A Workplace Harassment Case for the Record Books

workplace bullying

And the Award for Meanest Boss Ever Goes to… the Human Rights Tribunal

It would be ironic if it wasn’t so serious that the Chairperson of Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal has finally been called to task after years of harassing her employees in ways you thought you’d only see in “Mean Girls”. From 2009 to 2012, Shirish Chotalia was said to have created a “poisoned atmosphere” in the workplace, according to Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Mario Dion in a report tabled in Parliament last Thursday.

Dion’s report concluded that Chotalia’s treatment of employees amounted to “gross mismanagement.” It found that Chotalia, who resigned as chair in November, harassed employees at all levels, referred to them in derogatory terms, questioned their competence in front of their colleagues and spread misinformation about them.

“The result was a poisoned atmosphere at the tribunal, a place that, ironically, is supposed to place respect of individuals at the very highest level,” said Dion.

What makes things even worse is that employees, through their union, had raised concerns about Chotalia’s behavior to the Justice Minister, who refused to deal with it and passed the buck to the Privy Council which, after looking into the allegations, decided they didn’t warrant a misconduct investigation.

Extreme Examples of Harassment

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The case report says Chotalia harassed and abused eight CHRT employees, as well as several appointed tribunal members, using the following tactics:

  • Humiliating staff during meetings, often raising personal health issues or unjustifiably blaming them for errors, sometimes reducing her targets to tears
  • Ordering staff to spy on an employee at work and report the person’s movements and actions to her
  • Trying to fire an employee without justifiable reason and retaliating against employees who did not accept her wishes or defended others against her verbal abuse
  • Making unreasonable requests, such as working outside regular hours and being available around the clock without additional pay
  • Requiring one employee to carry a set of keys to the office around their neck, even though the person complained that this caused discomfort and pain
  • Asking people to come to work when they were on sick leave and to work while on holidays
  • Accusing employees of stealing items from her, such as documents or binders, when she was unable to locate them

What Kind of Person Does This?

“The easy answer, of course, is to assume that there is a mental health issue at play here – some sort of major personality disorder such as psychopathy,” says Dr. Pat Pitsel, a psychologist, educator and consultant on workplace issues.

“In business settings, we frequently see behaviors that can be described simply as ‘mean’,” she says. “Simply put, these people generally are lacking in empathy and close attachments with others, refrain from forming close attachments, use cruelty to gain empowerment, exhibit exploitative tendencies, may exhibit defiance of authority (although seldom in situations where authority is present), and may engage in destructive excitement seeking.”

How to Avoid Hiring or Appointing Them

“Unfortunately, individuals such as this, when they are very bright, are easy to hire because they present themselves very well in interviews,” says Pitsel. “ …They can be very charming, and they often have an uncanny ability to know the kinds of answers other people are looking for.”

So how do you keep people like this out of your organization? “Be wary of quick, superficial answers that use humor to skirt substance,” advises Pitsel. “Ask the hard questions, and press for thoughtful answers. They will frequently become angry and defensive when/if they see their charm is not working.”

Checking references can help, as well as scrutinizing job history. These kinds of people tend to leave a path of destruction wherever they go, says Pitzel. “I would suggest companies look at the frequency of job and company change. If there is an inordinate number of companies worked in or positions held by this person (as compared to comparable candidates) then I would be very cautious about why this might have happened.”

Warning Signs

Despite complaints from staff, this behavior went on for years, probably scarring some employees forever and most certainly causing unhappiness and stress way beyond healthy levels for most. Even without employee complaints there must have been signs that anyone looking closely should have read as signs of a poisonous supervisor.

According to Pitsel, signs could include

  • increased sick time taken by staff
  • a tendency to always blame others for problems or things that have gone wrong
  • frequent use of “I” language  - they alone are responsible for all the positive results that have been achieved in previous positions, while failures are due to the incompetence of others

Dion has urged the government to use all available tools to “systematically assess information about prospective appointees’ behaviors and attitudes toward subordinates before making any appointment of a deputy head or chief executive.” Let’s hope they listen.

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Article Published April 23, 2013

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