Workplace bullying: Employers’ dirty tactics

‘The corporate sector’s dirty secret.’ That’s how prominent US bullying prevention advocates Dr Gary Namie and Dr Ruth Namie describe workplace bullying.

Of course, not all employers and their managers use dirty tactics to cover up bullying but let’s look at the methods of those who do.

Some methods are in common practice, such as lying, manipulation, bribing and threatening victims and their bullies to keep quiet about their bullying experiences.

Others are unique to individual organisations and managers. Some managers have developed an arsenal of devious and often treacherous strategies for self-promotion, self-protection, money-making/saving, negotiation and the speedy resolution of problems at work which involve bypassing the organisation’s official problem-solving processes.

A big bag of dirty tricks is particularly useful for covering up bullying.

A common saying among employees who’ve been targeted for bullying is ‘bullies are a protected species’. The expression comes from employees’ perceptions that bullies get away with their bullying because they’re protected by their employer and managers.

An employer may be aware of an employee’s predisposition to mistreat co-workers but can be in a quandary when the alleged bully is viewed as an indispensable member of the organisation. Often the bullies have special knowledge, skills and relationships with stakeholders that are not easily replaceable. Overlooking or covering up their misconduct may be viewed as crucial for the organisation’s continued prosperity.

The following is a small sample taken from a much bigger list in the book of the dubious tactics used by some employers to cover up bullying.

  • maintain a strongly worded workplace bullying policy, but it’s for show only and not worth the paper it’s written on
  • acknowledge an employee’s concerns about bullying, but then deliberately take no action in anticipation that they’ll lose interest and/or resign
  • downgrade an employee’s concerns about bullying to a potentially lesser problem such as a personality clash or a misinterpretation of normal management practice
  • use mediation when they know the problem is bullying and requires a formal investigation which potentially is costly and reputation-damaging for the employer
  • withhold information and advice from an employee about how a formal bullying complaint should be prepared so that allegations are poorly presented and easier to defend against or dismiss
  • intimidate the employee who’s asked to discuss their bullying confidentially by inviting them to an ‘ambush meeting’ with multiple managers, including the alleged bully and, in some instances, board members and the employer’s lawyer
  • conduct a sham investigation of an employee’s allegations with a predetermined ‘unsubstantiated’ outcome
  • make or threaten to make a false misconduct/bullying accusation against a complainant to discourage them from pursuing their grievance further
  • place phoney entries in a complainant’s personnel file to discredit them, including records of meetings or conversations that never took place, especially about bogus performance or disciplinary concerns
  • discredit the allegations during the investigation process by using aggressive cross-examination techniques, bureaucratic language, obscurely worded or trick questions to confuse and intimidate the complainant
  • ignore or refuse requests to provide information to a complainant about the progress of an investigation or deliberately delay notifying them about the outcome to exacerbate their stress and anxiety, thus putting additional pressure on them to withdraw their complaint or resign
  • provide ambiguous progress reports during an investigation to imply that things aren’t going the complainant’s way
  • delay decision-making on an internal investigation to keep a complainant on sick leave in a state of distress during which their sick leave entitlement runs out, thus putting them under severe financial pressure to withdraw their complaint, return to work or resign, thus voiding their complaint
  • accuse the employee of making a vexatious (false/mischievous) complaint, being a troublemaker or that their complaint constitutes misconduct for which the employer is considering taking disciplinary or legal action
  • secretly overturn an investigator’s finding that favours the complainant
  • threaten a bullying victim with a miserable work life as a disincentive to return to work if they refuse to take a payout and resign, including continuing to work with the alleged bully.

Of course, not all employers are devious, cruel and hypocritical; it’s fair to say that most aren’t. But the aim here is to identify the devious tactics used by employers who are. However, identifying the dodgy ones from the honest ones can be difficult sometimes because most of them espouse noble principles such as integrity, openness and respect.

All of them claim to take their bullying policy seriously, even the ones who’ve been exposed publicly as having firmly entrenched cultures of bullying. Many of our prominent and previously most trusted institutions have been exposed. They fall well short of the lofty principles that they stand for or hide behind — governments, banks and religious organisations among them. Research carried out by public relations company Edelman and titled 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer discovered that many Australians believe our most prominent institutions are untrustworthy.

Excerpt from Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces.


Book cover: Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces

Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces by Dr John W. Murphy with Barrie Thomas and Dr Max Liddell is available at leading booksellers worldwide or ask your favourite bookstore.

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