Workplace bullying, the silent epidemic


by Chris Barton



When Myke van Iersel returned to tidy up her classroom after school something snapped. The Waiheke High School health and physical education teacher had just called some of her colleagues gutless wimps for not standing up and saying what they thought about principal Anne Willmann's management style and problems with senior management.

Her fellow teachers held back their views because the principal's husband, a teacher at the school, had refused to leave the May 2002 staff meeting.

But his presence hadn't stopped the feisty van Iersel, who had let fly with a barrage of accusations. Feeling betrayed, she went to her classroom where she felt she might throw up. The walls were closing in.

"My body felt as though there was an electrical current going through it, like I was hot-wired, and I just knew I couldn't cope any more. I think I had a nervous breakdown."

Van Iersel didn't think then that she was a target of workplace bullying. That belief came later, in 2003 when she read management consultant Andrea Needham's Workplace Bullying - A Costly Business Secret, which includes case studies and personal accounts of bullying in New Zealand.

Needham believes the phenomenon is pervasive in our work culture - so much so that she subtitled her address to this year's industrial relations conference "silent epidemic, national scandal".


Bullying - such a loaded word. And how odd that it might be happening to teachers, responsible for stamping out the practice in the playground.

But the bullying talked about here is a very different beast - one that targets the successful and the strong, driven by an addiction to control. It is also largely invisible to others. As van Iersel and thousands of other targets have found out, one person's bullying is another's performance management technique.

The day after her breakdown van Iersel went to her doctor and was given a medical certificate for work-related stress. Her blood pressure was apparently so high that the doctor had to wait until the next day to get a proper reading. She was off work for 4 1/2 months.

When she returned to school things went from bad to worse. The principal once again seemed to be on her back for every little thing - even sending a note to Van Iersel's head of department about her attitude to exercise, apparently gleaned from an overheard conversation in the toilets.

More serious was the disciplinary charge concerning derogatory comments she had made about the principal to a teacher aide - later dropped. In February 2003 van Iersel gave up. When her head of department resigned, so did she, walking away from 21 years in the profession and vowing never to go back.

"People who are targeted are broken for life. I've met shells of people all over New Zealand," says Needham.

Hadyn Olsen, manager of Workplaces Against Violence in Employment (Wave), says his organisation gets about 15 calls a week to its 0800 zerobully helpline. He believes statistics here are on a par with Australia, where research indicates one in four workers is bullied.

The work environment picture Olsen and Needham paint gets scarier still when they talk about "chronics", aka "corporate psychopaths" or "snakes in suits". Run for the hills.

"Not all chronics are psychopathic, but they may have mild symptoms of psychopathy," says Olsen, adding that he has worked with about 400 bullies in the past 10 years and estimates about 20 per cent are never going to change.

Olsen says the problem is exacerbated because many employers seek out the ruthless, superficially charming and impulsive qualities of the corporate psychopath.

"A lot of employers say, 'Look, we hire people with these characteristics - they get results, work well on their own and present themselves really well'."

He warns employers about the chronic's dark side - they are not team players, don't handle conflict very well, have very low empathy, are manipulative and deceitful and have a Jekyll and Hyde type of character.

"They are very ambitious, often seek positions of power and do well on KPIs (key performance indicators). But unfortunately they often destroy people in the process."

Van Iersel is convinced she was the target of a workplace bully - someone who systematically undermined her confidence and made life unbearable for her.

On the face of it, her assertive, some say aggressive and formidable, presence makes it hard to imagine anyone brow-beating her.

Yet that is her claim, backed by acres of documents and anecdotes. She talks of dirty looks, not being acknowledged in the corridor, being singled out and being micromanaged daily. Then there was the "professional ambush" when she was called unprepared to a meeting to be formally confronted by anonymous complaints.

But van Iersel was not on her own. She and eight other teachers complained in 2003 to Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) about the stress they were suffering as a result of workplace bullying. It was an issue that divided the community, spilling out to the streets in an ugly protest by some parents and pupils against the board of trustees and the principal last May.

Workplace bullying is a relatively recent phenomenon in New Zealand, first researched in 1997 when the Challenge Violence Trust in Rotorua found 67 per cent of those attending its programmes who admitted to committing domestic violence also admitted to committing forms of psychological violence and abuse in the workplace.

The issue became more visible last year when it was alleged a number of staff at Cambridge High School had been systematically bullied into submission to principal Alison Annan's regime.

A survey by the Post Primary Teachers Association found that 8 per cent of teachers experience bullying regularly from management. But although schools provide notable examples - the most recent being accusations of staff bullying at Glenfield College - the phenomenon is not restricted to the education sector.

Last year the banking workers' union Finsec surveyed staff in two banks and found 40 per cent said they had been bullied in the past year.

In that survey the most common form was public humiliation - being dressed down in front of staff or customers. In nursing, the phenomenon has been called "horizontal violence" - referring to the way people are attacked or undermined in a covert manner by their peers.

Then there's "mobbing", when a group bullies an individual, similar to the way some bird species peck at and harass one of their flock to destroy them or drive them out.

Syd Thickpenny is reluctant to speak to the Herald. He doesn't believe it will do any good because he's tried all the proper channels - the school's board of trustees, the PPTA, the Education Review Office, OSH - and no one is listening.

"No one can accept this is real. There is no mechanism in New Zealand for getting rid of a principal," says the ex-Waiheke High School head of department.

He is also uncomfortable. "Perhaps you can tell from my demeanour and my voice that even though it's three years past, how much it upsets me. I'm moving from one foot to the other and starting to sweat."

He says the bullying process is insidious. "They really do attack people like myself who are successful - they see us as some sort of subconscious threat to their authority."

Thickpenny departed quietly in 2002, leaving behind 22 years of teaching and a reputation as a highly dedicated, tough but fair teacher who had brought about exceptional exam results with some of the most difficult kids in the school.

"I had sleepless nights. I was becoming very ill. I was having psychological and physical problems, stress-related rashes. I couldn't sleep on the Sundays before school started.

"My jaw started locking up. I couldn't walk past the principal's office. I avoided the staffroom. I needed to leave."

Things got so bad he was terrified he would lose his cool with the principal and lose his teaching certificate. When he quit he had 180 days' sick leave owing. It was a matter of pride that he never took days off.

The OSH investigation of Waiheke High in July 2003 turned into farce. After a preliminary investigation, OSH wrote a draft report requested by the school's limited statutory manager. He had been appointed in November 2003 following dysfunction within the board of trustees and a scathing ERO report in 2002 which found the school had "a divided senior management team and aspects of low staff morale".

The draft report, which apparently talked extensively about the bullying allegations, was put on the staff notice board for comment. But it was quickly taken down by the principal, who promptly visited her lawyer and succeeded in getting its contents permanently suppressed by the courts.

OSH released a revised, watered-down final report 11 months later, in February this year. The complainants see it as a whitewash. The word "bullying" is used just once and the report finds "no clear evidence, ie, medical diagnosis, to prove that stress, as serious harm, has occurred to any of the staff interviewed".

Adding insult to injury, from the complainants' point of view, OSH also gave the principal some form of financial compensation. OSH is well aware of workplace bullying. It has received 12 complaints in 2003, 34 in 2004 and five so far this year. It has eight cases still open, but so far hasn't made any prosecutions.

OSH's main problem is that it doesn't yet have a definition of what workplace bullying is, making it impossible to categorise the behaviour as a "workplace hazard" under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. What it can look for is work-related stress, something that's normally identified through medical certificates or psychological reports.

The difficulty here, as lawyer Barbara Buckett points out, is "trial by doctor", where the doctor pronounces work-related stress, but the employer says the doctor can't possibly know what's actually happening in the work environment.

"OSH has a high threshold and is normally very reluctant to find there is an unsafe work environment because of bad behaviour," says Buckett. "I think they see it as a floodgates thing. They are conservative and THEY don't want to identify it as a health hazard."

OSH business support manager Keith Stewart says the service is developing guidelines on workplace bullying, something it expects to complete in six months.

"We haven't said it doesn't exist. OSH has always accepted that bullying in the workplace is an issue. You can try and shoehorn it into the Health and Safety Act or you can look at it in terms of the wider workplace relationships."

But the Employment Relations Act isn't any better. The Herald spoke to a Government department employee who began a personal grievance claim after a good performance assessment by his manager was downgraded by a more senior manager without consultation.

The employee (we'll call him David) alleged it was a part of a bullying campaign which caused him to take stress leave. With his pay stopped and $24,000 gone on legal bills, he is now on a sickness benefit.

It took five months to get to mediation and nine months to get an offer on the table, an offer he refused because it incorrectly states "all matters have been resolved" and because he was gagged from talking about it.

Olsen agrees that those who are bullied often get victimised again by the very process they're using for redress. Having to front up to face-to-face mediation is particularly unfair.

"I've taken people to mediation and they've vomited before they've got there. They've arrived shaking and sweating and I've then had to try and convince the mediator that we don't want to be in the same room."

There's a similar lack of understanding by the Employment Relations Authority. Needham points to biased judgments by the ERA where the bully is said to be more believable than the target.

For example, "He conducted himself more favourably, was in charge of his emotions and was clear about his feelings. He did not shy away from questions ... "

Olsen calls management's standard reaction to bullying complaints "the shadow of collusion" that includes a code of silence.

Olsen says it's more important to remove the shadow that allows bullying to happen than the bully.

But not everyone agrees. Waiheke High board of trustees chairman Barnett Bond says he's read Needham's book and is not impressed. He's concerned about the situation when an employee is not performing very well and how employees can use "this brand-new fashionable word 'bullying"' as an escape clause".

"It's the perfect out when one is under the stress of a disciplinary or competence process."

Willmann agrees, citing the OSH report. "There's no finding of bullying because there wasn't," she says. "We don't bully people. We're trying to maintain standards in as nice a way as possible, but sometimes you have to be a bit firm. You've got to if you're going to run a good school."

Whatever the truth about Waiheke High, something is not right. The Herald continues to hear claims from teachers afraid to speak out about ongoing bullying. Bond says the board has new OSH-designated procedures in place to accept such claims but so far he's received none.

The real tragedy here is that the truth remains elusive and that all the agencies involved remain powerless or reluctant to find it.

Dedicated teachers and employees deserve better.


New Zealand Herald