Thursday, 17 May 2007

Bullying in the UK Workplace

If like me you are a regular reader of websites such as the BBC News pages then over the past couple of years you will have seen a lot of comment about the increase of bullying in UK schools and of various initiatives to try to combat it. The trend seems to be stretching into the adult world of the UK too, as this week, for example, it was reported that 30% of people who work in British universities say they have or are being bullied at work. The greater use of SMS text messaging, email and the internet is helping this trend and 'cyber-bullying' is now an accepted term.

I suffered about 12 months of bullying at work in 2002/3. I was with a large employer who had about 5000 staff when I started, though 25% were made redundant while I worked there. The bullying was very insidious which made it harder to deal with. The colleague with whom I shared an office slowly but surely undermined my position telling people to ignore my reports and ultimately insisting that I put his name on everything I wrote because he had to have had such a major impact on any work I did. He would edit and censor anything I produced until it got to a state in which I felt it futile to produce anything. Even my mother threatened to come to my employer to complain. Fortunately the colleague decided that he 'had done all that he could do for the place' and resigned. That day I felt physically as if a weight had been lifted from me, and I literally skipped home singing 'Oh Happy Day'. It was only at that stage I realised how bad it had got. I do not really blame the man, I see that he was under immense pressure with a child of 2 and a new baby at home, plus studying for a degree part-time and moving house and he took his tension out on me. This was helped by his faith which gave him a rather 'holier than thou' attitude and meant he looked down upon my unmarried state.

The key problem was everyone kept telling me he was such a wonderful fellow and our boss, head of the whole department, did not seem to comprehend what I was complaining about his behaviour. I was not a union member at the time so had no-one to turn to bar family and friends who could do nothing in my workplace. Two years later while still working at the same place, the issue came up and now my boss, who had stepped down from the senior post, accused me of having made up the whole thing and now more knowledgeable on such matters I was forced to bring a complaint against her as her dismissal of my concerns as fantasy were beginning to undermine my position. Her problem is that she believed any different view of the past from the one her unreliable memory held, had to be lies.

Anyway, I set that out to show that I have been through the mill myself and so am now alert to such behaviour being imposed on colleagues. I left that employer and got a better job at a similarly large, though smaller place. Fortunately here I have not suffered any bullying, but the same cannot be said for colleagues. Currently I know of three of them, each being bullied by a different manager. One is near retirement but they want him out even quicker than that. The other two seem to be that the manager has just decided that they do not like the person in question, despite the fact that both of the women are incredibly hardworking and if they go it will make much work harder to achieve. The approaches adopted by the bullies vary. One is simply declaring the person redundant though is already advertising for their replacement. Another has worked for six months setting impossible tasks, in some cases that could have put clients at risk and put the person under daily scrutiny (they have to log everything they do hour-by-hour and have weekly reviews). The person being bullied made a complaint and despite receiving union backing, the company has managed to delay and dissipate her complaint whilst now saying she needs to be disciplined. The third person has to ask permission to attend meetings relevant to his work, and recently giving permission has been delayed often for a fortnight, which is actually stopping him working effectively (probably intentionally so that he appears ineffectual).

These three cases are putting decent colleagues under immense pressure and despite the legislation in place these days, those being bullied seem to have no power to resist what is being done to them. The three victims work assiduously and have just been unlucky that a manager has taken a dislike to them. The arrogance of these people is astounding, that they feel justified to wreck the job and damage the life of someone junior to them. They may be jealous of them or see them as a threat or something, it is not clear. I can only blame current trends in managerial behaviour, that seem to still retain too many hangovers from the 'dog-eat-dog' attitudes of the 1980s. These managers are able to use the disciplinary machinery and sometimes simply their status to pressurise these workers on a daily basis. They do not see how their own ego trips (and it is nothing else) are damaging the company's business because these people are actually being prevented from doing their work properly. However, the effects go wider than this. Not only is it difficult to liaise with the colleagues being bullied but now an atmosphere of fear is creeping across the whole workplace. People are using private email accounts to email colleagues rather than their work email accounts which might be monitored; similarly they use mobile phones rather than office ones. Within the space of a few months we have started behaving as if we were living under a Communist or Nazi regime, meeting in public places, not trusting anyone, fearing that after these three have been bullied out of their positions one of us will fall foul of the dislike of one of these managers.

It is often not easy simply to throw in a job. The ties of mortgages, schooling, friends, pension schemes are strong. My employer is supposed to be a company which sets an example as a good one in its region, so if such behaviour is going within its walls, I dread to think how many UK workers are having their lives wrecked by workplace bullies at other, less prominent companies.

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