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Bullying in the ranks: Stamp it out

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With bullying hitting the headlines again, John Pope reasses the basics - and asks, how can we nip it in the bud?

I wrote an article for HRzone.co.uk over two years ago on the subject of culture, ethics, bad behaviour, and bullying in business. I wrote that it is a top management responsibility to make sure that the culture of a business is productive and that people are led well and treated well so that they can give of their best. Top Management is responsible for the culture of the organisation; it is their example which has the greatest influence over the behaviour of their people. And that is that. However with bullies and bullying making the headlines again, it seems that this topic is one that refuses to go away.

What is bullying?

It can be difficult to define, and it has to be viewed in the context of the culture of the organisation where it happens. The Army condemns bullying but the language used or the way a senior sometimes speaks to a junior might be seen as bullying in the civilian world. Occasional harsh words can be used in anger in any organisation and may cause temporary upset but be tolerable unless it becomes persistent or degrading.
I define it as the attempt by one person to dominate, unfairly, another by means of threats, or belittling them at their work, or putting them in a position which causes them substantial distress, it can be occasional. It does not have to be persistent, though it often is, when the bully gets satisfaction from ‘letting off steam’ or feeling power over people.

Why is bullying so dangerous?

Bullying damages those who are bullied. It is wrong, it degrades people and in extreme cases leads to mental illness or even suicide. It leads to loss of good people, or people who could have been good. It impels people to cover up mistakes, which make those mistakes more dangerous. It is also expensive when it leads to a claim for constructive dismissal. When, or if, the Dignity at Work Bill or its replacement, becomes an Act, it will probably be defined as abusive, insulting or intimidating behaviour, on more than one occasion. The fines will be heavy. But above all, bullying is morally wrong.

 

What sort of people become bullies, and why?

Most people will have come across bullies at school. My own recollections, from a long time ago, were that bullies enjoyed intimidating others, they liked inflicting pain, liked showing they were ‘on top’ and others were ‘underneath’. It gave them a totally undeserved feeling of power or authority. Looking back at these bullies now, I see people who were clearly inadequate in several ways, found it difficult to make real friends, though many had a group of toadies around them. Most were socially inept – little people, most had serious personality defects and compensated for those deficiencies by aggressive behaviour. Bullying made them feel good.

Bullying at senior levels

Such bullying is in the news just now. I know of two, very successful, very progressive companies where the chief executive, to express his frustration or make a point, would smash together two very heavy glass ashtrays and have a temper tantrum typical of a frustrated four-year-old. This was scary for new senior managers – longer service managers had got used to it. Juniors however were terrified and nowadays would easily win a case for constructive dismissal.

What can management do about bullying?

Not a lot if top management set a bad example. Good ethical managers can do a lot if they set a good example and are quick to correct those at all levels whose conduct to colleagues and staff is bad. Management will, of course, have to publish a clear statement of policy, make it easy for staff to bring up instances of bullying without fear of reprisals, and of course conform to their code of conduct as well as to whatever legislation is in force. They should make it clear that bullying and aggressive behaviour to others will not be tolerated. They should also consider providing counselling for those who seem unable to manage their anger.

And HR?

HR should make it easy for bullying to be reported confidentially. They should know the state of the workforce well enough to know where relations between people are fraught. It should be able to give victims prompt guidance or help. HR should be able to take prompt action when needed and advise top management accordingly. 
 
John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. To know more about John’s work and service please visit the website: www.johnpopeassociates.co.uk. His book ‘Winning Consultancy Business’ was published in July and is now available through his website. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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