Wellington, as a concept, makes an effort to attract the creative talent, along the lines described by Richard Florida. And while that’s a good thing, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing pattern here – that is, how common the bullying of staff is. I have no figures to compare to elsewhere in NZ, or indeed, the world; but it is rife here. I usually go for a walk at lunch time and a couple of times recently I’ve overheard distraught people telling friends as they walk about their latest horror. I don’t mean vague ‘I hate my job, it sux’, kind of thing, I mean very stressed people telling tales of abusive treatment. Outside my office recently I encountered a colleague who was so angry and upset that they were unable to weep, but clearly they wanted to calm down to the extent that that was an option. It seems so stupid and unproductive to me – how on earth was this person going to go back to their desk and in any way be productive for the rest of the day? This bullying – this abuse – not only is destructive to the person, it must have a lasting effect on the profit and productivity of a workplace, simply because the time is lost, quite apart from how the worker responds over the next few hours, days and weeks.
So where does it come from? I’ve had many jobs, many work places, worked with and for many different people. And I’ve struck a few nasty people in my time. And then there are people out the other side of nasty. They are psychopaths. I call them vampires. They are devoid of any empathy, their emotion is carefully engineered for their benefit, and they have no compunction about doing whatever is required to suit their own ends. Their ruthless manipulations generate some sort of pleasure reward, in much the same way that rape is not about sex, rather it is about power and domination. They’re not common – predators never are – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Think: vampires. There can’t be lots of them because they’d run of out prey quickly. Same with your typical workplace psychopath – if the entire office was full of them there’d be no-one for them to prey on. My unscientific guess is 1 in 100 people has the goods – the fangs, if you will. Oh, and just like the Dracula movie, the vampires can be just as easily be female as male.
Like vampires, they have to have been invited over the threshold into the workplace, usually by inept HR processes, and, like vampires, once installed, they’re not easy to get rid of by the victims; nor by the other victims, the company itself who can see (hopefully, eventually) that previously good staff are starting to turn over. Typically however it’s not that easy – first the vampire will be quicker than that – there’ll be a seemingly valid reason why the staff turnover is going up, and no matter what, it’ll have nothing to do with the vampire. I have worked in places with a greater than 33% staff turnover – in other words, within three years 100% of the institution knowledge has walked out the door – not that there was that much in the first instance. I do not know why senior management compensation is not tied to turnover figures. I do not know what HR insist on inane questions at interviews along the lines of tell me when you succeeded at something, as if that’s really going to identify any aberrant behaviour. See the problem is, some of the vampire behaviours are desirable when you’re looking to recruit for sales or executive type roles – someone ambitious and charming, focussed and driven etc. What needs to be considered (apart from a thorough follow up on reference checking) is the emotional responses – along the lines of Dekkard checking for replicants in Blade Runner. I’ve yet to see any HR process that in any way genuinely looks at weeding out vampire applicants. And turbulent times – restructures etc is the exact environment to attract vampires. People are unsettled, they come in looking like leaders and champions, they’re sweet talking, and you look like fresh meat. The greater the staff turn over, the greater opportunity for vampires. They’re thrilled by change. Just like in the vampire movies – Drac wafts in when the wheel falls off and there’s a storm brewing.
The perfect murder
According to Dr John Clarke, Sydney based author of ‘Working with Monsters‘, people who have been ruthlessly bullied have sought escape from the depression and fear by taking their own lives. In that case, I believe the management of a company should be charged as being accessories to murder. And the vampire him/her-self be charged accordingly. The colleague I met outside was obviously highly stressed, and had finished a second cigarette. Killing – murder – takes many forms. A death resulting from these things would not be attributed back to the vampire (and they would not feel any remorse), but the end result is the same.
On becoming a vampire slayer
OK – so you think your boss is a vampire. What do you do? You’ve probably become aware of the worsening of the situation between you. You’re probably blaming yourself, or wondering what’s happening to you. Heads up – you’re not going mad, you’ve got a vampire there. The situation is exactly the same as in the Dracula movies. You have to get away from the vampire, or get rid of the vampire. There’s a good chance the vampire will have reinforced their position with some other people – so keep a look out for favorites, buddy-buds, shared in-jokes – that kind of thing – they will build their power base. Just like the bullies in the school yard – just like the movies – the children of the night, and the lurking manservant. J.K.Rowling summed the cronies nicely in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
They were a motley collection; a collection of the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish, gravitating towards a leader who could show them more refined forms of cruelty.
Look also for cover-ups, incompetence, and blame. Look for rules being changed arbitrarily, unfairness, inconsistency, and things that were acceptable before are now no longer so. You’ll know, because you’ll be baring the brunt of it. Don’t feel completely bad, you’re not mad, you’re not alone and you’re not the first – have a quick check of an online survey that’s about as authoritative as the HR babel. Don’t take it too seriously, but it’s an indicator.
Do a bit of a reality check – have you actually become crap at your job because something else has happened outside – are you studying on the side, started a new relationship, got into debt etc – these kinds of things, coupled by not getting enough sleep can affect your performance at work. So, be honest and look at yourself in an honest way, and, rather than reach for your stakes and garlic, make absolutely sure your performance is outstanding. I know it was once, is it still the same? Don’t be holding grudges because a person older or younger, male or female, straight or gay or whatever has got the role you wanted and now you’re jealous. Once you’ve cleared that up, go back over the points of complaint, and see what was wrong. If you genuinely stuffed up, sort it, learn from it, and move on.
Having done that, the vampire’s still there? Ok, sounds like you might have a live one. You’ve got two options. Get out, or get the vampire out. Usually the vampire is further up the totem pole than you, so, getting out is the straight forward option. Dust of your resume/cv – and get yourself gussied up ready for the next role by dropping your cv off to agencies and other employers. What you’ll gain is a feeling of being in some control, and jobs don’t seem so bad if you know there’s a back door somewhere. Don’t pretend it’ll get better, or you love your job. Stop making excuses, get out while you’re alive. Stress is a killer, and you and yours don’t need it. And the vampire will simply move on to the next victim – they are ruthless and relentless, and they won’t stop with you. If you stay you might just as well offer your naked throat to Hannibal Lecter. Other defenses include networking with friends and letting everyone know you’re in the market for a new role. Also, make an effort to build up some cash reserves – ideally 6 months worth of pay – so if all else fails you can simply leave. Get out of debt. If you let it slip that you need your job because of some financial horror you have just entirely put yourself at their mercy. And they have none. Remember, this is not the school bully (although they probably started there) the work place vampire has a control on your income, and there is no big teacher to come and sort it out. The HR team have their hands tied, and the vampire will typically have sorted them first, and besides, if the HR processes were any good there wouldn’t be a vampire here in the first instance.
Disclosure. Do not disclose anything that in some way can be twisted by the vampire. They will, and will use it against you. I’ve mentioned the being in debt thing. Do not disclose any weakness at all. Keep your private stuff to yourself. I’ve seen guys present their necks at those matey drinking sessions. That vampire is not as drunk as you think. They are taking it all in, and it will be used. If you are good, and you intend hunting the vampire (careful, they are very, very dangerous), you might avail yourself of any information, but remember to triangulate evidence – they are are glib and convincing liars. Check out Gormenghast’s Steerpike as a classic example of a workplace vampire. Absolutely do not whine to HR or a more senior manager about the vampire, until you have got overwhelming, triangulated, documented evidence (and that you are free of all spatters). They cannot get rid of a person because you’re petty and don’t like them. The vampire will make it seem like that, and then you’ve shown your hand, and there will be no protection for you at all. A vampire will see your emotions very clearly, and they will manipulate them to their best advantage. Do not apply your value set to the vampire. They don’t have it, it is irrelevant. At best you can be thought of as a lamb for the slaughter.
Document. Get yourself a diary, (pay for it yourself so that doesn’t trigger any possible attack) and make detailed notes of everything. What time you start, take breaks, finish. Every phone conversation for work, stop using the phone for social purposes. Back up email etc. Take your own minutes of every meeting. That would be EVERY meeting. I use bigger postits and leave notes to myself as I go – along the lines of – I filed this here, here and here, because this may be needed for this, this, and this. They’re generic so other people finding them simply think I’m being helpful, but before today a note from two years previously has been the garlic to fend off the vampire. Some might call it covering your butt, I think of it as garlic on my throat. Document, document, document. And stop doing anything that provides a chink in your armor. Stop taking coffee breaks that are longer than allotted, leave the private photocopying to others, stop doing anything other than being an exemplary employee. Become the model employee. Sure, I know, you are now. What I’m writing about is closing off all opportunity for the vampire to strike, don’t quibble over a paper clip. Make a big effort to connect to your job – take every opportunity to get into every nook and cranny – learn all there is to know – knowledge is power, and besides, when you get the new role elsewhere you’re even more valuable.
In terms of fighting back, as an underling your options are limited. If your vampire is any good your access to the information and knowledge will be being limited, the rules will be being changed, and if they’re doing their job properly, they’ll have a group of people who’re rewarded for knifing you. Perhaps not overtly in either case, but that changes nothing. Your only hope is as per the villagers in the Dracula movies, group together with people who you know and trust, bide your time and strike a blow. Bare in mind it will be an all or nothing blow, if you fail to have the vampire removed you will have no backstop. I have heard of staking vampires being achieved with a successful (and valid) sexual harassment claim. Documented evidence, or be gone. By the way, if you see one of your colleagues being treated badly and unfairly (is there a difference?) then you should step in and offer support. Remember, you could be next…
If you are a more senior manager than the vampire, then it behooves you to get off your arse and do something for the health, not only of your employees, but also that of the company. Employment laws make it difficult to dismiss an employee – the vampire – unless there’s a clear reason for doing so. So you have to use some things that you should’ve had in place in the first instance. You, by the way, are responsible for the vampire being there in the first instance, so you should thank your lucky stars the workers aren’t chasing you with pitchforks and firebrands. First, why not start with a fairly simple test something like this one from FastCompany. It’s aimed at employees, but using your common sense you can see patterns of behaviours that your could verify by talking to the line workers. And there’s another hint. Why don’t you talk to your line workers? Management by walking around. It’s an exciting new business concept.
Dr Clarke’s book has some solutions – one was quite elaborate that took the vampire off to manage a company that the home company set up, and then left in the ownership of the vampire. It was elaborate and beautiful, and I can imagine volunteering to be one of the ‘victims’ if I got a chance to stake a vampire like that. But simpler would be simply tie employee turn over to the vampire’s performance criteria. If staff turn over is above industry average, you’re paying out more for induction and training than is necessary. Why are you so determined to squander investor profits? Another figure to look at is employee absences. Is there a pattern – is one employee absent every Monday? Why is that? Why haven’t you got employee absences tied into the vampire’s performance agreement? Personally, if I saw that the same employee was absent on the same day of the week twice in a month I’d want to know why, from the employee themselves – not in a vindictive way, but in a ‘how can we help?’ way. You haven’t got time for this? So why do you pay HR as though that’s some sort of added value to the business, when all you really need is a pay clerk?
Another solution that I’ve never ever seen implemented is generally the vampire controls the employee’s performance management and their word decides what the line worker’s income will be. The vampire gets to comment on the employee’s work, attitude, and performance. Why isn’t it back the other way as well. Why doesn’t the management value the opinions of the line workers? You do? How would I, as a consultant vampire slayer, be able to measure this? What are you afraid of? Being charged if an employee suicides as a result of being bullied by the vampire you hired? Of the highlighted loss of profit because of the staff turn over? I can see no reason why all employees shouldn’t also respond on the performance of their manager. It should be anonymous. If a single person has a trivial gripe it’ll show as being what it is. If more than one person comments perhaps there’s a pattern there worthy of further investigation. The basic perspective is to drive fear (and vampires) out of your work place. This is not to say that your workers will necessarily love every decision made – if you think of the great leaders (and I bet you can’t name a single great manager in history), leaders such as Shackleton, they made decisions that were not universally popular, however they remained respected leaders in the face of genuine adversity.
You have to get rid of the vampires. They have to go. You cannot retrain or therapy them. All you will achieve there is retrain them how to be more manipulative, more successful at the evil they do. Drive evil out by bringing light and communication in. That’s how it’s been done since the days of Vlad the Impaler. Be brave, take action. Save your good employees, save your company.