Big (bad) bosses

When ‘assertive’ leadership crosses the line into bullying, employees should know their rights

Big (bad) bosses

It was during the 19th century that historian John Dalberg-Acton coined the phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; great men are almost always bad men…’. Gender specifics aside, it would appear power is indeed an often exploited tool – but it’s not solely the domain corrupt politicians or money-hungry CEOs with sticky fingers; a new form of abuse is making headlines – the schoolyard bully who’s found him- or herself in a management position in the workplace.

The US-based Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as ‘repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee – abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviours perceived as threatening, intimidating or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above’.

The fact of the matter is, most of us – at some point in our careers – have had the misfortune of working with someone who has clearly shown bullying behaviour. There are, however, channels that can be used to remedy the situation – intervention from the HR department may well do the trick.

‘Bullying in the workplace is prevalent,’ Sibusiso Dube, a partner at law firm Bowmans’ dispute resolution department, writes in an online article.

‘Such that the new Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace, which took effect on 18 March 2022, has placed a positive duty on employers to play their part in preventing bullying in the workplace.’

He adds that in SA, ‘all forms of harassment related to one or more of the listed grounds set out in Section 6(1) of the Employment Equity Act, 1998 or any other “arbitrary ground”, are regarded as unfair discrimination. Harassment constitutes a barrier to equity and equality in the workplace. As such, harassment – including bullying – must be eliminated from the workplace and in any activity linked to, or arising out of, work’.

Yet what happens when that bullying behaviour comes from further up the ladder?

‘If a manager ridicules or belittles staff members, whether in public or in private, that’s not being assertive; that’s just bad behaviour,’ according to independent HR consultant Michelle Vernon. ‘When that becomes a pattern of behaviour, not just a single incident, it’s bullying.’

Just as a supportive, positive work culture can have a significant impact on an employee’s mental and emotional health, the same applies, of course, to bullying. Victims of bully bosses may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, changes in appetite, as well as sleep quality and duration. More worryingly, however, it often leads to increased stress, low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety and depression.

In 2019, a landmark ruling shook the French business world. As reported by the Guardian, former executives at France Télécom (since branded as Orange) were sentenced to prison and fined for their involvement in ‘institutional harassment’ that fostered a culture of pervasive workplace bullying and tragically led to multiple suicides within the company.

This followed an investigation focused on 39 employees, among whom 19 took their own lives, 12 attempted to do so, and eight suffered from severe depression or were forced to take sick leave due to the immense pressure created by the work environment.

The ruling marked the first instance where managers were held criminally accountable for orchestrating a broad strategy of bullying, even if they had not directly interacted with the affected employees.

The former state-owned enterprise received the maximum fine of €75 000. Ex-CEO Didier Lombard, his deputy, Louis-Pierre Wenes, and the HR director, Olivier Barberot, each received a one-year sentence, with eight months suspended, and were fined €15 000.

Their convictions were related to events in 2007 and 2008, when the company was implementing cost-cutting measures. At the time, the company had undergone privatisation and was undergoing a restructuring plan in which management aimed to reduce the workforce by more than a fifth.

More recently, Dominic Raab made the headlines when he resigned as the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister in April 2023, following an official inquiry and report on allegations that he bullied civil servants. This came after two formal complaints were laid against the politician, as well as widespread reports that many other civil servants were ‘unhappy with his behaviour’, which – as the Guardian reports – was described as ‘sometimes bullying, humiliating and too demanding’.

The scope of the report was expanded as other formal complaints were made, taking in all three departments he had headed. In January of this year, the Guardian discovered that at least 24 civil servants were involved in formal complaints against Raab.

Employees – and that, of course, includes management, who are found guilty of harassment including bullying, may, in certain circumstances, and depending on the severity of the conduct that is complained of, be summarily dismissed, as Bowmans’ Dube explains. ‘In the Labour Court case between Centre for Autism Research and Education CC v CCMA and others, two employees had referred a constructive dismissal to the CCMA arising from, among others, bullying that they allegedly suffered from their manager. The CCMA found that they had been unfairly dismissed. On review, the court held, among others, that what the evidence discloses is a workplace operated by a narcissistic personality whose offensive and unwelcome conduct had the effect of creating a toxic working environment in which discrimination, degradation and demeaning behaviour became the norm.

‘The judge had no hesitation in finding that the nature and extent of the workplace bullying suffered by the employees was such that for the purposes of Section 186(1)(e) of the LRA, their continued employment was rendered intolerable and the review application was dismissed with costs.’

The distinguishing factor between a stern, demanding boss and one who engages in bullying behaviour lies in their approach to managing employees. A demanding boss maintains consistency in their treatment of all employees, while a bully boss, in contrast, singles out specific individuals or a select few as their targets.

According to a poll by job and career portal Monster, around 90% of respondents said they had directly experienced workplace bullying – 51% of respondents were bullied by their boss or manager, whereas 39% were bullied by co-workers, while 4% said the perpetrator was someone other than a co-worker, such as a client or customer. ‘Despite common misconception, there is same-sex bullying in the workplace,’ it notes. Male perpetrators prefer targeting women (65%), but many target other men (35%); conversely, 33% of female bullies target other women.

‘If an employee feels that they are being bullied, they need to take appropriate steps to bring it to the company’s attention. If they have an HR department, that is the place to start,’ says Vernon. ‘Make a list of the specific instances, trying to recall times and dates as best as possible. An investigation requires facts. You can’t just go to HR and say “I’m being bullied by my manager”; you need to go and say “I’m being bullied by my manager and this is why I say so”. Your HR department will then take the lead. If your employer fails to address the matter or doesn’t deal with it satisfactorily, as an employee you may refer a dispute about unfair discrimination to the CCMA; this must be done within six months.’

‘Employers beware,’ she adds. ‘You would not want to ignore allegations of bullying. Failure to address instances of workplace bullying may expose employers to up to 24 months remuneration if the employee is found to have been dismissed due to bullying, and unlimited compensation claims if the employee is found to have been the victim of unfair discrimination due to bullying.’

As more accounts of high-profile bullies hit the press, it would appear the general tolerance of that behaviour is wearing thin. Indeed, as a New York Times headline blares: ‘No More Working for Jerks!’. In a post-COVID era, it continues, ‘couches have been cubicles. Colleagues are instant message avatars. And people are reconsidering how much they should have to put up with from a boss’. It goes on to quote Angelina Darrisaw, chief executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who says that the tolerance for dealing with ‘jerky bosses’ has decreased.

‘People are realising that the stress, indignities and unpleasant personalities they had accepted as standard parts of office life are mostly non-existent in their home offices.’

By Nicola-Jane Ford
Images: Gallo/Getty Images