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What should you do if you are being bullied at work?
Bullying has been much in the news of late and, of course, it was Anti-Bullying Week last week. Away from the politics of individual cases, it is important to focus on the impact bullying behaviour has in the workplace.
The bullying itself can be bad enough – it can make the workplace feel like a war zone and it is the everyday nature of it more than the odd individual hostile act that has the most damaging cumulative effect. Every day the person facing bullying – particularly if it comes from a line manager – may feel they have to steel themselves for what is going to come throughout working hours and sometimes outside of them. Sometimes they may not know what form it will take – will it be being shouted at, being humiliated in meetings, having your work picked apart as if you are completely incompetent, being questioned about every single decision you take – even if they are routine decisions, etc, etc.
The long-term impact of that on a person’s self confidence is immense and never forgotten. Bullying behaviour, if it seeps out of individual encounters, taints all interchanges in the office. Other people see what is going on. Either they seek to ingratiate themselves within the power structure to protect their own position, say nothing for fear of reprisals [and feel bad about that if they have a conscience] or they stand up for the person being bullied and risk their own position. Or maybe they leave – sooner or later. If the bullying behaviour is sanctioned it becomes part of a culture of fear where self preservation becomes more important than anything else.
It’s not just the bullying, though, that is damaging, but the way it is dealt with. In organisations where bullying is encouraged or simply accepted or organisations which are looking to lay people off, employers often seek to protect bullying managers and to protect their own backs by avoiding being sued. They may hire expensive lawyers, they may bring in mediators and go through a farcical process of getting the manager to say how much they respect the person being bullied [this is not to say that mediation is not a good idea if done with a genuine desire to address the situation], etc, etc. The end result is to intimidate the person being bullied and to suggest that it is all in their head; that they are, in effect, paranoid and overreacting. Bullied people may feel under pressure to ask colleagues to act as witnesses, knowing this may put their jobs on the line and feeling guilty about that.
Although anyone can be a bully, the figures show that large numbers of working mums come in for this kind of treatment, often as bad employers seek to push them out or make life difficult. So what can you do in such a situation? There are some important practical steps to take if you are being bullied: take contemporaneous notes of any exchanges with the bully [I know someone who tried to record a bully]; take witnesses into the grievance process if you go down this route – and it is important to go through all the internal hoops before reaching for legal action, just to show you have tried everything; build a support network whether in or out of work; and look for a way out.
I know the last may sound like giving up – and I am all for campaigning – but if the bully is being supported by the organisation, the long-term personal impact of all of this grows the longer you stay in a toxic atmosphere. For the organisation the danger is that, in supporting bullying, they end up losing some of their best people – not just the person being bullied, but also the onlookers and new recruits by reputation. Far from bullying being a sign of strength, it is clear indication of poor management and organisational failure.