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Small business

Playing the victim

August 3, 2012
As employees become more educated about the options available to them, they’re more likely to pursue those options.

As employees become more educated about the options available to them, they’re more likely to pursue those options. Photo: Joe Armao

You have to admit, the Peter Slipper and James Ashby affair is getting murkier by the day. There really is a chance – no matter how small – that Ashby’s allegations of harassment against his former employer are totally unfounded. If that’s the case, many business leaders would be able to relate to Slipper’s plight.

For an ethical boss, being falsely accused of harassment can be one of the most confronting and demoralising things to deal with at work. There is an important distinction, though, to be made between false claims and malevolent ones. 

A false claim is when an employee misinterprets a colleague’s actions as harassment. For example, an innocent invitation to go to the pub after work for a drink can be erroneously perceived as a come-on. A malevolent claim, on the other hand, is when an employee fabricates a situation with the cruel intention of damaging a colleague’s reputation.

The latter happened to me while working in a large financial services organisation. There was an underperforming employee in my team, the type who never achieved her targets, constantly came in late, and spent more time moaning than working. 

After a long period of coaching and professional counselling, she failed to show any improvement. She’d been issued with her first written warning, then her second, and just as we were preparing to terminate her employment, she conveniently lodged a formal complaint of workplace bullying.

It’s surprisingly not that uncommon. On at least half a dozen occasions this year, leaders have shared with me their tales of similar retaliatory tactics from their employees. (Curiously, all of them have been from the public service.)

The consequence in each case has been the same. Upon making the false claim of harassment, the employee was let off the hook by a petrified HR department desperately wanting to avoid industrial relations tribunals or intrusive media coverage. And the message that sends to other employees is quite simple: you’ve always got one last card left up your sleeve.

It’s an issue that seems to be getting worse. Harmers Lawyers, a specialist workplace legal firm, revealed a couple of years ago that there had been a “significant” increase in false bullying claims. Two reasons explain this trend.

The first is awareness. As employees become more educated about the options available to them, they’re more likely to pursue those options. 

The second reason can be attributed to insecurity. When employees feel as though their job is on the line because of an impending restructure – or personal poor performance – they might be compelled to use a false claim of harassment as a way of keeping their job safe.

It’s not even solely an issue of harassment; it’s also one of false discrimination. Take, for instance, the employee who misses out on a promotion because of his own shortcomings but blames homophobia instead. Or the employee who doesn’t earn a pay rise but immediately assumes it’s because of misogyny.

Earlier this year, Vivienne Dye was ordered by the Federal Court to pay $5.85 million in legal costs after her claims of sexual harassment against two managers were found to be untrue. The judge labelled her a liar with a “venomous desire for revenge”, and he congratulated her former employer – the Commonwealth Bank – for fighting to clear the managers’ names rather than opting for a payout to make her go away.

There was another case in the UK last year that attracted a lot of attention because of its unexpected outcome. Debbie Smith sued her boss, Tim Watts, for sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation. When her claims were found to be fictitious, she was made to pay damages of £100,000.

What both of those cases demonstrate is that to knowingly lodge a false claim of harassment is, in itself, harassment.

What do you think? Have you ever had to deal with false accusations?

 Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

20 comments so far

  • Yes. As a relief manager, I frequently faced allegations relating to one of the units I managed. The woman who was the official manager of the unit made persistent and frequent complaints about my management of the unit. She did this to try to pass the buck...she was a terrible manager, and the first three days of my five-day stints in her unit were spent fixing the problems she left behind her, and catching up with work that she had neglected to carry out. This went on for months, until one day the son of a senior partner in the firm was sent to the unit to gain a bit of hands-on experience. He arrived on the first day of one of my stints, and was blown away by the mess that confronted me. Consequently, at the next meeting, which had been called (yet again!) to deal with the woman's complaints about me, he laid all the cards on the table, re: the mess she had left behind her. No more complaints, and no more such meetings. She resigned shortly afterwards. Funny that!

    Commenter
    Lynne
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 11:14AM
  • Yes, I've had that and it was a situation that, because of my age I chose to retire rather than go through the dramas involved. The claimant had a track record of complaining about other managers in other parts of the business but my MD was so limp that he chose to move the problem around the divisions rather than address the source of the problem.I knew that I would get nowhere if I chose to resist. Other staff knew the situation was not as claimed and subsequently froze the claimant out of the environment to such an extent that she resigned. My retirement actually triggerred staff to act against the complainer before they too became targets.

    Commenter
    Long Xuyen
    Location
    Viet Nam
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 1:22PM
  • I had a fairly similar situation to the author's. Working for a bank, one of the staff I was managing was consistently late, didn't achieve targets etc. She felt she was being unfairly treated and told my manager that if things didn't change she would accuse me of sexual harassment. I got called into the office and told about her threat, I said that there was no way anyone would believe her, he told me it wouldn't matter, it would ruin my career there. He advised me to stop trying to get her to improve and just let things be. No claims were ever filed as I took his advice and stopped trying to get her to do her job properly and I ended up leaving the bank shortly afterwards anyway but I do wonder just how many situations like this there are.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Location
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 2:06PM
  • You, James, are either extremely naive or being paid off to make such ridiculous claims of reverse discrimination.
    This happens ALL THE TIME. And employers mostly get away with it becuase these companies can afford massive legal guns and launch smear campaigns and threats to your career etc.
    I've been falsely accused of sleeping with my boss, had the director grab my boobs, (i have photos), been falsely accused of being on drugs and drunk at work etc, and driven to the point of insanity after being served on a masterchef plate, and thats just the beginning. And there's nothing i can do to dispute it because they have an arsenal of media and legal weapons at their disposal... Analyse that!
    You are a Muppet!

    Commenter
    ali-bye
    Location
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 3:32PM
    • Alibi, you must be a real treasure to work with. No hint of malice or instability, just pure competence and good will. Of course there are a few strange and maladjusted managers as well as strange staff, but what motive does any business have to waste its time and legal resources fighting a malicious staff member instead of simply doing business? Just to get at you? I don't think so. You're not that important, though you evidently think so.

      Commenter
      Berber
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 04, 2012, 12:34AM
    • You say there is "nothing you can do to dispute it". Yet you also say you have photographic evidence. Huh? And, "driven to the point of insanity after being served on a masterchef plate"... am I the only one who has no idea what you talking about?

      Commenter
      Jeff
      Location
      Date and time
      August 04, 2012, 1:01AM
  • i've experienced it. jealous colleague went out of their way to discredit me. these people usually have form though and are easy to pick. the problem, they're often skilled in the art of manipulation and often able to recruit supporters who may have a beef against the organisation, or other ulterior motive. i was fortunate to have an understanding and perceptive management team who saw straight through them. however, as James noted, they were also petrified the person was going to launch a legal claim (for or more of a range of possible reasons they had floated as possibilities). this meant that the person was treated with kid gloves.

    Commenter
    type b mgr
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 4:00PM
  • Don't assume this happens only in the public sector. It happens everywhere. Some people are just keener to keep the subsequent embarrassment under wraps.

    Commenter
    enno
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 4:18PM
  • "The latter happened to me while working in a large financial services organisation. There was an underperforming employee in my team, the type who never achieved her targets, constantly came in late, and spent more time moaning than working. After a long period of coaching and professional counselling, she failed to show any improvement. She’d been issued with her first written warning, then her second, and just as we were preparing to terminate her employment, she conveniently lodged a formal complaint of workplace bullying."

    Some painful memories reading that - the exact same thing happened to me. Apart from the stress of having to respond to her defamatory complaint in great, comprehensive and chronological detail, the team's unity was shot asunder by her whisper campaign. After weeks of investigation by an outside consultant who found her claim baseless, she walked away from her complaint and refused to respond to the many questions raised of her actions, and resigned.

    Commenter
    Deja vu
    Location
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 7:14PM
  • Just want to say, regardless of the topic that was an extremely well written article

    Commenter
    Stu
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 03, 2012, 7:48PM

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