Yet again I was disappointed to read a news article about a very serious case of workplace bullying. The abuse bookstore employee Wendy Swan endured from her boss was extraordinary. The list of outrageous behaviours from the manager in question is long and varied. Over the 5 years of her employment Wendy had a book and random stationary flung at her, was banned from eating bananas inside, was forced to memorise booklists and restricted to meaningless tasks. If that isn’t bad enough Wendy was also routinely subjected to abusive and violent outbursts.
Determined not to allow a bully to drive her from a job and workplace she loved, Wendy endured the abuse until finally she had a mental breakdown. The good news is Wendy, who hasn’t worked since 2007, was recently awarded close to $600,000 in compensation. $292,554.38 for past and future loss of earnings and $300,000 in pain and suffering. While that’s a lot of money it’s not enough to compensate Wendy for what has been taken from her. No amount of money can do that.
The court found the bullying had turned Wendy from a “bubbly, lively and caring” mother of two to a socially withdrawn woman suffering chronic anxiety and depression. Justice John Dixon was reported by the Herald Sun as saying “… Mr Cowell felt no compunction to treat the plaintiff with the level of respect that is reasonably expected”. He said had Wendy’s complaints been dealt with when they were made, she would not have suffered significant psychological injury.
While the bullying behaviour is appalling the inaction of other people managers in the organisation is also unacceptable. Despite Wendy first raising a complaint in 2003 no one stepped up and took action to address the bully’s behaviour? She complained of being subjected to sarcasm, hostility, rudeness, and violent behaviour. So why were the people in a position to take action not more concerned or even angry enough to step in and defend Wendy? People in positions of power who stand back and allow bullying to happen are far from what I regard as a leader.
Ignorance is no excuse – even without her initial and subsequent complaints, surely someone in the leadership ranks noticed that Wendy needed support. Given her manager also racially vilified people of Asian appearance and dark-skinned students employed as casuals, it’s difficult to believe other people managers weren’t aware of how Wendy was being treated. The lack of compassion and irresponsibility it takes to allow abuse such as Wendy endured to happen in any organisation is upsetting to contemplate.
It’s not good enough for anyone in a leadership role to turn the other cheek and allow staff to be damaged in the way Wendy has been. While people leaders have a lawful obligation to safeguard the health and wellbeing of all staff in their organisation (irrespective of whether or not they report directly to them) I believe every person in a business has a moral obligation to look out for one another.
In my latest book The People Manager’s Toolkit I share a code of management conduct that when applied will ensure people are treated with the respect and decency they deserve. The first priority I argue is to earn trust and respect. To do that every leader must lead by example and demonstrate the standard of behaviour expected. The second priority I describe is taking ownership and holding ourselves accountable for meeting the obligations of our role. Her manager as well as other leaders in this organisation let Wendy down by failing to enforce these standards of conduct.
How will Wendy get on from here I wonder? While no doubt the financial compensation she is due to receive will make a positive difference in her life that money can’t buy everything. My hope is that Wendy also has the support she needs to work through and hopefully overcome the mental and emotional impacts of being bullied? The compensation awarded is for earnings and pain and suffering – Wendy shouldn’t have to use any of it to pay for health services she may need.