OPINION: Secret scourge of workplace psychopaths

IMAGINE... you have worked for your employer for many years and each day you are a  target of juvenile bullying,  as if you are in a school yard. 

It makes you feel humiliated, as you are treated like you are somehow inferior.

Harassment in the workplace can come in two different forms: overtly, where the perpetrator can threaten or use physical violence openly; or covertly, where the behaviour is conducted in a more subtle, behind-the-scenes approach.

Covert bullying can be  tricky to explain and hard to report. It’s a delicate form of psychological warfare. 

But it is also genuine and can cause great distress to anyone directly or indirectly involved.

The covert bully is a coward and that is why they take this approach. They have been described as ‘‘workplace psychopaths’’.

A great deal of research has been done on this subject by psychologists such as Dr John Clarke, who has written  a number of books including Working with Monsters and Pocket Psycho.

When people think of psychopaths, they generally think of serial killers and, while the behaviour of this type of bully is not anywhere as extreme, they share some common traits. They present themselves in a smooth, polished and charming way. 

They lie with ease and demonstrate a lack of understanding of other people’s emotions.

In a workplace, they can wreak havoc on the morale and culture of their environment as they create personal power networks by manipulating peer groups to use them for their own personal agenda.

They are also cunning enough to recognise the signs of a sleepy manager or form friendships with supervisors as this empowers them when they are close to someone of authority. They can then take advantage of the relationship for personal gains. 

This is a recipe for disaster, and has the ability to threaten the viability of the business.

 Unfortunately it is the reality of work life for some employees. In some cases managers, unknowingly, can also end up being victims. 

Workers will be frightened to speak out against or confront these bullies for fear of losing their jobs. Some are forced on stress leave and become victims of the workers’ compensation system.

Others just quit.

Most employers are aware of their obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. But the challenge is to put policies into practice. 

That means developing a culture where no bullying or harassment is tolerated. 

Employers should be aware  there are severe penalties in the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 if it is proven  they have not shown due diligence. 

The Productivity Commission estimates at least 2.5million Australians experience some aspect of bullying during their working lives, at a cost of billions of dollars. It is important to speak up and report it as this secret scourge throughout workplaces needs to be exposed. The perpetrators need to feel that they are being watched. 

John Boyd is the assistant  secretary of the Newcastle, Central Coast and Northern Regions branch of the Australian Workers Union.

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