I was one of six kids, with four rough and tumble brothers and a big sister who could hold her own with the best of them. Pigs-tails tied to the back of bus seats, playing commandoes with real rocks, catching cane toads, that kind of tomboy caper. I thought I was pretty tough and Jana, the perfumed steamroller had already paved the way for young women journos like me to play with the big boys in the testosterone-driven world of television current affairs.
I had slept in bombed-out hotels in siege-torn Sarajevo, interviewed senior members of the Taliban, I’d been frogmarched at gun point out of the parliamentary compound during the 2000 coup in Fiji. In fact the coup leader George Speight sent a messenger around to my hotel to tell me I’d better watch out after I asked the wrong questions. That night I went to bed with the iron under the cover just in case I had to clock a midnight visitor. I’d received death threats from a people-smuggler in Jakarta, hand delivered under my hotel door.
But none of this equipped me with the skills to negotiate the minefield that was my one-time tyrannical boss. This A-grade bully, among other things, literally made a crucifix sign with his fingers behind my back when I walked into the main office, in front of all the other staff.
He once called me a pig in swill. He told me and anyone who would listen that the reason he did not like me was because I reminded him of one of his former wives, and there were several of them. Standing up to him would invite more abuse. The misogyny of it all would put Alan Jones to shame.
It’s quite funny now when I think about it, because it was just so appalling, but I know I felt isolated and humiliated because I just didn’t know how to fight it.
A great bully manages upwards, and like sucker fish to a shark, the bully always has his or her wingmen ready to shoot you down if you dare complain.
I’d seen it all before. No-one went to HR if they valued their job. Those that did were given a payout, a gag order and a pock-marked reputation stamped never to return.
So I stuck it out, the simmering injustice eating into sleep, affecting health and happiness. I wasn’t alone of course, and that helped take it less personally. Around the same time a young Sarah Stinson, who at just 18 was in her first real job, had also entered the pressure-cooker world of nightly current affairs.
“I was 18, I thought the screaming and name calling and carry on was part of life,’ the now 33- year- old executive producer of Seven’s Morning Show recollects.
“It was a boiler room and there was a lot of sociopathic behaviour and I’ve been called a c..t more times in my life than I care for. It was like battered wife syndrome, you get used to feeling that way.”
After one particularly withering, expletive-packed attack however, she took her father’s advice and jumped ship. It was the best career move she ever made.
Sitting among the management how- too books on the shelf of Stinson’s Martin Place office, there’s one called “Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult Situations at Work”.
“I use it as a prop. When someone comes in with an impossible situation I say…One sec – then pretend to look up so they can see cover. They laugh and it breaks the ice,” she says.
Humour aside, Stinson clearly takes being a good boss very seriously and she is determined never to be accused of being a bully.
“I learnt that bullying comes in all shapes and sizes – the yelling and name calling was one but what affected me the most was the Machiavellian stuff, being lynched behind your back, you know, ‘she’s a mole, she’s hormonal’ that kind of stuff,” Stinson says, still mortified, but also thankful for the lessons.
“I’m, grateful they taught me so much. It taught me the kind of manager I didn’t want to be,” she says.
There is currently a parliamentary inquiry into bullying in the workplace and the personal submissions make for sober reading. It cuts across all sectors from commercial kitchens to universities to fire chiefs and hospitals. As Bill Shorten, Workplace Relations Minister said last week; “Clearly there are a lot of people who are being made to feel systematically, persistently, consistently over long periods of time, to feel demeaned and powerless and embarrassed and humiliated.”
Stinson certainly remembers those feelings, and the sadness that no-one would stick up for her.
“Everyone was busy fighting their own battles and a bully needs his acolytes, but you need people to stand up to the culture and no-one would,” Stinson says.
Dr Penny Webster, a lecturer in management at RMIT and a workplace conflict resolution expert, says the bully often thrives because the system of redress is inadequate. Many workers make the mistake of thinking HR is on their side, but they are there to protect the company.
‘This systemic failure impacts the complainants and bystanders in the first instance, and also leads to underreporting and implicitly encourages bullying behaviour. There is considerable potential for harm to occur if the substance of the grievance is not adequately attended,’ she writes in her submission to the current inquiry.
“Often the bully is the sick one,’ says Stinson. “They are insecure and management has to take some responsibility.
It is noble to stand up to a bully, but a bully in management is like a contagion, multiplying and infecting dozens until a culture is fostered. Productively suffers, politics thrive.
The inquiry has heard story after story of those who blew the whistle and suffered for it. Tales of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression suicide attempts are far too common.
In NSW alone last year, there were 1,591 workers compensation claims lodged for Workplace bullying and harassment. The cost to the WorkCover Scheme was more than $35 million. It costs us all.
Like Stinson, I too eventually left and I think it is the best remedy. The bully may think they won, but family and mental health are much better for the soul. It is not the end of the world, often it is the best move you’ll ever made.
Stinson is the only woman executive producer in news and current affairs at Seven and she is thankful for the battle scars that have made her what she is today. She has set up a mentoring program for women in television as well.
‘To be an E.P. you have to lead, you have to look after people and tell them when they stuff up. I am tough but fair, when I walk away from a meeting no-one wonders what I am thinking, they know. It’s raise, resolve move on. I’ve made a conscious decision when I leave this industry, it will be a better place.”
I ask if the “Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult Situations at Work” book has a specific phrase for when your boss calls you that unspeakable name.
“Hello operator….can you please connect me to Channel Seven, Martin Place” she quips.
This article was first published in The Sunday Telegraph’s Agenda Section. It has been republished here with full permission.
Jane is a mother, journalist and foreign correspondent.
Have you been bullied – in the workplace or elsewhere?