The bullying example that led to this book

The book Bullying in Australian (and Other) Workplaces was inspired by author John Murphy’s involvement as an advocate in a serious case of worker abuse. ‘Jane’ asked for help when she was targeted for mistreatment by her manager.

Many years earlier, John completed a doctoral thesis on job satisfaction, a related topic, and 10 years before an honours thesis on occupational health and welfare services. Neither, however, included workplace bullying. As an issue of public interest and research, it didn’t emerge until the late 1980s when introduced by British investigative journalist Andrea Adams. She is thought to have created the expression ‘workplace bullying’.

John was on the receiving end of bullying in his first job as a junior in a printing factory. But nothing he experienced came close to Jane’s cruel mistreatment at the hands of her manager, ‘Michelle’, aided by her mob of cruel minions and nefarious HR managers.  Jane was 58 years of age at the time and an office worker. She was falsely accused by Michelle of serious misconduct.

Michelle was a serial bully, the worst kind, who preyed on vulnerable employees while sucking up to gullible and weak senior managers. It enabled her to mistreat subordinates with impunity.  Over the years, Michelle had accumulated a long list of casualties.  Her big bag of dirty tricks included ruthlessly hounding subordinates she didn’t like out of their jobs by making their life at work intolerable. Her devious plan for Jane was to get her sacked for misconduct or force her to quit through the distress and humiliation of being accused of serious wrongdoing.

Despite Michelle’s efforts, Jane was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but 12 months had elapsed between the allegation being made and Jane’s exoneration. She was highly distressed and on sick leave for all this time with increasing anxiety and depression. It culminated in a diagnosis by her doctor of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Jane returned to work, but her bullying continued, and she resigned.  Michelle and her loyal minions gloated.  Good riddance Jane. 

When this book was completed, Jane was 65. She had been unable to obtain another job because of poor mental health, lack of confidence, self-esteem and trust of others, and an employment market that discriminates against older workers. As a single person not eligible for the age pension, she had struggled to survive on a low unemployment allowance. The last time John saw Jane was mid-winter when she was huddled under a blanket on the couch with her dog, ‘Jessie’, unable to afford heating.

Through this case, others in which he was involved, and wide research, John discovered that workplace bullying in Australia is extensive and firmly ingrained in some industries, including all levels of government, policing, health, business and the not-for-profit sector.  But he found that despite their public posturing about ‘taking workplace bullying seriously’, generally governments and employers see bullying as within acceptable limits, part of the normal rough-and-tumble of work life, with the high personal costs for employees and employers simply the price of doing business.  He discovered that some employers went to great lengths to cover up bullying, mainly to protect their reputations and brand. This included secretly paying victims and/or their bullies for their silence, and mostly on the condition that they resigned from their job.

Surprisingly, unlike in many other parts of the world, John found that accessibility to published research on the problem in Australia was limited and there was only a small number of locally produced books on the subject, and none recent. Funding available for the study of workplace bullying was insignificant and did not provide much career kudos for those who might normally investigate the topic, such as academics, clinical psychologists and business managers.

None of the available publications ventured into the trickery and grubby tactics that some employers use routinely to conceal their bullying.  Of great concern was that none of the workplace health and safety authorities provided a caution about the risks for employees who report or even enquire about their bullying. Nowhere to be found was advice that in some circumstances the only way a worker can end their bullying is to resign from their job. It was clear there was a place for a contemporary Australian book pitched at a wide audience and which provided an informative and frank local overview of the social and economic crisis.

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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