A talk radio station was having a discussion on corporate leadership. Callers were invited to share their experiences on the types of leadership they have experienced in the work place. A caller named David described his boss as a seagull manager. He then went on to explain that seagull managers are types of bosses who only come in to fly over people, making a noise and shitting on their staff from a dizzy height. There was uproarious laughter and the entire conversation descended into ‘The horrid boss Olympics’ with each caller relating awful stories of mistreatment in the hands of their work superiors.

The talk radio station has a fairly middle-class listenership. Most of the callers were graduates and professionals, but to listen to their stories one would be sure that they were peasants working in feudal Russia before the Bolshevik revolution. Callers, some of which were hesitant to use their real names for fear of retribution, related heart-breaking stories of corporate bullying. They told stories of being side-lined, being overworked and unappreciated. Some related stories of sexual misconduct by people who were in a position of trust and leadership. What struck me during listening was how there were no happy endings. How in most cases work conditions became so intolerable, people got physically ill and finally decided to leave the companies. Some callers left without even having a job lined up because resignation seemed to be the only way to save their sanity.

A graduate friend of mine Thuli told me about her excitement when she joined a government department as a PA to a Director General. The job was a dream come true. She was interested in governance and travel, and her job would include both aspects. Also, her boss had been someone she had seen on television and had looked up to for her achievements. So Thuli was keen to observe and learn from her.

She relates that on the first day of her job she came in very early, and was awaiting instructions from her new boss. Her boss came in two hours late. She then called my friend, gave her car-keys and instructed her to go fetch her laptop from her car in the underground parking. She was told the colour and the model of the car, and the floor number of the basement where it was parked. No licence plate. She had been too nervous to think of asking, and she wanted to execute her first duty with aplomb.

Thuli was new to the multi-storey building and it took her 27 scary minutes to locate the correct car. Her work was at the company headquarters, and there were 18 cars in that basement parking that matched the description. At one point the security guards approached her, thinking she was a car thief, because she kept pressing the electronic keys at all the cars matching the description. They then helped her locate the car after she tearfully described the red suit her boss wore.

Thuli then went back to the office and her boss berated for taking long. She expressed doubt in Thuli’s competence and the future of their professional relationship. This unpleasant interaction between Thuli and her boss set the tone for their future working relationship. The boss was often deliberately vague with instructions, and also punished initiative. Things got progressively worse. Thuli described how her boss would make her feel useless by micromanaging her on simple tasks, and not offering guidance on more complex functions.

This went on until Thuli developed insomnia and anxiety. She would dread having to go to work and she started missing days, which resulted in a written warning. When on one occasion Thuli went to the company’s human resource manager with a grievance, she got so emotional that she became incoherent. And, even though she had a documented grievance against the boss, the Human Resources manager labelled the incident a ‘personality clash’. She told her that her boss had come to complain first, stating that Thuli worked too slowly. In order to save her sanity Thuli decided to resign, even though she had no job lined up.

The problem is that we think bullying only happens in primary school. That people automatically outgrow bullying the way we all outgrow teenage acne. We all assume that post-graduation the primary school bully develops empathy and starts to treat people with respect. The fact is though, the kind of aggression that is displayed by a primary school bully is later often rewarded by corporate South Africa. It gets re- labelled as assertiveness, and often those considered assertive ascend to management levels. They then treat their subordinates poorly. They are generous with criticism, stingy with praise, and are never shy about taking credit for their subordinates’ ideas, while using subordinates as scapegoats when things go wrong. Also the language people use when addressing bullying between co-workers is often euphemistic, leaving workers feeling unheard. Like with Thuli, Human Resource departments will call a situation a ‘personality clash’; or they will say someone is ‘a bad fit to the organisation culture’ when actually the person is being intentionally side-lined.

I feel that each workplace, in addition to having policies that deal with sexual harassment, needs to have policies that address workplace bullying. These policies need to protect the victim and punish the perpetrator. We all spend far to much time at the office to let the corporate bullies run amok. Emotional intelligence should be a pre-requisite for those who lead teams of people in organisations. We need policies to act as eagles to take care of the seagulls in our workspaces.

Tell us: Have you ever experienced this kind of work-place bullying?