Bullying in the workplace

The concept of bullying at work is usually subject to two equally fallacious extremes. The first seems to exist solely on the internet where self-help sites proliferate, spreading the bullying gospel and painting gloomy pictures of the extent of workplace victimisation. One website even goes so far as to claim that one in thirty people are serial bullies – which means if you go 24 hours without meeting a sociopath you’ve had a good day. The more common (but no more normal) view holds that a certain level of harassment is often a condition of employment, and, more frighteningly, can make for efficient management. This is particularly the case in the City where the macho culture still dominates.

If you believe the first bunch, the e-vigilantes, about half of the population is bullied. Unfortunately, this statistic weakens, rather than strengthens, their well-meaning campaign. If every other person experiences some kind of nit-picking, teasing or conflict at work, yet takes it in their stride without complaint, the bullying issue does look like the overblown offspring of an ever-more litigious society. The other complicating factor is that there is as yet no legislation against bullying at work, another suggestion that the working population is not especially aware of this kind of intimidation. The law is well acquainted with the sexual or racial harassment of employees, but makes no provision for those who suffer this more subtle, less easily-defined, campaign of abuse.

However, there is a proposal for a “Dignity at Work” Bill which would allow victims of bullying direct recourse to the law. And although it is difficult to quantify the problem of workplace bullying with any accuracy, there are enough horror stories around to give one pause. Journalist Andrea Adams first coined the phrase in 1988 when she investigated a bank close to her home in Downton and found close to 50 people being terrorised by their departmental manager. Tim Field, author of Bully in Sight, writes from first-hand experience after a bullying manager wrecked his career, health and marriage.

Bullying can involve any persistent form of abuse that makes the victim feel singled out and disparaged: being insulted, scapegoated, humiliated or intimidated. Incidents tend to be small enough for those on the receiving end to feel unable to complain, for example, trivial fault-finding and nit-picking. However, prolonged exposure to these incidents can have damaging emotional, psychological and physical effects, including common symptoms of stress such as headaches, nervousness and reduced immunity to illness.

Victims of workplace intimidation need to recognise the problem and have the courage to deal with it. The first and most important action in all cases of harassment is to make a written record of every incident, including place, time, date, and who else was present. The next stage is to approach the bully and make it clear to them in a calm, dispassionate way that their treatment is unfair and harmful. If the bully then continues to act with disregard to the victim’s feelings, he or she is in possible breach of the law.

Ultimately, sufferers of any kind of abuse will always need to follow the company’s grievance procedure (if they have one). In the first instance this usually involves approaching their direct manager – unless the direct manager is the cause of the problem. In the latter case, the matter needs to be taken to his or her superior. If all this seems too much like kicking up a fuss, it is important to remember that an employer has a duty of care to its employees, and it is in its legal, financial and personnel interests to resolve conflict in the office. Finally, do not allow yourself to feel isolated – share your problem with a trusted colleague.

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