As I start writing this I am acting as an advocate for a person with disability who is fearful of losing their job if their matter is progressed.
I sent an email last night to a senior executive I know to be beyond doubt a person of the highest integrity. Even so, my client is filled with fear. So much so that overnight they sent me a text asking me to withdraw the email. I complied this morning, and sent an email advising the situation. I promptly got a reply with assurances there would be no risk to the client’s job. I forwarded that email to my client and the matter is proceeding.
The Cause of Fear
Three cases come to mind from the past 3.5 years. In each the individual experienced conduct that can only be called cruel. Significant emotional pain was being inflicted through deeply insensitive conduct. The resultant distress had become intolerable. As DEN chair, I was asked to intervene.
In one case the problem was more a cruel system than heartless people. The individual was stuck in a dilemma. They felt under pressure from management and HR, and under threat, to solve a problem that was not of their making. An impossible choice had to be made. The risk/threat of medical retirement was made evident.
I needed to detail the person’s experience of their dilemma and the impact it was having to a Deputy Secretary before the matter could be resolved. That resolution required executive action to accept, and act on, a simple solution. The solution required a decision, and an agreement, and both came from the senior executive. There was a lack of empathy and flexibility at lower levels of management.
A willingness to ‘follow procedure’, despite the pain that doing so was causing, was a disappointing attitude to encounter. The people who should have solved the problem, which wasn’t complex, did not consider the emotional welfare of the individual a priority. For them, procedure ruled, even when it was not fit for human(e) purpose. The clear head of a Deputy Secretary was needed to quickly address the problem.
I shouldn’t have needed to go that high, but it was clear that nobody below the Deputy Secretary was prepared to make an agreement and come to a decision. They would have let the staff member suffer, and even be subjected to medical retirement – as a solution to their problem. Two years later that staff member remains employed and free from impossible decisions. (I am not saying what the problem is to avoid giving hints to the identity of the staff member)
Another case was an instance of a manager functioning with their empathy button in the off position. This involved a work from home request before it was a thing (and that was not so long ago). Here the individual needed a sensitive and flexible accommodation to be able to continue to work while their disability was throwing up serious problems.
There was a procedure that could be followed, but it was not well known. There was also a policy that was sympathetic to the situation, and which could have been applied in a sensitive manner. Instead, the manager went cold, ultra-clinical and minimalistic. Empathy was absent. The staff member was not engaged with as a human being going through an awful experience. That matter was resolved by involving people who were empathic. They were brought in from outside the workplace; and they had the authority to require, and the power to bring, empathy and compassion in the decision-making process.
Again, the risk/threat of medical retirement was made clear. Loss of employment would have been devastating.
In both these instances the staff member expressed genuine fear that going beyond their manager – and outside the immediate management environment – would lead to punishment. That fear included loss of their job by forcing medical retirement.
The idea that a manager, or managers, would conspire to force a staff member into a medical retirement procedure should be utterly preposterous. But it’s not. A former colleague, and now friend, told his story of being subjected to persistent efforts to medically retire him to his agency’s board. He had to finally take his harassers (there is no other word for it) to the Human Rights Commission. He won his case and was awarded compensatory funds to cover his legal expenses. I helped him escape that profoundly toxic environment. He is now in a safe and respectful workplace where he is flourishing. And yet he is haunted by memories. PTSD is a real thing for staff who experience severe stress through being persecuted by managers trying to force them out of their roles.
Job loss through management misconduct is real. Where the medical retirement ploy does not work, there’s the gaslighting and intimidation tactics that slowly exert negative emotional pressure which forces the individual to choose between their psychological well-being or remaining in their job. They can’t have both.
The third case concerned an individual who had joined the agency at a low level because, despite their educational attainment, their disability was an impediment to obtaining a position at a higher grade.
This staff member was routinely subjected to attitudes that plainly indicated that their competence was not acknowledged, even at their low grade. Their manager had made a connection between their disability and an imagined level of diminished competence, and then proceeded to seek to validate it.
Once again fear was instilled. This time the fear was that complaining about the manager’s conduct would trigger a move to remove the individual on grounds of incompetence. That fear was not based on any belief that such a move would be justified, but that it would happen if any effort to address the manager’s attitude was attempted.
A confidential approach to an Executive Director addressed the matter. The staff member was directly assured their job was safe, and the manager was spoken to concerning their approach. The situation is now much better. The presumption of incompetence has gone away, and local management is now much more supportive. In this case the Executive Director made it widely known that failure to treat staff with disability fairly would not be tolerated; and invited any staff member who had concerns to contact them directly.
The presumption of incompetence because of a disability is a remarkable form of discrimination. Incapacity in one respect can be seen to contaminate the whole person. When I returned to work after an 18-month absence, and with newly acquired disabilities affecting my mobility and my manual dexterity, I was quickly subjected to doubts about my intellectual competence. I felt I needed to work flat out to prove I was mentally competent. The fact that I had completed a thesis during my absence was not evidentiary, apparently. It was left unfinished when I fell ill, and I did a major rewrite as I was recoveirng. I was slow, but only in a physical sense. It is depressing to see that you are considered incompetent because of your disability. It is corrosive and demeaning.
Fear as a Tactic
I feel a need to regularly remind the reader that I am not alleging the issues I raise are at epidemic levels, but they are endemic to public sector agencies by virtue of being an expression of human behaviour. Just one instance of instilling fear in an employee as a means of controlling against lodgement of complaint is unacceptable.
Staff with disability are especially vulnerable because alternative employment is hard to get – and you could end up in a worse situation. Threats of medical retirement, or harassment to force resignation, are stories told by staff with disability to an alarming degree. They go unreported because that’s the tactic. My former colleague stood up to his harassers, and now his case is a matter of public record. He secured the right to remain in his job, but his subsequent experience was so toxic, his psychological wellbeing was taken to the edge. In fact it was to such a degree that I precipitated an action to have him placed in another division. There he remains as a respected contributor, and considered well suitable for promotion. I will write his story soon. We discussed doing that today.
Medial retirement is an appropriate option for an agency to have. Some staff to get to the point where their disability sufficiently impairs their ability to perform the inherent requirements of the role they are in – but they could be redeployed into other roles where they can perform perfectly well. This is the case with people in front line roles who may be able to transition to ‘backroom’ roles after acquiring a disability. It is only when they are unable to meet the requirements of any available role, should medical retirement be invoked. However, staff with disability generally understand when they can’t continue, and voluntarily quit. There are, of course, circumstances when the situation requires firm action by the agency.
Resignation due to disability is not uncommon. But the underlying reason for the resignation is almost never explored.
Pushing a staff member to quit through what amounts to bullying and harassment is a disgraceful practice. However, the cases I am aware of show that it is a polished practice supported by well-rehearsed defences, and abetted by lax, or complicit, supervisory management. Staff with disability are not the only victims. Not all disabilities can trigger forced medical retirement. Members of other ‘diversity groups’ experience this too.
The Least Worst Option
For a person with disability losing a job can be catastrophic, especially when that job loss is under a cloud of medical capability, or questions about competence. Its bad enough navigating the uncertain territory of seeking new employment, but without an ability to get a reference from one’s previous employer, that journey can become a frightening prospect.
Shutting up and enduring insult and abuse may be seen to be the best of a limited array of potentially catastrophic outcomes – until the adverse health consequences of constant psychological stress take their toll.
Some staff with disability are really tough. Their experience of living with a disability that generates daily challenges to just get through a normal day breeds a steely determination. Adding a toxic workplace with an abusive management culture to that daily grind of challenges creates a harmful burden no agency should countenance.
But breaking one’s silence is a traumatic prospect to contemplate. If the outcome is loss of employment. It can be better to ‘suck it up’ and endure.
Ernesto Sirolli wrote of “the sun of love and the water of respect” as the two things people are inherently entitled to. That applies to our workplaces as much as life in general. Without these, we wither, and eventually die. Even if our bodies remain animated, our spirts are desiccated. Sirolli writes on helping people set up business enterprises using an approach he called ‘facilitation’. He based this method on the principles of positive psychology, with the tag line – “as if people really matter.” This should be the unerring focus of all public (human) service agencies.
Those who are responsible for instilling Fear are, I believe, people who have a disability – which denies them the opportunity to be compassionate and empathic. This is why I cannot argue for a punitive remedy. But I do hold an agency’s management culture accountable to support or reassign managers whose conduct is abusive and damaging. The obligation is moral, as well as legal.
Staff with disability must be enabled to work free of abuse, and free from fear of catastrophic consequences if they report it, when it happens.