in.

I am taking a serious break from the battle as I'm emotionally, physically and financially exhausted. Thank you to everyone who has done their utmost to support me through this.

Update - June 2003

Well, it is now 18 months since I was kicked out of my position on the basis of serious allegations against me where the five of the sixteen or so staff said they feared me to the extent that they were not prepared to let me have the incidents about which they had complained. I couldn't have been a more generous, and compassionate manager, in fact, previous management had said I was too soft and needed to flex my muscles.

These people were whipped up into a frenzy to suit a malicious agenda to get rid of me at all costs as a pay back for what had happened to a friend and colleague, who had been removed from the workplace because of serious bullying allegations against a number of other staff, and then later charged with theft which wound up in court. Her defence argued that she was the victim of bullying, and not the bully, and that the complaints of theft were false. It was two months after this court matter that I was removed from my position because no one in management was aware of what had happened as they were all too busy to take any interest in what was going on. They left it to me to deal with and, despite my expressing my concerns about the bullying line of defence, were the first to shoot me down when the allegations were made.

This is a classic case of people taking advantage of the current climate where bullies are demonised as villains, and are seen to deserve everything they get, and there is no mercy to be shown. There are only two of those who complained left now as the others were employed in entry-level casual positions and had only been there a few weeks. Some of those people had particularly vulnerable characteristics where HR and others instantly extended their sympathy without knowing the facts or even discussing it with case managers. These complainants were assisted by management to develop their complaints by an acting manager with her own agenda during the two weeks I was away. They claimed victim status where it was automatically assumed by new management that I was guilty, had to be removed instantly and harshly dealt with, those making the allegations were seen as all fair and innocent.

These complainants never attempted to raise their issues with me, it was all done silently, behind my back while I was on leave. I was told that my crimes included being abrupt, displaying no analytical skills, or leadership, that I responded in a reactive manner, and worst of all I had been seen crying and that this was inappropriate for a manager. I have to add that this has all occurred in an all women working area where one would expect a little compassion. I was also overly nice, and spoke in an unnecessarily aggressive manner, that I showed favouritism in that someone didnt have a key to the front door and that I was generally an all round awful person who had no skills of any kind whatsoever. Why management chose to believe four of these people who had been in their positions for only a few months, in casual entry level positions is beyond belief, such was the effectiveness of the undermining, sabotage and rumours. There are only two left now and they have been at various times promoted to more senior positions and been given every opportunity for professional development, while I have been treated as though I had committed the worst of all possible crimes.

There were 47 such allegations against me and I have been phoned to say that the union has received 15 incidents to support allegations against me. I am so far unable to look at the incidents and they have been sent to my doctor so that when I can face them I will. Meanwhile, I've lost my job, my credibility, many people who I thought were friends who I wasn't allowed to talk to, I have spent a fortune on a solicitor, and the harm caused to me is acknowledged by the department. They seem to think I am making this up, they treat me as if I am guilty of some dreadful crime. My background, my history, the outstanding achievements I have, and the way I was managing the situation, are all now irrelevant because there were one or two malicious people who said they would do anything to get rid of me, and they did, with the help of the department.

It is bizarre to see a number of well respected people being discredited as bullies on the front page of the newspaper in this particular Australian state. Most recently an academic whose field of expertise is bullying was demonised as a bully in this way. There seems to be no accountability for those making these allegations and as I said it is immediately assumed that the alleged bully is guilty and that those who complain are fair and innocent and to be believed without any investigation of the facts. Unfortunately, these types of allegations will make it more difficult for those people who are genuinely bullied.

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