Busting an HR Myth

Paris Cutler - HR Myth interview

Recently, I was lucky enough to interview Paris Cutler, an entrepreneur and strategist whose organisation went through many months of conflict and disharmony. What struck me most from the interview was her acknowledgement that she was unsure about how to deal with the toxicity that had arisen in her workplace together with the uncertainty of what was causing it.

Paris was ultimately shocked to discover that insidious bullying was taking place.  This interview reinforced what I have already learnt in my experience as a workplace mediator and investigator. That is that bullying in the workplace is often messy. It is not always cut and dried, and it is often very difficult to assess where the disharmony is coming from. Paris believes that calling in a workplace investigator from the get-go would have solved her months of angst and eliminated the bullying almost immediately.

I hope you find the interview as informative as I did.


A brief description of the type of business you were in, your position and how you came to discover that bullying was present in your business?

I owned a designer cake shop which at its peak had over 50 staff, the largest cake decorating school in the southern hemisphere, celebrity clientele, books, and our TV Show; it was a nationally recognised brand.

At the peak of the business, I had some long-standing employees and promoted one of those employees to Production Head of our kitchen, it was an unpopular decision, but I felt the best one for the business as she was the most qualified and professional.

The initial problem was never presented to me as bullying; it was given to me as personality differences. All the employees involved had worked for me for many years, and I never suspected any of them of bullying. However, several employees started to complain to me about the new Production Manager.

Complaints covered many different things that she was surly, lazy and that no-one respected her, also that the quality of her work was deteriorating (which it was). Eventually, I had a meeting with the Production Manager to discuss all these complaints, she was very defensive and hostile and said it was the staff, she didn’t get along with them, I was very unsatisfied with her response and quite irritated with her lack of effort to address the issue.

It went on for months, the complaints, the atmosphere in the kitchen was toxic, it was driving me bonkers, I asked other staff what was going on, no-one knew anything. I tried various techniques to get them working nicely together and to sort out their differences, and eventually, I came very close, within a couple of weeks of firing/demoting the Production Manager, I thought she was the main problem.

Then just before I demoted her one of the three main instigators of the complaints complained about the new production manager in a way that didn’t feel right to me, a little light bulb went off. I went back to the Production Manager and asked her directly if she thought she was being bullied, and I asked more detailed questions about the behaviour. To my horror the person I thought was the problem, was the victim, it was a textbook bullying case, right under my nose and I had no idea.


What was the impact of the bullying – both for you personally, the victim and for the workplace as a whole?

It had a terrible and lasting impact; the victim suffered for the months it went on, she was unhappy, depressed and stressed, often crying before and after work. When I discovered what had happened, I paid for ten weeks with a psychologist to help her heal from her ordeal. Unfortunately, because I was unaware initially that these three staff members were bullying her, no evidence was collected for a dismissal. I had to ride it out for two long years, managing their behaviour until I could get rid of all three of them on legal grounds; this caused me two years of maximum stress.

The workplace took sides because the bullies had taken over the kitchen. It took me years to get the culture of the kitchen to a good point again; the ring leader had poisoned the culture, I even found new people would be affected by it after only a couple of weeks. It was literally like rooting out cancer from the consciousness of the business, I cannot overstate it, it was terrible, and it tested me as a leader, that sounds dramatic, but it was so corrosive.


Why was it so difficult to determine who the bully was?

Because they don’t want to be discovered, and they have a completely different face for management and anyone who would be a useful ally to them, in this case, me. The bullies in my business were, in my opinion, some of my best employees, they had worked with me for a long time, bought me birthday presents, we laughed together, I trusted them. There were three of them, two young men and an older lady in her fifties. The two young men were brash, young and could be abrasive, the older lady was sweet and motherly, I assumed it was the young men, I fired each of them, and still, the problem remained. It turned out to be the older lady she continued to manipulate the kitchen long after I dismissed her, her lust for power and control was insatiable, she indeed was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she destroyed those young men’s careers in the process.


What do you think led to the bullying behaviour of your employee?

The older lady who was the main bully had seniority, not just in age but as a cake artist she was superior to the person I promoted and made production manager. She was also lazy, a poor people manager and didn’t want to work full time. However, she resented my pick for a production manager and set out systematically to destroy her. It was the first time in my life that I understood that some people just want power for powers sake, just like people want sex, drugs or money, she wanted power, she tried to control that kitchen, she didn’t want to be a manager with all the responsibility and accountability, she wanted to be the kitchen mob boss.


In hindsight, do you think you/management handled the situation correctly? What would you do differently today?

I handled it appallingly because I was unable to understand it was bullying we didn’t collect evidence to get rid of them, this made the situation worse for a further two years. I have forgiven myself because the victim also did not give me enough information to go on. However, in the future, if I were ever presented with a confusing situation again, I would get an external investigator, straight away! If I had fired the Production Manager or demoted her, I would have been legally libel possibly for tens of thousands of dollars and left with the bullies to destroy my business.


What would your advice be today to a leader/manager about how to respond to bullying and to inspire a positive workplace culture?

I worked out that transparent values-based culture, with a zero tolerance policy for certain behaviours, was essential. Policy around what should happen if bullying occurs is a must and educating everyone, from staff to management about appropriate action and legal responsibility. I think bringing in outside experts also helps, to teach and to provide someone who has not been charmed by bullies in the business, I guess everyone forgets, bullies don’t go around with a big sign on their heads, they are often well-liked and very charming.


What would your advice be to someone who is being bullied at work?

Firstly I want to state that I have never met a business owner, CEO or HR Manager that condones bullying; it’s terrible for business and undermines us as leaders so don’t feel as if no one cares, I would argue that most managers do. However, the problem is it’s a very serious complaint, and in order to help you, we need to have as much evidence as you can provide us with. Therefore if you think you are being bullied, you need to look up the legal definition of bullying (or/and company policy) and see if the behaviour you are experiencing is a match. Getting feedback on your work performance is not bullying; however consistent daily put-downs and exclusion are. Keep a diary for one-two months documenting the behaviour. Then when you make a complaint to management use explicit language so that management understands what is happening. Such as ‘I am being bullied’, describe the behaviour, tell them how often it occurs, how it makes you feel, present your diary, and inform them you wish to make a formal complaint, make sure you keep notes of the meeting. If you don’t have an appropriate response within a month escalate it further, keep records of everything. If no-one takes any notice, escalate it again.


What signs should an employer be looking for- for signs of bullying behaviour or inappropriate workplace behaviour? 

Firstly unless you get a specific complaint that a person is being bullied, you probably will just be presented with a messy, confusing bunch of claims which initially sound like personality differences and pettiness. That’s the problem; everyone believes that employers are presented with cut and dry cases; the truth is we are usually presented with a mess. So if you are confused, or if there is discord there that cannot be explained, or if the culture is toxic, and you cannot find the root cause. Get an external investigation to sort it out, a few thousand dollars will clear everything up and provide a course of action to turn it around, as well as mitigate your legal liability and potentially prevent the suffering of innocent staff members, don’t take it all on board yourself, get help!