Saturday, January 22, 2022

David Lillis: Workplace Bullying in New Zealand

Dr. Geoff Plimmer’s Lecture and my own Observations

Recently (21 April, 2021), the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch hosted a public lecture and discussion of current research on workplace bullying by Dr. Geoff Plimmer, senior lecturer at the School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington.

I invited Dr. Plimmer to give this lecture because I have met many people who have indicated dissatisfaction with their working environments here in New Zealand. Many appear to have been managed out or otherwise encouraged to leave, but I do not know the precise details of every case. I have requested and received information under the Official Information Act (OIA) on non-disclosure agreements (Settlement Agreements) from various organisations within the Public Service, but was independently aware of certain agreements with former staff of various organizations.

In my synopsis of Dr. Plimmer’s lecture, I noted that several New Zealand on-line news and other media have featured many exposures of bullying and sexual harassment around New Zealand in recent years. Unfortunately, I have worked in organisations in which bullying was an unwelcome part of every-day life. I have observed:

  1. Managers engaging in scathing public attacks on staff
  2. Misuse of the Performance Review to downgrade staff
  3. Misuse of the open plan environment to degrade and humiliate staff  
  4. Managers working together to maximise intensity of attacks on staff
  5. Managers framing staff – accusing staff publicly of poor work and negative behaviours, knowing that these accusations were untrue
  6. Chief Executives forcing resignations from staff under duress
  7. Physical intimidation of staff on the part of male managers and one act of violence
  8. Teams of Human Resource professionals and legal executives who are paid handsomely to support managers, irrespective of right or wrong
  9. The rise of non-subject-matter experts and very young and inexperienced people into positions of management and leadership of teams of experts
  10. Treatment of staff as resources to be discarded at will
  11. Organisations ignoring staff who attempt to raise workplace issues, and destroying or deleting letters of complaint from disaffected former staff
  12. Organisations warning staff not to raise bullying and other workplace issues or face the possibility of being managed out of work
  13. The rise of people through organisations on the basis of personality, rather than on the basis of subject-matter expertise or suitability to lead or manage.

On the last point, it is easy to see why, for example, an extrovert can be more effective than an introvert in positions of exposure. However, people also rise on the basis of an ambitious and aggressive personality and, when such people get into leadership, they may behave according to their natures and in accordance with cultures of bullying that clearly do exist in certain organisations.

An observation on the rise of very young managers and non-subject matter experts – sometimes these situations work out but too often we have a recipe for disaster. In addition, the considerably greater salaries paid to the management stream over that of other work creates a pernicious incentive for people to aim for management rather than for analytic or research work. Paradoxically, often we end up with the less qualified people in much more highly remunerated positions of greater influence and power than those of subject matter experts. If this happens, what empathy do they show to the work of experts and what about the quality of decision-making at the highest levels of our organisations? In any case, control over other peoples’ careers is far too much power to hand to inexperienced or ambitious people, or to those who have little or no knowledge of the fields of expertise of their staff. 

Further, Human Resources units at Government departments and other organisations should not be tasked with supporting managers exclusively, but should also play a role in ensuring the wellbeing of staff. At present, very clearly they do not, and their function (i.e. supporting management) creates a situation in which staff who are targeted by bullying managers have no chance of successful self-defence.

Dr. Plimmer defined workplace bullying as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm. Unreasonable behaviour includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person. He said that bullying may also include harassment, discrimination or violence. Unfortunately, I have seen it all.

My own anti-bullying Initiatives

My personal view is that bullying does not constitute an issue on the scale of social inequality, racism or child poverty. However, it is nevertheless a nasty and unnecessary problem that does not need to happen. It is something that we bring on ourselves though poor leadership but it is an issue that we can fight aganist. In recent years I have attempted to act against bullying through:

  1. Meeting with affected people to provide support
  2. Documenting bullying episodes (I have spoken to over 50 people from many organisations around New Zealand!)
  3. Talking to the Public Service Commission to confirm my observations of bullying in the public service
  4. Talking confidentially to management consultants and Human Resources staff
  5. Talking to Chief Executives.

In addition, on behalf of many people, I have communicated dissatisfaction to various organisations and, in particular, to a former head of Human Resources at a Government Agency; in particular at her refusal to talk to me when I attempted to discuss bullying just prior to leaving that organisation (I left, not because of bullying but because of a job offer elsewhere).In fact, on five occasions during my career I have attempted to call out bullying, but with very disappointing results. Others want to speak up but are too afraid of losing their jobs and careers.

Clearly, we have a workplace bullying problem in New Zealand and the five management consultants and four Human Resource managers to whom I have spoken confidentially confirm this assertion.  

Experiences of Bullying

At this point in time I have spoken to many people who report trauma and emotional damage as a result of nasty performance management episodes (according to them). Too often, managers get people to resign though ongoing abuse, threats and unfair performance reviews etc. Curiously, more than half of them are women and several are from ethnic minority groups. One might imagine that modern Government departments and other New Zealand employers would think it unwise to bully women and minorities out of work in the modern age of political correctness and social media, but evidently not.

The managers themselves appear to remain safe, and move around the public service to higher and higher remuneration. I have observed this process in action several times and I know recidivist, chronic bullies who have bullied staff in every organisation in which they have worked and several went on to become even more highly paid senior executives while still quite young.

I do not know if those people to whom I have spoken over the last year or two have indeed suffered genuine bullying or whether there is some exaggeration on the part of people who, understandably, do not enjoy being managed out. However, my OIA requests were conceived partly to send a signal to public sector organisations that word does get around and that there is a perception (fair or otherwise) within the wider community of several ministries and departments as bullying organisations.

In the end, the very high salaries of our senior public servants are met by the New Zealand taxpayer, as are pay-outs in relation to non-disclosure agreements. Let us hope that both the public and private sectors learn that even performance management of genuinely underperforming staff can be undertaken in a humane way. In recent years it appears that certain organisations believe that they can do whatever they like to rid themselves of unwanted staff and the result is a growing community of damaged people. Of course, staff may be unwanted for reasons other than poor performance, and several times I have observed restructurings and brutal performance management processes implemented by modestly-qualified and even completely unqualified managers or senior executives on highly-qualified experts who deserved better. A cynical observation is that managers and executives who display great courage in managing out, firing or restructuring others out of work, display somewhat reduced courage about falling on their own swords when they themselves have erred or when significant problems arise within their own organisations or sectors.

Recent initiatives from the Public Service Commission and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment that may provide a degree of protection for staff wishing to raise issues relating to their work environments are a good start, but are not enough. Surely, we can make great progress by making it clear to Chief Executives and Boards that they are to be held accountable, not only for delivering outcomes for the people, economy and environment of New Zealand, but also for leading harmonious and productive workplaces. 

A Better Future

New Zealand thinks of itself as a progressive, twenty-first century nation and sometimes we make very bold claims for ourselves. In research, for example, we claim to have a ‘number eight fencing wire’ approach to our work. So, if we do not have funding to purchase equipment, we make it ourselves and we punch above our weight relative to other nations. We like to think that we can look the international community in the face and speak of our track record in human rights, equality of opportunity for women, men and minorities in the workplace, and in our embracing of diversity. However, over the last twenty years or more, our track record within our workplaces has been very questionable, to say the least. It is now time to heed the media reports, deal with the problem with genuine commitment and create workplaces for future Kiwi workers that are safe and inclusive and that enable people to perform to their capabilities and achieve good things for the future of our country.

Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. 


DD said...

Excellent post, David. I think we are well past the stage where the evidence of systematic bullying in the public sector has been finally acknowledged. Now comes the hard part. Doing something to change pervasive workplace bullying. The use of anonymous surveys that go to management oversight directly and the holding accountable of managers for employee mental heath is also long past due.

Lesley Stephenson said...

Totally agree.It reflects the poor quality of management and their inability to include and appreciate their staff. They are power hungry and think power is equal to their ability to bully.

David Lillis said...

Thanks to DD and Lesley for your comments.
Of course, we will achieve little if the bullying is top-down; i.e. sponsored by the top executives. Sometimes it is the action of middle-managers but, in some organizations where I have worked, it came from the top people. Not good enough, New Zealand! And shame on us as a society that, not only do we allow this stuff to happen, but we reward those same top people with enormous salaries and golden handshakes and give them directorships and positions on quangos on huge per diems. Crass!

Another form of bullying is to deny excellent people a promotion, year-after-year. The young and grossly overpaid manager always finds a dozen reasons why a very senior and highly accomplished person does not yet deserve a small increase in remuneration and a modest enhancement in status {and never will). I have seen this behaviour and discussed it with several workers and can attest to the frustration that it causes to committed and brilliant professionals.

Just as appalling is the rise of very inexperienced people - in my view, usually on the basis of favoritism. Some are OK but the young and arrogant manager of very modest accomplishment, who has been told to manage out or fire anyone who annoys him or her, can cause utter catastrophe!

And - frankly, what are we to make of this category of work - Human Resources? What is creative, intelligent or value-adding about collecting a nice salary from rubber-stamping others out of work? I hope that most of us would not stoop to carving out a highly-paid career out of hurting other people. I certainly would not. But I know people who sit near the top of the public service after a track record of smashing others when they headed Human Resources.

Time for a change so - let the Public Service Commission and its highly-paid executives and Commissioners lead the charge!

David Lillis