18 March 2020


Workplace Bullying


Mental Health

Equal Pay

The FT: “Why ‘gaslighting’ can also happen at work”

The Financial Times (“FT”) has published an article on ‘the choreography of retaliation’ in relation to employee whistleblowing in cases involving unequal pay and constructive dismissal, the undermining tactics used by employers, and the psychological toll on complainants.

The following post is a paraphrased summary of the FT article.

The article draws upon the experience of Caroline Barlow, who settled her Employment Tribunal claims over unequal pay and constructive dismissal last year. As with the journalist Carrie Gracie, whose own experience regarding pay discrimination at the BBC was well-publicised, Barlow reports a “no-man’s-land of stonewalling and doublespeak” following her complaint. Evidence provided by Barlow was deliberately minimised; a project previously described as “transforming” was subsequently referred to as “a hygiene project”; and the slow arrival of the grievance outcome was peppered with undermining comments causing Barlow to feel unimportant. Barlow was subsequently diagnosed with depression.

The FT cites several other individuals on whistleblowing in the workplace:

  • Kathy Ahern, a retired mental health nurse and academic, acknowledges the psychological impact of challenging employers and likens their retaliation akin to ‘gaslighting’, a technique used by domestic abusers to make partners question their memory and judgement. Ahern notes that a gaslighting pattern includes:

    • reassuring a complainant that their grievances are being investigated when they are repeatedly stalling;

    • diminishing the complainant’s experience by using euphemisms such as “grey area” or “personality clash” for “victimisation”;

    • finding fault with a highly-regarded employee who makes a complaint;

    • praising a complainant for reporting misconduct but doing nothing to prevent reprisals; and/or

    • encouraging a complainant who has suffered retaliation to take sick leave or undergo a psychological evaluation under the guise of offering support.

  • Tom Mueller, author of Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, believes that employers’ descriptions of whistleblowers as “crazy” may be how they are genuinely perceived by them.

  • Margaret Oliver, a former detective with Greater Manchester Police, was described by senior as “unreasonable” and “too emotionally involved” when she expressed concerns about two investigations into child sexual exploitation. Having had no success with getting her concerns heard, Oliver resigned in 2012 and went public, prompting an independent review that found that one of the investigations had in fact been prematurely closed to the detriment of at-risk children.

  • Aaron Westrick, former Research Director at the now-liquidated Second Chance Body Armor, raised concerns about defective bulletproof vests. Westrick claimed that he was frozen out, described as “crazy” by HR, and was sacked. The case was settled in 2018 – 14 years later.

Georgina Halford-Hall, CEO of WhistleblowersUK, describes the stress of fighting a bad employer as “all-consuming”. Halford-Hall recommends that complainants speak to an independent mental health professional during the process: “Don’t make every conversation with your partner and friends about your concerns, because that only isolates you further, making it likelier that you’ll end up behaving irrationally.”

Peter van der Velden, Senior Researcher at CentERdata, is of the view that the best way for society to support victims of retaliation is to pay their legal costs. Similarly, Marianna Fotaki, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Warwick Business School, states that there is an opportunity for organisations to strengthen their culture by hiring former whistleblowers rather than avoiding them.

Suzanne McKie QC of Farore Law says that some Tribunal judges need to recognise more readily the impact of litigation on the mental health of claimants, a process that can re-traumatise unless properly managed by them. It takes courage to whistle-blow and the victimisation felt by some employees is very real and requires greater recognition by employers.

Source: The Financial Times

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