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Tough boss or big bully? Part 1

You hear a lot about workplace bullying and its cost to businesses, but it can be hard to get a real sense of what it's like and what impact it has on the employees involved.

Over the next three weeks, iHR Australia will be sharing three personal stories of people who have experienced workplace bullying. Our first story begins below.

(All these stories have been shared with iHR by our readers and are published with the permission of the individual. Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

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Allison, 29 years old, marketing manager

"I was thrilled to secure a role as marketing manager. I got along well with my manager from the outset, so I was surprised when one of my direct reports said that he had felt bullied at various times over the last few years.

Having not experienced bullying myself, I probably didn't take this report seriously enough. A little part of me had always thought that people who complained of bullying were probably just uncomfortable with receiving negative feedback. I now know this is not the case.

For the first few months, it was smooth sailing. But after eight months, something changed. My manager became increasingly frustrated with me. None of my work was of an adequate standard – and she would let me know about it, often quite publicly. My contributions to meetings were dismissed, often rudely. I don't think the standard of my work had changed – if anything, I thought I was really hitting my stride – but for some reason, I couldn't satisfy the boss.

The behaviour escalated. She would frequently avoid eye contact when I spoke to her, sometimes not even looking up from her computer. While she would indulge in plenty of banter and small-talk with the rest of the team, she was conspicuously terse and business-like with me. She would question the veracity of my reports and mutter snide comments about my own truthfulness.

I repeatedly told myself it was just in my head. Having been a high performer in all my previous roles, I couldn't quite believe that I had become the problem employee. My anxiety increased until I found it quite difficult to even go to work – every day I felt pummelled by my interactions with my boss. The worst part was that it crippled my ability to make decisions or lead my team because I became quite certain that everything I did would be wrong.

Eventually, a long-standing employee pulled me aside to check I was ok – it was even more embarrassing to realise my stress and anxiety were so visible to everyone else. He suggested that the best approach was to speak up. So I did – in my next weekly meeting with my boss, I told her that I could see she was feeling ongoing frustration with my work, and that it was causing me a lot of anxiety. I said that we had to find a way to work together better. She conceded that she was feeling frustrated and outlined a long list of areas in which she was dissatisfied with my performance.

The stress eased a little after this meeting, but the pressure kept up. The boss kept piling work on me, replete with unrealistic deadlines. If I warned her that I was unlikely to meet a deadline, I was told to manage my time better. If I sought help, I was chastised for not having asked earlier. These responses may sound reasonable – but what I can't convey is the tone. Every rebuke was harsh, unsympathetic and unconstructive. In retrospect, I can see that I should have been more forward in asking for help – but at the time, the response I was getting was so critical that it became increasingly difficult to seek extra assistance.

Throughout this period, the manager continually questioned my suitability for the role. "I'm just not sure this will ever work out" became a constant refrain. "Do you even enjoy doing this kind of work?" Eventually my boss went to the HR manager to discuss my performance issues. A meeting was convened with my manager and the HR manager. We drew up a list of performance measures. It was the first time in my career I'd been anywhere close to performance management.

The bullying pretty much stopped after this meeting. I think the manager guessed that I would have voiced my concerns and she probably knew I wasn't the first person who might have felt bullied. Though work became more tolerable, the damage was done – I just wanted to find another job and move on. I was lucky that it didn't take too long to secure one.

I was invited to give feedback during an exit interview. I felt conflicted about what to do – on the one hand I wanted to forget this unpleasant chapter, move on and get back to enjoying my working life; but on the other, I felt complicit in allowing this behaviour to continue if I didn't say anything. I was quite honest with my feedback – I hope it helps the next person in that role."

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