To mark Anti-Bullying Week, Alice Fleetwood, explores the often devastating impact of workplace bullying and offers advice on how to deal with it.
Workplace bullying is emotional abuse. It isn’t banter or teasing. Bullying in the workplace is a serious, sometimes sackable offence and yet, despite awareness training and national campaigns, organisations are rarely equipped to deal with it properly.
“Each morning, something different had been hidden or moved from my desk and I started to become confused.”
Annabel*, now in her 60s, worked for a local authority. Her (male) boss took against her: she can’t remember when or how it started but she began to notice that things had been moved around on her desk, or her in-tray contents had been moved to her drawer. Her umbrella would go missing and turn up a week later and her coat would be hanging up in another office. Eventually, things started to disappear completely. She started to become confused and was already stressed because her son had been diagnosed as mentally ill. Her manager encouraged her to confide in him.
“He would make me read a book every evening and test me the next morning,” she says. “By that point, I didn’t realise it wasn’t normal or reasonable behaviour.”
Many people don’t realise that they’re being bullied because it is not obvious aggression or just one type of behaviour. Instead, it is a campaign of many incidents that separately are not worth mentioning, but as a list of incidents, a pattern emerges. Bullying can include: someone taking credit for your work or playing endless pranks on you; laughing at or belittling your ideas; critical remarks passed off as banter; threats about losing your job; your boss overworking you or blocking you from promotion; withholding information so that you look incompetent; saying unpleasant things only within your earshot; apologising to others about you; derogatory comments on social media (you don’t have to be named, there will be clues).
Bullies target those whom they perceive as either weak or in a weak position such as short-term, part-time or zero-hour contract workers. As these are more likely to be women, statistically more women are bullied than men.
“Two of us were on short-term contracts but my boss put all her effort into finding my male colleague a job within the company,” says 35 year-old Kate*, a further education project worker. “She knew there was a good business case for keeping me on, but she was only interested in making sure her ‘work husband’ was kept on. In a 1-2-1 with me, she told me I was incompetent. I asked for evidence but she just repeated that I was incompetent and she shouldn’t have to apologise to people about my work. She told me I was no good at even basic admin. I asked for some support and she shouted, ‘I don’t need to stand for this!’ This was not recorded in the 1-2-1 notes, so I made an appointment with HR. She denied calling me incompetent but I stuck with it, calmly insisting that she said what she had said. After many denials, she ended up saying, ‘I did it to protect you’ thereby effectively admitting it.”
Don’t try to make sense of bullying by focusing on your weaknesses: bullying works precisely because most of us have that inner critic. Do not accept that this is “just them being them” or that it is “a style of management”.
“My boss would make me read a book every evening and test me the next morning.”
Some steps you can take:
If you’re accused of being incompetent, familiarise yourself with the performance management policy. People are rarely sacked for not performing, so don’t be afraid to ask for evidence, not opinion. Ask how they can help you improve. Often, they will have no solutions because it is not actually about your performance.
If you are the subject of targeted “banter”, repeat what he or she has said; explain to them that it is not acceptable and that there is a policy to deal with this sort of behaviour (usually a Code of Conduct or Dignity at Work policy).
Only deal with facts: don’t tell the bully how he or she makes you feel (how you feel is up to you) but make them accountable for what they do or say. Ask, “Why do you say/do that?” It’s even better to send and receive responses by email; they are good sources of evidence.
In an organisation that takes bullying seriously, procedures will be transparent and accessible to all. Staff will be trained to support the whole process. One HR officer told me that proof, or at least evidence, is crucial. Proof can be in the form of emails or witness testimonies and evidence can be a detailed record of events (dates are important). She stressed how easy it is to tell when people are lying.
“People who tell the truth are able to recount events without any difficulty whereas people who lie tend to change their story.”
Bullying is bad for business. It destroys loyalty, it pushes out good staff members and it leads to high instances of long-term sickness. Bullying and bullies are hard to tackle, but the important thing to remember is that if you speak the truth, people will eventually hear it; the truth has a unique weight that no denial or argument can shift.
*names have been changed
www.bullying.co.uk/ (useful for younger people affected by bullying)
@Aliceliverpool is a football-loving, vegetarian, birdwatching leftie but not a social worker as you might presume.