The Chris Kabwato Column | Bullies in the office: Every employee’s nightmare

A few years ago, someone I knew suffered clinical depression. She worked at a Southern African non-governmental organisation that claimed to champion gender equality. You would have thought that a woman employee’s health would be a priority in such an organisation, but this was an entity run by two bullies. The person I knew was not the only victim. Another employee had a written warning delivered to her in the hospital where she had checked in after a stillbirth. Her crime: away without official leave. The bullies, darlings of international donors, could get away with it because they were clever enough to employ migrants who were desperate for a foothold in a foreign country.

A southern African phenomenon

The bullying culture is widely spread in southern Africa’s corporate and NGO corridors. In Zimbabwe, the terrorism starts with the founder-director of an NGO who you can never call by first name – always Mr, Mrs, Doctor, Professor or even by totem.

Twenty-seven years ago, a civic organisation was set up to help champion a new constitution for Zimbabwe. The founding members were respectable and ethical people. However, over the years the organisation evolved into something else as our ever-hungry per diem activists saw opportunities to travel and also to posture – holding some little demo, getting arrested, and getting an invitation to Geneva. It was a good life. But organisational development suffered. There was no understanding of building an internal culture based on strategy. The tragedy was that those who were employed by that organisation have gone on to form their own entities or have become senior employees elsewhere. They know no better having had no exposure to best practice.

Several human rights organisations I know do not have an internal human rights culture. The rhetoric of diversity and inclusion does not extend to the LGBTQI+ community. In their offices and at their events there is a permanent entitlement to women’s bodies. In a Southern Africa where jobs for young people are hard to come by, many women and young people are held hostage to a monthly salary.

Some personal experiences

Bullying does not only come in the form of a leader or a line manager. It can be racial ethnic or gender-based. I once worked at a university where in the first week of my employment I received a phone call:

Me: Hello?

Voice: Are you the new guy at XXXX?

Me: Who is speaking?

Voice: My name is Liz de Klerk and I want you to know that we do things differently here.

Me: Sorry, I do not understand. I am coming to your office so you can explain what you mean.

I went to her office, and she backtracked. For a couple of years, that pushback would be the hallmark of my relationship with pesky racist clerical minions who had issues with a black person occupying a senior position. It was tiring but also necessary to take the fight to the pests.

When leadership matters

However, you can only successfully push back if you have the backing of your line manager or the institution’s leadership. Take the example of my friend KK who once endured two years of constant humiliation by his line manager. She said KK could not use a computer; he typed too slowly; he was not digitally savvy; and he was stuck in the past. The humiliations got personal. She once said KK’s knuckles were too dark to be shown at a boardroom table!

The danger with being constantly berated is that one begins to lose confidence in oneself. Juniors and interns will jump onto the side of the line manager, and one starts to wonder if there could actually be something wrong with their own competence.

KK was in a catch-22 situation. He knew that if he reacted in any way, other than submission, he was bound to lose. He had already seen one brilliant young man being suspended and subsequently dismissed on flimsy charges by this same supervisor.

KK’s salvation came from unexpected quarters. The director of the organisation got wind of what was happening and met with him. KK gave the director all the details. The director dealt with the matter expeditiously and judiciously. Freed from the tyranny of a bully, he could finally step into the best version of himself.

When the owl has no horns

When I was in primary school, there was a bully named Patrick M who would wait for me by the roadside on most afternoons and raid the remains of my lunchbox. One day he stopped me as usual and as he began his search, someone came out of the blue and punched him. It was my brother Rex. Bully ran up a mango tree at the Sibiyas’ house. Rex followed. Bully had no choice but to jump onto the ground from the apex of the tree. He lay sprawled on the ground in pain. Rex ordered me to slap the bully on the cheek. I obliged. From that day the bully could only growl from the safety of his gate as I passed by. I was liberated.

I learnt early that bullies are very insecure people. They can only thrive by dominating other people. Whether it is some trauma in their childhood or just ‘normal boy aggressive behaviour’, when bullying is carried into adulthood it becomes a cultural problem. Generations have changed – what was tolerable for us in the mission schools cannot even be fathomed by Gen Z.

Below is an excerpt from a recent Guardian UK article:

Mary-Clare Race, chief executive of Talking Talent and an occupational psychologist, said 2016 had been a “real turning point” in workplace culture. “Before that time, we did reward typically masculine or aggressive behaviours – bosses slamming their fists on the table or shouting,” she said. But the rise of the #MeToo movement had turned around corporate culture. “At that time I was working in America and we were inundated with companies saying ‘there’s a Harvey Weinstein’ in our company’.”

She said research showed that overcoming an adverse event in childhood was a strong indicator of future success as a leader. “We’re also seeing a generational shift where younger generations expect to have a culture of belonging and being treated with fairness, respect and kindness.”

Putting bullies on notice

Our Neanderthals in political parties, civic organisations, private companies, and government should be put on notice that the new generation will record infractions and vent on social media. They will also not go out without a fight – whether via labour courts or conciliation mechanisms.

Power to them. Every employee deserves an enabling workplace culture.