Maggie Barry and the dangers of crying 'bully'

by The Listener / 06 December, 2018
Maggie Barry. Photo/Getty Images

Maggie Barry. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Maggie Barry bullying allegations

Swearing, bantering and sniping are generally undesirable in the workplace, but are we seriously considering outlawing them as inherently dangerous?

It was easy to applaud the advent of #MeToo. The felling of atrocious tyrants, such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the drunken, groping New Zealand legal titans who were revealed as serial sex pests, was long overdue. There has been a welcome global consciousness-raising.

But as this era of atonement for workplace bullying matures, its fine print is proving divisive. The recent inquiry into police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha’s conduct and allegations against MP Maggie Barry show a lot of on-the-job conflict is rather more nuanced and debatable than the headline #MeToo cases.

Haumaha’s career was called into question because three staff in his unit didn’t like the way he spoke to them. A QC’s enquiry has found no evidence of bullying, but a robust leadership style. Barry stands accused of bullying two former staff by such actions as swearing in front of them, teasing them and saying disparaging things about other people.

Are these really the sorts of conduct #MeToo needs to address next? That the media – an industry rife with bullying and sexual harassment – should make such a meal out of others’ debatable transgressions adds a thick layer of irony.

It’s straightforward to diagnose such things as violence, threats, groping and sexual extortion as abusive. The older #MeToo grows, the more amazed we’ll be in retrospect about how much of it society has tolerated and excused.

But, speaking tersely, swearing, bantering, tantrums, sniping behind colleagues’ backs – are these necessarily bullying? They’re generally undesirable, and in quantity can become abusive, but in occasional doses, such behaviour is normal and human.

If people are going to start informing on each other, or as with Barry, covertly taping for such transgressions, we risk creating another form of workplace danger: a low-trust environment.

The allegations against Barry seem well short of the sort of mistreatment #MeToo was conceived to root out. If the MP did, as alleged, tell parliamentary staff to do party political work – which she denies – that’s a serious breach, though they too broke the law if they complied. But beyond that, she appears simply to have a short temper and a somewhat overbearing sense of humour. Her terseness may be unpleasant, but nothing reported so far suggests oppression or tyranny. Bad language, though near-ubiquitous, is a legitimate item for collegial complaint, but would seldom constitute bullying. As for disparagement of others, within reason it’s a valuable safety valve. Everyone needs to be able to sound off in confidence about the sometimes unreasonable behaviour of others. Workplaces will hardly be healthier if harmless therapeutic venting of frustration might be used against people.

As for personal remarks, such as Barry’s likening a staffer’s attire to that seen in The Great Gatsby, one person’s affectionate teasing is another’s hectoring sarcasm. We cannot reform human nature. Teasing, and even its ruder cousin, banter, is often a sign of deep affection and a way of signalling mutual trust. A little gossip can be team-building. These things can morph into bullying, but are we seriously considering outlawing them as inherently dangerous?

Parliament’s timely inquiry into its bullying is justified by the serious transgressions of MP Jami-Lee Ross and former minister Meka Whaitiri. But there’s a danger of our getting to the stage where just crying “bully!” is enough to blight someone’s career, and for that suspension of doubt to be misused out of spite. Not all workplace interactions can be positive and nurturing. High-pressure situations cannot always be gentled with pleases and thankyous. And it’s not abusive to tell a staffer their work isn’t good enough.

For a glimpse of real bullying, consider the former Defence Force employee who was sexually harassed and incarcerated by her boss, then pursued for court costs after she tried to get justice.

As to safety, we’re not put at risk by an MP being waspish, but we are when another, as Immigration Minister, lets an immigrant stay in New Zealand even after he has imported harmful drugs. Iain Lees-Galloway wrongly put convicted trafficker Karel Sroubek’s safety ahead of everyone else’s. Both the Defence Force and Lees-Galloway have, fittingly, reversed their decisions.

Workplace safety can surely be protected without outlawing many manifestations of the human personality, or holding that feeling slighted is proof of abuse. We need simply to treat others as we’d like to be treated, and have the wit and empathy to notice if our tone or humour isn’t well received.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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