I’ve frequently observed a manner of bullying not easily described, a below the surface iceberg of bullying. It can range from a parent relentlessly nagging a child with “You don’t love me”, to a manager at work asking a worker – with a fixed grin, “Don’t you love me anymore, matey?” whilst requesting (always with good humour) a dangerous task to be done, for the good of The Team. It’s here that language and gestures are used as instruments of camouflage.
A permanent tone of obligation is present, constructed on illusions marketed locally as axioms of behaviour: “We’re a team, Team, aren’t we Team?!”, “Our first concern is the H&S of our employees”, “They are our most important resource”, “We take their safety issues most seriously”, “Nothing comes before that”. This is a hybrid form of insidious double bind, but much more subtle than ‘You‘re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’. It’s a single theme with regular pin pricks often generating permanent anxiety and learnt helplessness.
I have seen workers completely worn out by it. They are silently humiliated and angry because the truth of the matter is never exposed. I’ve seen them sitting quietly eating their lunch surrounded by fancy documents in thin frames or dutifully laminated for posterity: The Corporate OHS Policy, The Family Support Policy, The Anti-Discrimination Policy; The Anti-Bullying Policy; The Fatigue Policy.
“All they have to do”, the boss told me, “is tell us, we’ll write a policy on what’s needed.” What could be more inclusive, cooperative and helpful? Mother is here! So why does it feel like care-less bullying? Imagine yourself standing in the boss’s office, or the lunch room, or the smoko shed having heard a series of blatant lies and suddenly being asked enthusiastically by the benevolent manager in front of many people, “Isn’t that right, Belinda?” And the voices in the theatre of your mind keen injustice in the shrill pitch of an announcing banshee, ‘Are yee going to put up with this?’
And generally you do. Are you really going to put up a fight, particularly when you’ve experienced – in one form or another – some of these as well:
- This was the yearly stock take. At 7.30 in the evening most of them were exhausted counting and labelling the stock. The store manager walked around in a white shirt and tie clapping his hands at the tired women, and – not unlike a current car advertisement – barked at them, “C’mon we can do more in this aisle tonight, c’mon girls”. The young floor manager who worked alongside the women angrily objected, and White Shirt bellowed – after some heated words during which he sensed he looked stupid – “Resign then, resign now, resign, resign, resign”.
- “I was young and enthusiastic and short of money. There was a credit squeeze on. Married, new baby, living in a dilapidated half house riddled with fleas. Long night shifts in the plastics factory were hard. At midnight the elegantly dressed HR manager from head office, who vigorously removed his tie in front of us at the meeting, said, “How are production targets going tonight, Team?!” Three times he said it before Drago said too loudly “I’m gonna go puke, can’t take this shit no more” and stumbled out to a stunned silence.
I spoke to Drago later that night in the noisy crusher room. He said to me that he’d seen this ‘grease-ball-squash-you-like-a-bug method’ as a young man ‘in the old country’ after the armies left. ‘I know where all this business ends’ he said, “My stomach knows”. He really did puke that night. It took three more weeks before they suddenly discovered that they had to ‘let Drago go’.
Too many workers (including those managers responding to changing demands (often changing fashions) from their international HO) are bullied for decades. From the ceremonial moment of The Stretched Hand “Welcome to The Team”, to the dishonest, “I’m going to have to let you go” many years later a theme of bullying can permeate through all those years. Often in circumstances where it isn’t easy to identify any single events as the ‘ahha’ moments of bullying.
How do you fight it? For a start, with the “Don’t Give Me This Crap, Sunshine!” method. But. That’s another story, particularly if the security of your job depends on being a compliant team player.