If you don’t like reading the scholarly tomes of research on workplace bullying, you might be attracted to a fictional account of the same phenomenon. Surprisingly realistic, Christian Jungersen takes the issue of workplace bullying and turns it into the riveting psychological thriller, The Exception.
The Economist promises that you will “never look at your work colleagues in quite the same way again.”
Four women work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information. When two of them start receiving death threats, they suspect a Serbian torturer and war criminal is stalking them. But perhaps he is not the person behind the threats — it could be someone in their very midst.
As the tension among the women builds, they begin to turn on each other and discover that no one is exactly the person she seems to be. The office becomes a battlefield in which every move is subject to suspicion.
An obsession with tracking down the killer turns into a witch hunt as the women resort to bullying and victimisation. Yet these are people who daily analyse cases of appalling cruelty on a worldwide scale, and who are intimate with crimes against humanity and the psychology of evil.
Organisational reputation or prestige does not provide inoculation against workplace injustices. No one should be surprised that the employees of a high-minded institute should be any less capable of the standard bitchiness, jealousies, power plays and self serving impulses that prevail in any other workplace.
Workplace bullying often has its origins in vague or unclear events that trigger paranoia, gossip and defence mechanisms. In The Exception, it was anonymous threats of violence that make a rather passive colleague the target of rising suspicion.
The constant reminder of twentieth century mass atrocities prevents The Exception novel from just being another story of office politics and petty bickering. It poses the question: is it goodness or evil that is the exception in human beings, and what is it that brings out one rather than another.
The genocides of the last century and the desolate findings of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments have shown that, when push comes to shove, most people will acquiesce in harming their fellow citizens. Very often, what is truly exceptional is not cruelty, but the person who resists it.
Fictionalising workplace phenomenon is not new, but this is an exceptional treatment because of its morally ambiguous setting and compelling characterisation. There are certainly more stories to be told, but possibly not as powerful as this one.