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The Pivot: Mopping up after the boss from Hell

by Rhonda Brighton-Hall
10 October 2017
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HR guru Rhonda Brighton Hall takes us through a real-life scenario with far-reaching consequences.

 
How would you feel if you had been harassed on an internet dating site and blocked the person, only to turn up for a new job and find out that they’re your boss?
 
It gets worse. The harassment continued outside of work and then the new boss started “performance managing” the employee out of the business, making complaints about the quality of their work.
 
This actually happened and I found out about it when the mother of the victim phoned me (as a HR executive) to say, “This is what happened to my son in your business”.
 
The young man, who we shall call Darren, had been an ambitious high performer. But, after a 12-week period with his new boss, he resigned – blowing up his career to escape the situation.
 
Now, he was seriously depressed, could not get out of bed and his mother was very concerned about his mental wellbeing.
 
There was some conjecture it may not have been a coincidence that the harasser had turned up as his boss. He may have deliberately sought to connect with his new team outside work before starting in the job.

The path forward was not totally clear. Darren had not made a complaint himself. It was his mother who made the call and supplied me with screen shots of text messages, without Darren’s consent.
 
He had also already left the company, but was obviously in a very bad space. Also, if he had resigned because of the harassment, it could potentially be regarded as “constructive dismissal” (an unlawful termination of employment).
 
And I now had someone working in the business who had apparently been a harasser on social media and had forced his victim out of his job. You don’t want a leader who performance manages people who won’t date them, or even someone who allows that perception to take hold.
 
It had to be investigated because, if it was true, I couldn’t just leave it as a time bomb waiting for the next person to attract his interest.
 
My legal and moral obligations were not necessarily the same. I had to respond to the situation as both a HR person and a leader, because I had executive responsibility for the part of the business they both worked in.
 
From a moral perspective, I had to consider whether my response was an almost parental reaction. Had I wanted to protect an employee who I discovered had been harassed out of his job because a complaint came from his mother?
 
It was a tricky situation, but we went through a quiet investigative process. I contacted Darren and he didn’t want to come back to the company.

The really important lesson in dealing with cases such as these is to discuss the human impact at the same time that you are discussing the legalities. They need to come together, they can’t be separated.

I arranged for better support and counselling for him. That was a risk because, in a court case, it could have been construed as an admission of responsibility and it could have gone on to become a Workers’ Compensation or Human Rights Discrimination issue.
 
But there must be a degree of humanity – you can’t just leave someone broken and walk on by.
 
When I called his former boss into an interview, he became very angry. He said his activity on the dating site was his private life and none of our business.
 
A mature leader would have disclosed the conflict in their relationship as soon as they started at the company, so that it could be managed ethically. Instead, he went for Darren, hammer and tongs with the performance issue.
 
We disciplined him and he ended up resigning shortly afterwards of his own free will.
 
The really important lesson in dealing with cases such as these is to discuss the human impact at the same time that you are discussing the legalities. They need to come together, they can’t be separated.
 
It is also important to deal quickly with these things because nothing gets better if it festers away. If I look at the really bad cases I have mopped up, there have been a lack of investigative outcomes, a lack of definitive decisions and/or lack of clarity about what will be done.
 
Some of these cases drag on for years and someone leaves the workforce, broken. They progressively end up in really bad financial shape as well. Time stands still for them because they are either coming into a workplace where someone is continuing to harass them or they are isolated at home. While you’re deciding what to do, the issue is overwhelming their every day.
 
Rhonda Brighton-Hall is a non-executive director of the Australian Human Resources Institute and founder of MWAH (Make Work Absolutely Human), Chair of FlexCareers, Former Telstra Business Woman of the Year and HR Leader of the Year.

 

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