April 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Inside the pillbox

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Bullying in the workplace

I ought to be well beyond 3 am revenge plots against the workplace bully but when it’s too hot to sleep and the frog outside my window is sounding his relentless serenade my thoughts take on a cauldron intensity. Where do these coiffed, armour-plated bullies spring from? What womb? What sick nursery of competing siblings? Why must the victims grapple with diplomacy and psychology and workplace relations, when the answer could be brewing drop by drop in some cobwebby backroom where bats hang like forgotten handbags and a three-headed dog keeps guard?

In the morning I shake off the Gothic fancies, dress myself in the sober clothes of modern battle and take my grievances to the top banana – the proprietor, who pays the bills but doesn’t work there. (In this story I’m a witness not a victim, a role that somehow makes it easier to head straight for the throat.)

Like many who’ve worked their way into management, he’s lost touch with the shop floor and developed the far-away stare that seems to go with looking at the big picture. It’s hard to penetrate that kind of ceramic glaze and the best I achieve is his promise to “take advice”. Money, after all, is the name of his game. He activates the guideline consulter, whose fingers get busy on the keyboard – and that’s it.

If he thinks I’ve exhausted my witnessing, he’s quite wrong. This is a game of competing needs, and I find myself inclining towards what the poet Browning’s courtesan needed when she lost the king’s affections – an old man to grind the paste while I hiss in his ear, “Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?”

A wheel has turned on its giant axis: a year has passed since the bully last tasted blood. She’s panting for a fix and her calculating eyes have been toying with the new recruit, a pretty girl with the onshore breeze in her hair and delicate, sand-sifting fingers. The punters, most of them retired men and women sidelined by age, love her as if she’d been newborn into their arms. She gives them the gift of her unshifting attention. She’s a listener. And how they need to be listened to, these people queuing in the pharmacy; how they spruce up and vie for an extra minute of her rare heedfulness, knowing she will never hurry them along. I could learn from her. We all could. And this, of course, is why she’s for the chop.

This is how our particular bully deals with a rival. The textbooks call it repeated, unreasonable behaviour. She takes note of which patrons are shifting allegiance and offers to supersize the deal. She gives the recruit a secret nickname and lets Chinese whispers do the rest. She encourages the recruit to spend time keeping the punters happy, then reports her for falling behind on column-filling and paper-shifting. She adds a pinch of the physical. The bully is built like a coal carrier beating its way to Newcastle docks. At the squeeze points she overturns the recruit with the wake of her bow. “Oops”, she says, but not “sorry”.

This goes on for weeks, months. Confusion does its sinister work. The recruit begins to lose some of her gloss; she develops the hunted look of someone who has forgotten to do something important. “Can I help?” I ask. I tell her I understand, I know, I’ve been down this path before, but my voice is just another burden on her shoulders. “I can look after myself,” she says and we both know it’s not true.

The bully, meanwhile, shifts into second gear. The fun is just starting. A new point-of-sale system is installed by the techies and all the floor staff are offered training – except the recruit who is rostered elsewhere. At crunch time, the recruit can’t push the right keys.

“Be careful,” I say to her. “She’s playing you.” I tell her how I walked out five years ago when management did nothing to stop the bully from driving another sweet kid to the point of breakdown. I outline the steps I took, the doors pounded on, the raised voices, the outside bodies appealed to. “Don’t let it happen to you,” I plead. But the recruit is numbed by fear. I feed her the ‘bullying in the workplace’ paperwork and watch her bin it like junkmail. Like fate, this tragedy has its own preset cadences.

I ring the proprietor again. “Leave it with me,” he says, and goes back to the counting house. I ring my friend at WorkCover. She emails me the ‘bullying in the workplace’ paperwork.

Summer comes on with a heatwave and the recruit is looking as if she’s swum through a tangle of bluebottles. Her rap sheet keeps getting longer. Not enough hits on the customer sales button; slow to learn the upgrades on the system she’s never allowed to master; two minutes late to work and no credit given for the 15 minutes donated at the end of the day. In a fatalistic kind of silence, she wraps bandages on old arms, finds remedies on back shelves, comforts old ladies whose children never visit. “I just want to do my job,” she says, as if loyalty and hard work will get you anywhere in a shark tank.

The bully is gathering her courtiers into a huddle. She’s had wind that the proprietor is going to visit and she knows I’m on her case too. I anticipate how it will play and I’m not wrong. When the proprietor lays down a few rules the bully turns on the waterworks – her sure-fire man-in-charge kill switch, and it works. The proprietor retires wounded and the bully cracks open the champagne.

“Leave,” I say to the recruit. Even Sun Tzu knew when to retreat. Her blue eyes fill but don’t overflow. “I can’t,” she says. And the maps of our two different worlds unfurl. I work a day or two per week because I want to keep my hand in. The recruit works because she has to, really has to, or her car will be repossessed, her rent go unpaid and her child be pitied at school. 

But I haven’t given her enough credit. In her own quiet way she’s drawn some lines in the sand. I can’t hide my pride and amazement. “I have to,” she says. “The bully’s inside my head, she’s inside my skin, I breathe her, I dream her. I jump at shadows in the car park.”

One afternoon, when the recruit challenges an unfair call, the bully literally pushes her into a wall. She cuts off the recruit’s air, light, and gets right into her face. “Bring it on,” says the bully. “Let’s see who comes out alive.” And the recruit has no comeback. She’s so afraid she nearly blacks out. 

And this is where we are now, with the recruit off on sick leave, the bully licking her chops, the proprietor turning his attention elsewhere, and the patrons being fed some bullshit about the recruit having problems in her private life. “Which should never be brought to the workplace,” as the bully says sagely.

I run the story past my sister, who counsels victims for a living. “Stop right there,” she says. “You’ve singled out the wrong bully. The wage-payer’s the one who should cop it in the eye. He’s the enabler. He endorses her behaviour. Go for him. Get a lawyer.” I counter with all my ‘buts’ – the recruit won’t agree; it’s not my fight; how can we get hard, court-strength evidence?; it will takes years and cost the Earth! With a sigh that makes me feel lily-livered, she says, “then either walk away or live with it.” “Or,” she adds, “meet her outside with a baseball bat.”

At 3 am I acknowledge certain miserable truths: bullying, like envy and greed and other sins I can think of, doesn’t ever really go away. Fools will always flourish, bullies prosper and, soon, a new sweet kid will sign up to replace the last sweet kid who tiptoed into the mouth of the cave. Flicking through the literature, I find no solid ground in the “anti-bullying policies”. What sort of grip is there in those departmental verbs ‘determine’, ‘ensure’, ‘mediate’, ‘arrange’? What comfort in those awful, empty nouns: ‘pathway’, ‘charter’, ‘conciliation’? The Book of Proverbs at least has some muscle in its denunciation of hateful things: keep away from “a heart that devises wicked plots” and “him that soweth discord among brethren”.

Before turning out the light I open Browning again. Yeats might have felt that poets had nothing to offer on the subject of war. I disagree as I linger on the fourth stanza of ‘The Laboratory’.

That in the mortar – you call it a gum?

Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!

And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,

Sure to taste sweetly, – is that poison too?

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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