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Bully at Work


A newly recognised scourge is stalking the workplace - the bullying manager - and he's creating untold harm, misery and distress to untold thousands of staff. Tackling bullies at work is hard. Adult bullies are much more skilled and calculating than the sort we used to encounter at school. Victims are reluctant to complain for fear of being seen as either troublesome or weak. And many employers don't even recognise the likely existence of the problem.

How do you detect the bully at work? He - and research shows that the vast majority of workplace bullies are male - is likely to be an outwardly confident, middle or senior manager with an apparent track record of achievement and advancement. The bully will be well networked, with plenty of contacts in key places. He's likely to have a team or group around him who reinforce his position. He likes to drive himself and others. He enjoys power and influence.

These characteristics describe many effective managers who don't employ bullying tactics. The bully mis-uses these attributes for his or her own gain. They may bully others to do work for them so that their own inadequacies or incompetence are concealed. They may use others in order to advance their own position. Or, in extreme circumstances, they may derive satisfaction from exercising power over others. Bullying is about the abuse of power in the workplace. The underlying motive is often related to status, money or sex. As such, it is a corrupting and sometimes a conspiratorial process.

Contrary to the stereotype, the victim of bullying is rarely a weak or ineffectual person. There is plenty of research to indicate that the bully chooses someone who is competent (to cover their own deficiency), socially popular (contrasting with their own tight gang), and easy-going. It is this 'innocent', compliant and co-operative nature of the victim which enables the bully to establish their control; they don't realise what is happening to them until the pattern is well-established.

Several different forms of bullying are now recognised. Most workplaces have established policies for dealing with racial or sexual discrimination. Harassment and intimidation are often more subtle and difficult to define, yet both insidiously undermine the self-confidence of the victim. Verbal abuse includes derogatory personal remarks, deliberate use of anger, persistent put-downs, and verbal 'assaults'; such tactics are more likely to be used by the skilled bully than more obvious physical abuse although this too can occur. A typical characteristic of bullies is that they only indulge when there are no witnesses present; this way, it's always a case of one person's word against another, and the bully has the advantage of seniority and credibility.

Like discrimination, harassment and bullying are very hard to define in formal policies. Some more progressive procedures seek to define intimidation as 'what is experienced by the victim' rather than 'what was intended by the perpetrator'. It's a helpful distinction.

What can the employer do to combat the possibility of bullying?
- Be prepared to accept that bullying might be occurring in the workplace, even though you can't see it and are reluctant to believe it.
- When someone alleges bullying against a manager or colleague, start from the premise that they are telling the truth. Take them seriously. If it's true, it's taken a lot of effort to blow the whistle. If it's malicious, you can use discipline them later.
- Investigate what the victim experienced and decide whether that is acceptable, irrespective of what the manager intended.
- Take action to define, develop and reinforce best management behaviour in all managers.
- Be cautious when an alleged bully seeks to create an over-familiar relationship with you.

The choice for the victim is more difficult. You need to record what happened - dates, times, events, consequences. Look for the establishment of a pattern of behaviour; in my book, three instances constitutes a pattern. However difficult it seems, you need to try and obtain corroboration (witnesses, evidence, audio or video tape). Discreetly check out whether any present or past colleagues have had similar experiences. When you're ready, name it. Use the grievance procedure. Involve the union or staff association. Be prepared to go a couple of levels up the hierarchy to avoid those likely to be involved in any collusion. Get a sick note for 'workplace induced stress' and remove yourself from the risk of further harm. And if you can't obtain satisfactory redress, leave; it's not worth working for an employer who does not take your well-being seriously.

There is a small but growing body of support resources. Tim Field has been very active in this area, self-publishing a practical book and establishing a phone helpline. More information is available on his website Carol Haigh and Heather Serdar's new book on 'Bully Off' is due to be published by Russell House Publishing later this year.

Tim Pickles is the Managing Director of TrainingZone, an experienced trainer and management consultant, and the author of more than a dozen books and manuals on a range of training and management topics.


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