Spotting Bullying

Bullies tend to surround themselves with supporters and spies while cultivating allies in senior management. They create rivalries in the workplace, bringing out the worst in people as they try to be ‘in’ with the bully. Being bullied makes people feel vulnerable, isolated and frustrated, and may lead to stress related illnesses. It affects relationships with family and friends.

Spotting what’s going on early puts you in a much stronger position. Problems often arise when a person is new or recently promoted. The earliest sign is that a relationship at work doesn’t feel right: is your boss or colleague responding to you in a different way, belittling you or making continual criticisms of your work when its standard hasn’t changed? Are you starting to feel that supposed mistakes are your entire fault? Other signs are constant assessment, useless errands, false complaints, persistent humiliation in front of others, and an inability to admit they could be wrong. A bully will try to get rid of someone they see as a threat; not promoting able people, taking credit for others’ ideas or work, or alternatively not giving enough work or responsibility and then claiming lack of initiative.

Insight Into Bullying

A good deal of workplace bullying can be overlooked or excused because of a number of euphemisms which are frequently used to justify bullying behaviours which includes: harassment, coercive management, personality clash, poor management style, intimidation, discrimination or ‘just a joke’ – common labels for what is often really bullying.

Bullying is any long-standing aggression, physical or psychological, by an individual or group directed against someone unable to defend themselves. Not just insulting remarks or open aggression, it can be subtle, devious, with no witnesses, and be difficult to confront for those whose confidence has been worn down.

Experts agree that bullying thrives in target driven environments where taking a ‘strong line’ with employees is seen as an accepted method of motivating staff. However it is not the intention of the perpetrator, but the deed itself and its impact on the recipient or target that may constitute workplace bullying. It is a myth that only quiet or ‘weak’ people will be victimized since a bully will also pick on the popular or successful person if they are seen as a threat.

Bullying can make employees lives a misery, affect our performance and damage our careers. It can also have a serious impact on organisations: indeed, statistics show that each year as many as 18.9 million working days are lost to bullying and up to a half of all stress-related illnesses are a direct result of bullying.

Fighting back

It is important not to be undermined and try to remain positive and confident in your own abilities (easier said than done).

Remember that being bullied is not your fault! Try to take responsibility for your feelings and behaviour, keep things in perspective and don’t let it dominate your life. However down you feel, make time to do stuff you enjoy. Talk things over with friends, many of them will have had a similar experience. Independent counselling services can be available via the Employee Assistance Programme at work or your GP.

Stand firm against verbal attacks – tell the bully you won’t tolerate personal remarks.

Keep calm and say what has to be said firmly and coherently, even if they try to shout you down.

If instructions are unclear, ask for written clarification – this can be useful as evidence later.

Avoid being alone with the bully if you can.

Keep a detailed diary, including dates, times and locations, of every verbal attack, contrary instruction, or unfair criticism.

Check your job description isn’t being abused.

Write to the bully after incidents challenging them and keep copies of all correspondence.

When making a formal complaint, stick to the facts and avoid character assassination. Where ever possible, insist on a witness, either a friend or union rep, being present at meetings. Tell your doctor what’s happening as they will usually give you a sick note (and name the bully on it for evidence), giving you time to recover and plan your next move. Making a complaint may make things worse initially. But bullying usually affects several members of staff who could be potential allies and build a stronger case. Quietly build solidarity with your colleagues and when you have enough information use it. There are complaints procedures at work to deal with bullying and harassment, a bully can be suspended pending investigation.

The Law

There’s no specific legislation dealing with bullying at work. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees’ health and this can include bullying as it’s a workplace stress (Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974). Bullying involving discrimination related to diversity issues can be challenged under specific legislation. Unions have access to solicitors.

As a very last resort you can always resign and try to prove to an industrial tribunal that you were forced to leave due to intolerable conditions. You must be employed for two years and will need a detailed log of the abuse to be able to claim ‘constructive dismissal’. Tribunals will examine recorded incidents of abuse, but their main interest is in whether correct procedures were followed. A request for an acceptable reference can be built into a winning claim; compensation varies.

Final Words

Bullying at work often involves an abuse of position or power which isn’t surprising given the hierarchical structure of the workplace. Bullying will not be eliminated by the ‘correct’ HR policies or laws but these procedures can form the basis around which to organize and help build wider confidence and peer support in the workplace.