Bully for you: Intimidation at work
Personal intimidation in the workplace can be hard to define and doesn’t always come from above. Cath Janes looks at the grey area where bluntness ends and bullying begins
Bullying happens in many places, put is often hard to define in the workplace. Illustration: Simon Pemberton
The allegations levelled against Gordon Brown this week are a timely reminder that bullying is not simply the domain of the playground. Workplace bullying is on the rise, a by-product of the added pressure placed on workers and employers by the recession.
It can be hard to know where to draw the line between gruff management style and intimidation of a darker, more personal nature. Yet for some, the question of whether their boss is a bully needs no debate.
“Early in my career I had a boss so awful that I used to cry over the things he said,” says lawyer Julie English. “Nothing I did ever seemed good enough and he used to have tantrums and shout at people. Then two years later I found myself working with a boss who prided himself on his honesty. He was really brutal and I sometimes wondered if he too was deliberately trying to make me cry. Looking back, I was surrounded by dysfunctional people.”
It’s a familiar tale: tears, tantrums, the nagging feeling that you’re no good. So it may surprise you to know that English doesn’t believe this was bullying. “It never even occurred to me that this constituted bullying,” she says. “They were difficult colleagues but they made me raise my game and made me a better lawyer. I learned a lot of lessons from them that other, kinder bosses failed to teach me.”
Employers should have zero tolerance for intimidation or bullying, but does that mean there is no place for straight talking?
According to the Department of Trade and Industry, bullying is the intimidation of an employee by physical or verbal violence, abuse or humiliation. It includes being picked on, being unfairly treated or blamed for incidents, being routinely overworked and consistently denied career or training opportunities. It is behaviour that happens privately or in front of colleagues and in any form of communication.
It is an issue underpinned by startling statistics. A recent survey by the Unison union and Company magazine revealed one-third of young women claim to have been bullied, often by other women. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) claims 70% of managers have witnessed bullying in the last three years and that bullying costs the UK £13.8bn per year.
Yet there is a danger in confusing bullying with straight talking. To assume that the latter is always the former could make us incapable of looking our colleagues in the eye for fear of unbalancing their delicate constitutions. So when is a bullying boss really only a gruff manager?
When their comments are connected to the work and not the person, says Mandy Rutter, clinical manager at Axa Icas, health and wellbeing specialist: “They won’t have personal criticisms about that person, won’t single them out and will be consistently straight talking with everybody. It may be difficult to hear comments connected to performance or behaviour but it is also adult-to-adult communication with evidence to back it up.”
Honesty can be warranted yet cruel and, according to Rutter, when we are under stress we respond emotionally.
There are occasions, though, when tough talking is needed. The recession has demonstrated this and redundancies, restructuring and bankruptcy have forced us to have the difficult conversations we’d rather avoid.
“We need to get better at having robust dialogue because difficult conversations about employee performance are one of the biggest challenges for managers and it’s too often avoided,” says Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management. “If there is not a performance culture in an organisation some employees will see this as bullying because they haven’t experienced it before. In fact it can be beneficial to have a frank approach and staff can thrive on that clarity. It is not bullying to address important issues, gain clarity or acknowledge what an employee has done to contribute to an issue. Softening the message too much means it can get lost.”
Nina Dar, founder of Cheeky Monkey, a change management consultancy, agrees. She admits she shocks clients’ employees because she is direct and honest, but believes this is the key to success.
“I’ve had grown men tell me that I’m scary. I’ve also seen people cry because of my comments. Yet increasingly we see employees who are happy to work with this style because they want to be treated like adults who can handle challenges,” she says.
“This is different to bullying, which means hurting someone, lashing out at them, being inconsistent and chipping away at their confidence. I recognise that if employees want to work as a team they have to talk to each other honestly. It’s about having adult conversations and enjoying the results.”
Yet tough talking can become bullying, an easy line to cross. Bullies erode an employee’s judgment, sometimes so subtly that it is hard to know what is unacceptable. The issue is further complicated by the stereotypes. We can be so busy scrutinising superiors for bullying behaviour we forget to scrutinise those alongside or below us.
“I took on a job with managerial responsibility and one colleague, to whom I was senior, caused me enormous problems,” says teacher Mike Durrant. “He was an awkward character and refused to co-operate with the changes I was proposing. He’d deliberately miss meetings and refuse to share tasks. I complained to our line manager and was told to learn to deal with him.
“It got worse. He’d shout at me in classrooms or meetings and became determined to battle me. I also discovered that my predecessor had left because of him, as had someone more senior. I had no control over him and my managers did nothing either, so I had no one to turn to for help.”
Durrant developed such serious depression he had to be hospitalised and has been unable to work since 2008. He is in no doubt this bullying is responsible for his ill health.
According to a CMI survey, 63% of managers have witnessed bullying between peers and 30% have witnessed subordinates bullying their managers.
Yet while some behaviour, such as discrimination, threats or violence, is clearly defined legally, bullying is a grey area. Elin Pinnell, an employment law specialist at Capital Law LLP, says: “There should be zero tolerance of bullying in any workplace yet there is no rule book about what defines it. Take swearing. If you work on a building site and it is part of the daily banter, does this constitute bullying? You can debate it until you are blue in the face but it really does depend on the impact it has upon each employee.”
Also, those displaying this behaviour may be unaware of its impact. “I don’t know if he was being a bully,” says marketing manager Jim Davies of a former-colleague. “There were times when butter wouldn’t melt and he’d be upset to know he’d hurt you. But then his deviousness would be so transparent that he looked like a man who actually enjoyed bullying people.
“He was also very manipulative. He’d temper his comments with ‘I’m only being honest’, or ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the business’, which allowed him to say anything he liked. Work was one big guessing game and innocuous actions would cause him to explode. The shock meant you’d be incapable of responding to it.”
Remind you of anyone? There’s an argument that the management style of celebrities such as Gordon Ramsay, Sir Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell don’t help. Most people confronted by such an approach would feel humiliated yet we tune in to point and laugh at chefs, apprentices and singers who are clearly distressed. Is it any wonder that we struggle to distinguish tough talking from bullying?
“What works on TV just doesn’t work in reality,” says CMI chief executive Ruth Spellman. “You can recognise tough behaviour if you know how, though. Ask whether your colleague or boss is a tough listener as well as a tough talker. Can you have your say as much as they have theirs? And are you confident you can trust them, and that they are acting consistently? If so they’re not necessarily your enemy. That confidence, consistency and trust could benefit you in a way that a bully never could.”
Some names have been changed
What to do if you think you’re being bullied
First, talk it over with someone to establish whether the behaviour you are being subjected to really does constitute bullying. If you belong to a union, your rep should be able to help. DirectGov, Citizens Advice (0844 848 9600) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (0845 604 6610) are also good contacts.
Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (08457 474 747), offers advice and has a useful leaflet entitled Bullying and Harassment at Work, which is available by post or online. If you speak to an outside agency or charity, make sure it follows clear guidelines on maintaining confidentiality.
Once you are sure you are being bullied, take the following steps:
• Try to find out if anyone else you work with is suffering from or has witnessed bullying behaviour from the person concerned.
• Keep a diary of incidents, including dates, witnesses and your feelings at the time. Keep copies of emails you think form a wider pattern of bullying.
• Make the person aware of his or her behaviour and ask them to stop. You could ask a colleague or union official to act on your behalf.
• If you can’t confront the person, consider putting your objections to him or her in writing. Keep copies of any correspondence. Keep your tone unemotional, and stick to the facts.
• Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. If you decide to complain to your employer, ask for information on its grievance procedures.
• Instead of taking disciplinary action, your employer (or you) may wish to follow different ways of resolving the situation, such as mediation.
• If you have to resign due to bullying, take legal advice. You cannot make a legal claim directly about bullying, but you may be able to make a constructive dismissal claim against your employer on the grounds that it is neglecting its “duty of care”. You will have a better chance of success if you can show the tribunal you have followed the steps above and complied with any attempt by your employer to resolve the situation.
• Complaints can also sometimes be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment if, for example, you think you are being bullied on the grounds of age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic. Graham Snowdon
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