Sticks & Stones

14th November 2014

In Optima Magazine’s number 554 Heather Harris investigated bullying in schools. Now, to mark National Anti-Bullying Week (17-21 November) with its tagline ‘Lets Stop Bullying For All’, Kathy Walton looks at a much lesser known aspect of the problem…

Anyone who has ever been bullied at work will tell you that it makes their life an absolute misery, both at work itself, and at home, where, as one victim told me “it eats into you.”

We may all want to believe that bullying is confined to the school playground, and that thanks to anti-bullying legislation and ‘zero-tolerance’ policies, rather more civilised behaviour prevails in the workplace – but, according to Professor Sir Cary Cooper MBE of Lancaster University management school and author of Workplace Bullying, such incidents have increased with the country’s economic downturn.

“Since the recession, managers have fewer staff and a heavier workload, so they’re feeling stressed and insecure too, which can make their management style more assertive, even abrasive,” he says. “One in four of us will suffer bullying at work in any five year period and three quarters of victims will be bullied by their line manager.”

Workplace bullying can take many forms, both subtle or overt. Victims complain of being ignored in meetings or singled out for criticism, being given tasks that no one else wants or being excluded from prestigious projects. Others suffer verbal attacks or find themselves misrepresented to senior staff and scapegoated for others’ mistakes. In extreme cases, persecutors stalk and even assault their victims.

Recent research from America has identified an unsavoury character known as the work psychopath (WP). These individuals represent 1% of the general population, but this figure rises for those in positions of influence.

For instance, an estimated one in ten investment bankers and one in 25 CEOs are WPs, who characteristically manipulate others to suit their ends and ‘punish’ them for non-compliance.

Douglas, a former print salesman, knows the WP type only too well. His boss was a volatile alcoholic who bullied him for months.

“It got to the point where I was afraid of my own shadow,” says Douglas. “He humiliated me in front of others, shouted and swore, yet I daren’t stand up for myself. He owned the company; I was vulnerable because printing is an industry where everyone knows one another. I was shattered that someone could treat me like that.”

Sadly, Douglas’s case is not an isolated one. Upheaval within an organisation, job insecurity, even a change of boss are all flashpoints for bullying, with employees suffering loss of confidence, stress, depression, sometimes complete mental breakdown as a consequence.

According to Catherine Goode, a training manager in the financial services sector, “fear and incompetence on the part of the bully” are often the source of the problem.

“The perpetrator would call it ‘playing office politics because everyone has to’ but it goes deeper than that. Often the bully is being bullied by someone more senior and is passing it on,” she explains.

Her views are echoed by Christina Evans, an occupational health doctor, who regularly sees patients whose working lives have been made hell by bullies. “Bullies usually have insecurities of their own, they are often promoted beyond their competence, they may be aware that someone they manage is more capable than they are and have little insight into how they come across.”

She says bullying leads to low morale, absenteeism, presenteeism (where an employee turns up for work but achieves very little) and deterioration in the victim’s health, all of which end up being costly for both the individual and employer.

Sarah is an accountant who endured several years of bullying from a colleague. She describes her experience as “like living with an alcoholic because you’re always looking over your shoulder. I felt absolutely hounded.”

Unusually, Sarah’s tormentor was her subordinate, an accounts clerk who had the effrontery to walk into the boss’s office two days after Sarah went on maternity leave and demand to be given her job. When she was turned down, the woman embarked on a sustained campaign to undermine Sarah and belittle her in front of colleagues and clients.

“She was after my job and although she had no sense of proportion, she was very intelligent. She created an aura of fear in the office, which was very threatening. She would put me down in meetings and big herself up,” recalls Sarah.

“On my return from maternity leave I found emails from her that said ‘keep Sarah out of this’ or ‘don’t invite Sarah to this meeting’. She reduced me to a footnote.”

Ironically, it was partly Sarah’s seniority that caused her to suffer for so long, because her line manager believed that as the more senior person, she should just put up with the woman’s conduct. That, plus the fact that the bullying began subtly, characterised by sly asides and ‘odd’ emails (some running to three pages), which Sarah initially chose to ignore.

"There was definitely the feeling that this woman was so ridiculous that no-one would take her behaviour seriously and therefore neither should I,” says Sarah. “It was embarrassing because she was my subordinate, so I had to bide my time until I had enough on her to present a case.”

Sarah kept every abusive email from the woman and eventually gathered enough evidence to complain to HR, only to discover that hers was the third such complaint – which at least gave her some consolation that she wasn’t alone. The woman was confronted and resigned shortly afterwards.

Verbal bullying is one thing; physical bullying another. It seems unbelievable that this goes on among educated professionals, but for research scientist William, who has a PhD and works for a biochemical company, this was unfortunately the case.

Prompted by obsessive professional jealousy and what William calls “sociopathic malice”, the most senior member of a high-profile research team set out to destroy William’s career, using a combination of verbal and written harassment and most shockingly, physical violence.

“He was highly intelligent and the most powerful member of the team, who saw me as the greatest challenge to him,” says William of the perpetrator, who cunningly enlisted the help of three others in his bid to bring William down. “He manipulated the jealousy and avarice of three colleagues, who stood to make substantial financial profit from their actions, and got them to do the worst of the physical bullying, so that his own hands were clean.”

The campaign began with character assassination and misinformation designed to discredit William publicly, and culminated in stalking and physical assault (on one occasion with a wooden stick) behind the closed doors of William’s office. As is often the case, the company management was initially more inclined to accept the senior man’s version of events, rather than William’s account.

Eventually however, William was believed and his tormentors are currently the subject of a lengthy administrative and financial investigation, their reputations and authority compromised.

Even so, the experience took its toll William, as he explains: “A problem for men is the perception that you are not a ‘real man’ if you have allowed yourself to be bullied, swiftly followed by the dilemma that you lose your status if you don’t retaliate. I could have involved the Police on several occasions, but I knew such actions would risk my career, my reputation and my family.”

So if bullying is becoming more widespread, what can be done?

Anne Bingham is an in-house lawyer for a large organisation. She believes that while office bullying appears to be on the increase, sometimes it is simply poor leadership and over-reliance on technology and HR departments that are to blame. “Managers are now so focused on KPIs [key performance indicators] that skill in managing people is hugely undervalued. Many managers avoid tough conversations and don’t appreciate the importance of being in touch with the human dynamics of their teams. Instead of stamping out poor behaviour with a quick chat, they ignore it or use email to deliver a message, often making things worse. And HR processes don’t help. Many people won’t report unacceptable behaviour to people they don’t know and can’t trust.”

If workplace bullying is to be reduced, then management needs to be more people-led, rather than results-led. Bad management, a culture of poor manners and dependence on technology for communication give the bully a greater opportunity to thrive… and that’s in nobody’s interests.

Some names and details have been changed.

Cary Cooper’s latest book, co–written with Brian Claridge, is ‘Stress in the Spotlight: managing and coping with stress in the workplace’ (pub. Palgrave Macmillan, price £29.99).

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