workplace bullying: the stakes are raised

A few days ago I wrote here and here about workplace bullying, and how I believe it is rife, if not in New Zealand, then certainly it’s alive and thriving here in Wellington. When I first wrote about the workplace bully as a vampire, I described some of their psychopathic behaviours and modus operandi. Allow me to recap: they can be male or female, usually have an education or are well equipped with native cunning, and they’re well up (and continuing to work their way up) the totem pole. Apart from the stench of the undead, you’ll be able to identify a nest of vampires by all or all of the following signs: a high staff turnover, a climate of change, changing (unfair) work conditions and environments, workers are stressed, and the vampires inevitably surround themselves with a clan of cronies.

Today I came across a story online from Patrick Crewdson – The Dominion Post – today, Monday, 27 August 2007. I’m going to excerpt it heavily, as their archive system is a bit uneven, not as some sort of plagiarism. This is a story that should be preserved. It’s about vampires; see if you can recognise any of the spoor.

The scene opens:

The case of Stuart Selwood v Queen Margaret College pitted the school against itself and exposed a serious rift between teachers and the management.

Before the Employment Relations Authority, current and former staff of the school lined up with the Selwood family against the school’s hierarchy – principal Carol Craymer, deputy principal Rosey Mabin, bursar Annette Lendrum, year 13 dean Milada Pivac and others.

Located in Thorndon, Queen Margaret College an independent Presbyterian girls’ school, prides itself on being one of the premier schools for girls in Wellington, if not New Zealand. The school motto is ‘Luce Veritatis – By the light of truth‘, and their marketing line is ‘Passionate learners, resilient women, future leaders‘.

Most striking among his (Dr Selwood’s) list of complaints was the charge that the stress he suffered at the school masked the symptoms of his bowel cancer till it spread to his lungs and became terminal.

He claimed to have been bullied, pressured, and mistreated – forced to accept a revised job description under threat of redundancy; made to work out of a “storeroom”; victimised after an altercation over a pupil’s iPod; denied a support person at meetings with management; and marginalised by an audit of the school’s IT operations.

He claimed the school downgraded his responsibilities, threatened him with redundancy if he did not accept the changes, and moved him to an office “unfit for human habitation”.

Originally, he sought $74,000 compensation – as well as for the school to cover his legal and medical costs – but he reduced that to $59,000 as the hearing closed. In the end, the authority awarded him $5000.

Oncologist Peter Dady told the authority Dr Selwood’s life expectancy was one to two years. Stress would not have caused the cancer, but it could have cloaked the symptoms till it was too late, he said.

What does the Board have to say about this?

“The board has unqualified confidence in Ms Craymer and her leadership team and is offended by the allegations and inferences made about Carol and her team.”

Criticising Dr Selwood for taking the dispute “into the public arena”, he said the school had “a very disciplined strategy” for dealing with media coverage and anyone approached should direct inquiries to him.

This is from Board of governors chairman Allan Freeth. Hmmm, now there’s a name that sounds familiar.

So, what about the parents and other staff? Well, it seems in the ancient tradition of vampires, a conspiracy of silence prevails.

Other members of the school community agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, afraid being seen to criticise senior management could damage their future at the college.

One mother told The Dominion Post that since her daughter had been at the school, she believed it had changed from a “vibrant, warm and nurturing” environment to somewhere with the atmosphere of “a fridge”.

As staff left, Ms Craymer had surrounded herself with a coterie of “scrubbed, ponytailed Brunnhildes”, she said.

“Factions developed, with the principal apparently gathering about her a closed senior management team and sending out messages about loyalty at all costs.”

I can only hope the Brunnhilde reference is to the Wagnerian Valkyrie, and not to the more frightening Brunhilda of Austrasia. But you couldn’t rule it out. Ok, so what about the vampire evidence?

Much of the most damning criticism of the school came in briefs of evidence submitted to the authority.

Part-time IT teacher John Barrow said unhappy teachers referred to the senior management team as “the enemy”. He has since resigned, after deputy principal Rosey Mabin told him his testimony at the initial hearing left him in an “untenable position”.

Former teacher Virginia Horrocks said teachers felt they “were being subjected to a regime of divide and rule” – under an autocratic system that even banned personal mugs from the staffroom.

Since Ms Craymer took over as principal in January 2004, 14 teachers had left to take up similar or lower- level jobs at other schools, with three department heads leaving to return to the classroom, she said.

The authority also saw a May 2006 letter from members of the private school teachers’ union to the board of governors that read: “Over the last two years we have seen substantial change to the college resulting in a falling roll, extraordinary staff turnover and minimal value placed on the professional skills and the goodwill of the teaching and support staff.”

According to a document available on the Queen Margaret College web site, there are, in 2007, 65 teaching staff, including some on maternity leave. If it is correct that 14 staff had left, that’s be something like the 25% – a substantial turnover it seems, for somewhere as caring and nurturing as suggested by the web site. I can’t help wondering why would somebody find it necessary or desirable to go to the effort of setting up a Googlepage dedicated to commentary on the bullying at Queen Margaret College? Slightly more than someone with a bit of a grudge it seems.

Vampires. In the school. It’s a disgrace. My heart goes out to Stuart and Sally Selwood, their family, and the other victims. Somehow I don’t imagine the $5,000 the Selwoods were awarded will offer much in the way of comfort. If (IF) the predictions are true and Dr Selwood doesn’t see out the decade, I can image the management team’s angst as to whether they should send flowers, or attend the funeral, or both. The hollow words at the school assembly, perhaps even a minute or two of silence. One thing’s for sure – QMC’s web site’s promise of a ‘professional and supportive staff and a warm, caring and friendly atmosphere‘ isn’t immediately obvious. It doesn’t matter if the Employment Relations Authority found the school management were only guilty to the extent of $5,000 – I would’ve expected any good vampire would’ve covered their tracks just as thoroughly. What does matter is Dr Selwood, and apparently others, did feel bullied and the school authorities have been unable to respond and communicate the sincere support and aroha that the victims might reasonably expect to experience in a workplace that so strongly identifies with Christian beliefs.

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