A subtle bully in the APS

By 8 September 2007 86

I don’t want to embark on a whine fest, but if anyone has dealt with, or observed, a subtle bully in the APS I’d appreciate some advice on what to do. I’m experiencing the classic subtle bully – everyone else on the team kept happy as lark, and I’m on a ‘slow track’ and my bully (who at 50-odd is still just like the ‘playground bitch’) who took an intense dislike to me on her arrival in the department, is thoroughly enjoying being able to comment on just how junior my position still is in the organisation after three years (while everyone else is being promoted).

A bully knows of course all too well that if you label a team member as barely competent, you can engineer a perception of incompetence, followed by de-skilling, followed presumably by actual incompetence through depression. (not there yet, but I’m starting to feel at risk). Have any rioters observed someone in my position and can senior management do anything? All advice I’ve had so far is ‘get the **** away from any corporate bully’ – but the work itself (once I manage to get just one rung higher than my current role) should be rewarding and I don’t really want to shift.

Just one anecdote to illustrate this gal’s MO: announced to a recent team meeting with immense hilarity and schadenfreude that she had heard one of the dept’s graduates had made a massive faux pas by telling the Secretary she felt her skills were underutilised, and my manager stated with a lot of cruel mirth that the grad was now on a slow track to annihilation and now had no future in the department. It was a little like witnessing a public stoning. No doubt the graduate’s actual name was mentioned in a tighter group – a chorus of ‘what was her name?’ was only stopped at the main meeting when a team member piped up and said she didn’t want to know.

Luckily for the graduate, the Secretary had it understood soon after, that she welcomed the frank discussion with the graduates. Being in this bully’s own team, I have no such protection from a member of the Executive!

As I said, though, I actually want to salvage my career, not embark on my own series of victim anecdotes! Any tips or advice welcome. My bully, by the way, believes she is ‘like THAT’ with the Secretary. Is it inevitably career suicide to identify as a victim of a bully, and just how wide is the gap between HR rhetoric and the way victims are treated by HR?

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86 Responses to
A subtle bully in the APS
Maelinar 2:47 pm
08 Sep 07

Use the word ‘Naturally’ when being subtly bullied.

It’s dismissive, and it passes the perception back to any listeners that you are more competent than the bully.

chester 3:27 pm
08 Sep 07

Gosh you’ve picked my special subject area!

Short answer: Do yourself a favour and get out of the PS and get out of Canberra. Find a way to go into business for yourself. You’ll work a lot harder, you’ll still have to deal with morons but you’ll have the satisfaction of being able to tell them to simply f@*k off rather than kowtow to them.

This town runs on the culture of mediocrity. If you already know half a dozen 10 year olds who demonstrate more intelligence and maturity – and it sounds like you do – I’m afraid it’s all down hill from here. And worst of all while you see a bunch of adults (and inevitably they run in packs) acting like spoilt, ill-behaved brats, they will be drunk on what they believe to be their sheer cleverness the whole time they’re doing you.

They are the modern Chinese mandarin. They’d drown in the bath if they didn’t get in wearing their floaties. They are the equivalent of men with very, very tiny d*@ks which is probably the underlying problem a good many of them are experiencing. Don’t even get me onto the weird species of frigid bitches who seem to derive some kind of perverse sexual pleasure from it. WTF is that all about???!!?

Oh and nepotism is alive and well, see.

Hey I was a paying customer. As an employee you don’t stand a chance. No point moving up or sideways. Out is the only escape. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

PS And I rate that post as a piece of classic chester. Clear, succinct (relatively speaking) and straight to the point. :D

Felix the Cat 3:27 pm
08 Sep 07

I’ve been in a similar position myself previously and found it a no win situation.

# 1 Rule – the Boss is always right
#2 Rule – if the Boss is wrong, see rule #1

It’s not right but it’s how life works.

There are two ways in which to remedy the situation, one is for you to find another job in a different area/dept or, # 2, hope that she does.

Eventually my position was made redundant, “officially” I had a period of 3 months to find a job elsewhere within the dept (supposedly with the help of HR) or take the money and run. I hung around for a couple of months and HR kept finding all these jobs that were nothing like the one I was doing and ones I had no experience of qualifications for so I decided to take the money and run. The other thing was that even if HR found me a job then my old boss could have a word in the ear of my new boss and tell her/him that I was an incompetent arsehole and after the 3 month probation period they could sack me and I wouldn’t get any redundancy money.

The only thing to do is to be proactive about the situation yourself and not rely on HR, Secretary, Union delegate or anyone else to look after you. When push comes to shove everybody will look after their own interests first and yours second.

Felix the Cat 3:29 pm
08 Sep 07

Chester might be on to something there…
Women bosses seem worse than men for some reason in my experience (I am male).

Ralph 4:45 pm
08 Sep 07

I have to say I agree with Chester.

JD115 4:57 pm
08 Sep 07

Move… drongo! Why the flock would you hang around when there are hundreds of jobs on the gazette. Don’t imagine for one moment that your area is the only chance you’ll have of finding interesting work. Most PS jobs above the ASO3 level are as interesting as you choose to make them anyway.

You will only continue to lose out by hanging around in an area where someone has got it in for you. How do I know? I was in the same boat until the last two months when I was shunted over to another area. For the first time in years the effect of the bitches from hell has been left behind and I amd recognised for my abilities, not the rumours that old molls have been circulating behind my back.

Masquara 5:02 pm
08 Sep 07

Trouble is, how do you move to a decent alternative job without a good reference from current manager?

loosebrown 5:18 pm
08 Sep 07

I agree with the theme of the responses here. I was in one team and ‘counselled’ by a manager for non-performance of duties. This was almost immediately after I began my career in the public service, when I probably needed a little guidance as opposed to disciplinary action! Thankfully I was moved to another team where the manager was amazing – very supportive and gave opportunities to her staff to try new work and develop new skills. About six months later I won an award from the departmental secretary for my achievements in her team. I think the moral of this is that if you are in a team where you are not ‘in’ or feel you are being bullied – move to another team, or look for a new job. I don’t care how good the work is, if your manager is a bully or incompetent then it will suck.

I have now come to the realisation that now I really don’t care what work I am doing – as long as I work with people I like. Life is too short to have anxiety attacks, etc because of an oppressive work situation.

And there are so many jobs out there at the moment! You could ask someone higher than your current boss for your reference.

el 5:29 pm
08 Sep 07

I agree with basically everything that’s been written so far – time to move to a different department entirely – SHITLOADS of jobs around at the moment.

Loosebrown absolutely hit the nail on the head WRT working with good people, too.

jemmy 5:32 pm
08 Sep 07

I’m not in the PS, but assuming it works similarly to private enterprise:

Everytime you feel uncomfortable, write the situation down, including times and people there. Document everything, especially the small incidents. The natural tendency is to document the big ones because they feel more important, but it’s actually the small ones that are more important for the later tribunal in establishing a trend of continuous intimidation and a culture of acceptance. You want to show that it wasn’t just a few isolated incidents.

Once you have several incidents documented, make an official complaint about the culture or the bullying to HR. It will establish your bona fides (sort of) and at least start the process before your manager is able to complete their chain of intimidation that is designed to remove you.

Accept that the likely outcome is that you will move positions. It’s highly unlikely they will move the manager instead of you unless others have the same problem.

Having said that, the incident with the manager disclosing gossip that is critical of another employee is very unsavioury and would be a good case to document.

Don’t let them wear you down. Adopt a position of righteous indignation. You will be moved so don’t try and accept the unacceptable in an attempt to prevent conflict, your relationship with your manager is already over.

nyssa76 5:32 pm
08 Sep 07

I so know this topic.

I’d get out. Don’t hang around, get out for your own sanity.

The system won’t care that you’re a victim, they’ll only care about their bottom line.

They won’t care if the bully has a history of bullying staff, as long as their work is good, they won’t be reprimanded. Hell, they’ll even be promoted!

The bully won’t care, they’ll see it all as ‘sport’ and gladly watch your health deteriorate.

Furthermore, anything said in public will be taken by your employer as misconduct and you can be punished for speaking out, even on here……

deejay 5:40 pm
08 Sep 07

It may be possible to get out with a good reference, depending on how you handle it. This is someone who obviously doesn’t want to see you advance, so she won’t help you for an upwards step, but she might help with a sideways step if you frame it as “wanting to gain more exposure to other portfolio agencies.” That is, nothing critical of her (employ a bit of suckup about how you admire her breath of knowledge if the relationship isn’t too far gone for that to be plausible). You can write an email, to both her and her manager, to the effect that you have benefited a lot from your time there (gag) and want to get some extra exposure and start working on succession planning, with a timeframe of 3-6 months, and can you all meet to talk it over? You’ll probably impress her manager with your consideration for the department and graceful handling, and might be able to get a reference there.

Another option is to put up your hand for short projects that take you away from your immediate manager and put you under someone else’s supervision – even if it’s just for a half day a week for a month or two. Then you’ll have that person as a possible referree as well.

sepi 5:57 pm
08 Sep 07

I agree with everyone else- get out. If you then still want to work in the job one rung up, you can get the promotion elsewhere, then move back sideways. Probably though, you’ll find something else just as good.

I had a sh*t boss who gave me absolutely nothing to do, and then used to tell me off if I left early. I was used to being busy, and being my own boss, so hanging around late with nothing to do seemed ridiculous. He started to make me doubt myself, but as soon as I moved sideways I felt 100 times better.

In a way I feel guilty that I didn’t make official complaints against him, in case he continues to do this to others, but in reality I was new to the department and it would have reflected badly on me. I didn’t want to look like a whinger. He was surprisingly well liked too – although not so much now.

Anyway – I got out by applying for every ‘acting’ role I could even halfway do. I didn’t actually get one, but by putting my name out and sending my resume around to managers with vacancies, one eventually offered me something else. And now I have no shortage of decent referees.

If you don’t get out, you may never get to that job one rung up, cos your current boss may not provide a good reference at the crucial time. Best to test the waters now – you never know – she may be glad to move you on and write something glowing anyway.

boomacat 6:49 pm
08 Sep 07

I have seen peoples’ lives destroyed trying to fight systematically entrenched organisational bullying.

GET OUT – you will never change this woman or the culture of the organisation you are working in; it takes a very brave maverick at the absolute top of the food chain to manage such a task.

Don’t sacrifice your own wellbeing with this shite. Take one of the gazillion great jobs that are around at the moment and make your future success your victory over the loser who is bullying you now.

ant 7:20 pm
08 Sep 07

Wow, you have got to get out of there NOW. I am not joking. You won’t win this one. Just get the hell out: transfer, get seconded, whatever. Be quiet, and be swift.

Why? I’ve been there. I didn’t get out, until it was too late, and then I did the ultimate get out, I resigned (for something a lot better I must admit). without my dream job to head to though, I wonder where it would have ended?

Most APS areas do not have good managers and supervisors, so what is happening to you won’t be recognised, and it won’t be dealt-with. People might even realise what’s happening, but NOTHING WILL HAPPEN. You can’t beat city hall. The only chance of bullies like this being beaten is if a number of underlings band together and take action. And the APS (and other big companies) tend to protect their senior staff.

Don’t cling on to a job you like, in a poisonous atmosphere that is going to poison you. Just fade out of the picture. Seriously.

Once you’re out, then explore what you can do to beat that bully. She’ll move on to others, guaranteed. And wherever she’s come from, there will also be people she’s trashed. Strength in numbers.

VicePope 8:49 pm
08 Sep 07

I’ve been where you are, Masquara, and tried to help others, and so I can honestly share your pain. At the bottom of it all, I agree with others who have suggested you move elsewere. This is not a bad time to be looking, and I’m sure you know reliable people who can tell you about workplaces where there are at least some sane people at the top. I work in one, and I know about a couple of others.

Recent years have probably produced more short-termism, groupthink and simplistic belief in money and promotion as motivators than the past. It will end, but it may take years to flush the idiots and their supporting networks of cowards out of the system. A change of government may get a few out at the top. Most of them will move on before the collapse of the self-aggrandising structures that they have created. There are a few reasonably general and accessible books about psychopaths in the workplace that might let you know.

Some observations. You have less power and will probably not win – any complaint will be looked at by one of the monster’s peers, who is more invested with protecting the organisation than with acting fairly towards you. The Australian Public Service Commission is of almost zero value and your individual concerns will be treated as being below the dignity of any of its staff. The union can still be quite effective in some workplaces, and joining might give you at least a feeling of support. Many organisations retain a de facto sane person in their SES level management (often without ambition but with real internal credibility) who can intervene and speak frankly – is there one in yours? Most organisations have Employee Assistance Programs staffed by counsellors who can suggest coping mechanisms and may support a move elsewhere.

If you would prefer to stay and fight, you should know that the compensation avenue has probably dried up. Most managers will die before admitting that one of their peers acted in an inappropriate way. One way that can work is to arrange a meeting (take a supporter if possible) and state as clearly and neutrally as you can what it is you find unacceptable. It may make the person recognise what is happening, or it may make them aware that you are not spineless.

Making notes of every interaction with the psychopath can be an effective way of creating a bit of cold sweat. Try not to drag others into the battle – they will not appreciate it and may turn on you if threatened. Soliciting others to your cause is seldom a good move.

Be brave. Keep your head above water, even if you must keep it below the parapet.

Ruby Wednesday 8:52 pm
08 Sep 07

If you do resign and move to another department, do take advantage of the exit interview that most agencies are obliged to offer. You’ve already got your reference and a new position, so there’s nothing to lose (assuming you don’t want to come back to that agency in the near future) in telling them exactly why you are leaving.

Ruby Wednesday 9:04 pm
08 Sep 07

Now, for a more comprehensive response. I worked for a particular state government since I started university. I had four years at a job I really liked, but needed to move for a job that was fulltime (the other was permament for several days a week, but other days were on an as-needed basis). I moved to work for the police service. I had one job where I liked the guys I was assisting in the legal office, but the manager’s idea of resolving disputes in the office (of which there were many longstanding ones) was to ignore them. I moved to another section after being told off by the manager for having a can of Coke on my desk, because one of the other women in the office didn’t like it. The next manager had a similar approach to management as it was a call centre and we were all just interchangeable to him. I stayed in that section for a year working 24/7 rotating shifts, and then moved again to a job with not a whole lot to do and a manager who didn’t give a toss. I had a degree, and knew I could do a lot more than the filing, photocopying and typing that they seemed to decide was all young women could really do.

I then took a very risky secondment. It was only for three months, but it was to the state parliament’s committee office. If, after three months, there was no need for me, I would have had to go back to the second section (a police call centre). I went, and that experience got me thinking about a whole new career path that is relevant to my admittedly not-very-career-enhancing English Lit degree. Because of that three month secondment, I got the experience to beef up my resume that allowed me to put in for a far, far better job down here in Canberra at PSL5 level, which was a big jump from AO3 in pay.

I’m finally doing real, interesting and challenging work, not just administratively supporting those who are doing the work. I’m not saying my current work isn’t without issues–it does have some–but I took a chance to get out of a system where I would always be seen as a PA and nothing else, and that one secondment opened my eyes to a whole career path that I am really enjoying. If I’d have stayed, I’d still be bitching and moaning about my old managers and their ineptitude. Sure, they couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag, but the system isn’t going to make them change. Don’t worry about jumping around until you find a job you enjoy and where the managers are somewhat competent. They do exist!

VicePope 9:33 pm
08 Sep 07

Getting references can be hard. I have sometimes given “peer references” for colleagues/frequent contacts who were having difficulty with their managers. Talking to contact people about jobs that interest you can be an opportunity to flag this issue and suggest alternatives to what may be a degrading/patently insincere reference from the monster. Applying for jobs when you know the monster will be unavailable is another option.

By the way. I know at least some people from the Canberra Times keep an eye on RA. How about a Public Sector Informant feature on workplace monsters or a capacity for readers to provide verifiable horror stories from the public sector workplace?

Sasha 9:52 pm
08 Sep 07

I’d chat with the person – in a non-confrontational way. Yes it is possible eg talk about what you like about the department but mention that you are a newbie and want her advice about what you can do to fit in better. People love that shit ie when you ask their advice. Turn your enermy into your friend and bury this – until the day she is working for you!

nyssa76 9:57 pm
08 Sep 07

VicePope, it would be nice but as I have already said, if you speak out you can be done for misconduct and literally ‘blackballed’.

I was “threatened” with that for speaking out and one of my cousin’s works for the CT!

Ruby, I also know what you mean. I could do so much more in my job but I am hindered by people who only want ‘suck ups’ and I have the moral fortitude to disagree.

Masquara, I recommend the book “Workplace Psychopaths”. I can’t remember the author’s name but it got me through my ‘issues’ because it named the behaviour and gave me steps in which to protect myself until I left.

You 10:14 pm
08 Sep 07

Solution: Tell the teacher

ant 10:38 pm
08 Sep 07

I remember that Workplace Psycopaths book. when it came out, I was ticking off the “signs” one by one. I’m still amazed I ended up in that position, and what happened. and our boss, after my complaint, got us both in to “talk it through”. He went into psycopath mode, she saw it all, and did nothing. After I left, his next bullying target told me that he just took up with her where he left off with me, and the director still did nothing.

However, there are many departments and businesses that just don’t have that crap going on, or protect it. the reference thing is a stumble, so think laterally, who else can you ask? Or, play nice, ask for her advice etc, just to get her near enough so that when you need that ref. report, it won’t be a biggie. Also, when giving ref. reports, I have to tell you (from the other side) that most givers are very conservative. To put it plainly, most are sh!t scraed of giving a negative one for fear of being held to account (ie sued) for it later. Don’t worry unduly about that one.

Play it safe, go for a dead-easy job at level somewhere else, and get your head and soul back together.

VicePope 10:41 pm
08 Sep 07

Nyssa: This is why you take a witness along if possible. You also need to know precisely what you will say, in a measured way, and to have the strength of purpose not to be deflected from it. The “sin” for which one can be considered for misconduct is failing to act with courtesy.

It is, however, a judgment call. Some monsters are just too big and bad, and some otherwise normal people run away from asserting themselves.

ant 10:59 pm
08 Sep 07

Look at all the posts this topic has elicited. I’d say there’s a big problem, a very big problem! It’s a shame we can’t email each other… although some of the advice here (actually, most of it) is excellent.

I’m now in the strange position where bullying can’t touch me, for 3 reasons (which I shan’t hint at). And that which did not kill us does make us stronger. but I still look back at the whole business with astonishment, and I get very angry when I find others are copping this.

Someone set up a “dob in crap drivers” site for the ACT. I think that someone needs to do the same for bullies in ACT region workplaces. I suspect that some of the bullies would be nominated by more than 1 person. And the best bullies are intelligent, and weird.

sepi 11:08 pm
08 Sep 07

Yeah – I never thought it would happen to me either. And i never thought I would have cared if it did, but they grind you down. My workforce monster was definitely intelligent and wierd. He was bored at work, so he used to pick on people for fun.

For the reference, can you try any past supervisors? Or just go for acting roles in your current area, so you won’t need referees to get those, and then you will get referees there.

Or in desperation get a friend at a past workplace to say that you reported to them in some way, and write you a reference (even if you just did some small aspect of work for them once in a while).

I’d move quickly – if there’s a change of government – or even an election called, new jobs will dry up for quite a while.

ant 11:19 pm
08 Sep 07

My particular bully wrote a novel… about bullying. At an institution close to home. So I figure he experienced it, and then played it out when he was in a position to do it. like I said, weird and intelligent.

Vic Bitterman 12:25 am
09 Sep 07

I do agree with the above comments totally. Go find a new job, just your strings. You’ll feel so much better!

And before you do it, make sure you sign the slag up to as many porno and spam mailing lists as you can possibly find via Google. Call me petty….

Ingeegoodbee 7:40 am
09 Sep 07

Move. You have complete control over what you can do and achieve – almost none over others. Getting out is your key to surviving.

As far as the reference goes – seek peer references, and if you’re not confidant with getting somthing decent from your manager go above them, like the section head, branch head or division head be ready to discus your work and provide examples to support your performance/competence – any decent senior manager should be able to give you a good reference if you walk them through it. Talk to someone you trust in HR first and walk them through your exit strategy – they should be supportive, if only for selfish reasons given that helping you into a new job is goinging to be way easier than dealing with a workplace bullying sh!t-fight.

nyssa76 8:10 am
09 Sep 07

VicePope, I did that too – take a witness.

Shame she too was harassed for doing it.

It’s not always a ‘fair’ playing field.

ant, my website – The Trouble with Teachers (ad is on RA) – is about workplace bullying in education. Not many people are willing to speak out. They’re afraid they’ll be ‘done’ for doing it.

Shame really as silence makes it worse.

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