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Workplace bullies in both Ireland and the UK must be celebrating wildly in the wake of the Kate Fitzgerald affair.

For those who aren’t aware, Miss Fitzgerald was the author of Employers failing people with mental health issues, a piece that was published anonymously in the Irish Times on September 9 last year (the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day). The piece detailed some of the author’s history of depression and spoke of an attempt to take her own life, followed by voluntary hospitalisation.

It then discussed the problems she encountered when she returned to work. After stating that she loved her job, and had checked out of hospital against medical advice after being unable to get a firm answer about when she would be able to leave, she wrote: “I did not… expect that I would be met with casual hostility, with passive-aggressive references to my mental incapacity for my profession, and my apparently  perceived ‘plan’ to leave the company entirely in the lurch.”

She wrote: “My manager… met the story of my misery with confusion and the suggestion that I could not be trusted with seniority. I was accused of planning my absence. Every question seemed posed with the hope that it might bolster a preconceived notion… Much of what my employer has done and said since my absence has been illegal. And I do not think for a minute that what my employer did was an isolated incident.”

References to her mental incapacity, accusations of planning to leave the company in the lurch, suggestions that she could not be trusted with seniority, questions designed to prove preconceived notions about her – these are clear signs of workplace bullying. But the article was about the way relationships with colleagues can change after they become aware that a person has a mental health problem like depression, or has tried to self-harm. The aim was clearly not to accuse businesses but to advise sufferers. Towards this end, the paper published helplines for readers who were in a similar situation.

Nobody at the paper knew that, by the time the article was published, its author Kate Fitzgerald had already taken her own life. She was 25.

Her father Tom rang the newspaper the day after publication, to say he thought that the author was his daughter and that she had taken her own life between its having been submitted and published, and the paper ran a moving article revealing her identity in late November – thereby opening a can of very nasty worms.

As soon as the identity of the article’s author became known, it became possible to work out the identity of her employers whose actions she had described as “illegal”. The minute that information was known, this allegation became legally actionable and the newspaper was in danger of a libel suit from her former employers.

The newspaper acted to rectify this issue within the bounds of the law and, as I understand it, under legal advice after Miss Fitzgerald’s employers registered their “unhappiness” with the article. Its actions included an apology to the company in which it made another mistake, stating “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”. In essence, the paper was calling Miss Fitzgerald a liar with no evidence to prove this – in the knowledge that it is impossible to libel the dead. Sadly, respect for the dead went out the window, too.

It is certainly true that the employers – I think everyone concerned knows it was a firm called The Communications Clinic – have been put in an extremely difficult position by this. There is no legal case to answer because the allegation cannot be put to the company – but many people know about it, nonetheless. Add to this the fact that another former employee, Karagh Fox, had taken legal action against the firm, alleging that she had been the victim of workplace bullying, and had settled out of court, and any right-minded observer might be forgiven for thinking something was not right there. To my knowledge, the firm itself has issued no public statement of any kind. It doesn’t have to.

The whole saga has shamefully overshadowed what Miss Fitzgerald was trying to do, and I fear that – for many – the point she was trying to make has been lost. The affair has paradoxically proven to be both a distraction from, and proof of, what Miss Fitzgerald was trying to highlight: that working people with depression need support from their colleagues, not intimidation.

And, believe me, people who are suffering at work, not through a lack of professionalism on their part but a lack of understanding from senior members of staff, will feel intimidated by what has happened here.

What have they learned from this? If they blow the whistle, they won’t be believed. Their employers will use the law to gag anyone who suggests they have a case. Even after they die, they won’t get to prove their case.

This is what this story shows. Bullying in the workplace will continue because there is no way to show up these people for what they are. Trust me; I’ve been through it.

There are three approaches to solving workplace bullying issues: by informal resolution at the workplace; through a formal complaints procedure, again at the workplace; or by external procedures such as legal action.

The first time I was involved in workplace bullying was the manager of a company where I was a senior officer. He had ruled that any complaints about any member of staff must be made through him, so the system was corrupt. What do you think he would have done if the complaint was about him? I stuck it out for a year and then quit – and the business suffered as a result.

This is exactly what Miss Fitzgerald warned against (although her references to suicide took the issue to a further extreme than my own experience): “Every day a company loses a valuable employee… At a time when small, medium and large companies rely on dedicated staff for the vision and drive to pull them through challenging times, these are not losses we can risk taking on the chin.”

The second time was in a different firm where a more senior person was bullying me, but I had recourse to a formal complaints procedure and invoked it. I spoke to the manager, who agreed to separate us – but the bully was never told why the changes were taking place as they were too useful for the company to lose. In essence, the hassle was taken away from me but the culprit was never punished.

And here, with the Fitzgerald case and that of Karagh Fox, we see how the law is used in such cases – and out-of-court settlement on one hand, and the implied threat of legal action on the other.

Is it any wonder that workplace bullying is on the rise?

It’s time for company executives to take a hard look at themselves and the people who work for them. Everyone they employ is a valuable resource otherwise, in this straitened times, they wouldn’t be there. So, if they fall into difficulties, why not try a little understanding?

As Miss Fitzgerald herself said: “It cannot be managed without the help and encouragement of those I work for.”

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