Bullies are stock characters on television but the reality is serious
By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine
Everybody has been in an office where tempers were lost and swearing occurred on an occasional basis. But what distinguishes the acceptable boisterousness that characterises some workplaces with downright bullying?
Shouting, screaming, swearing, ignoring or behaviour designed to embarrass.
Has your boss done any of the above to you, and if so, did you shrug it off as normal office behaviour, or consider it something far more serious?
In a new book, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been accused of workplace bullying after a number of alleged incidents. He is said to have grabbed staff by the lapels, shoved them aside and shouted at them.
What is acceptable in the workplace has changed over the years
Mr Brown admits he can get angry, and is determined and strong willed, but denies he is a bully.
So where is the line drawn between being assertive in the workplace and being labelled a bully?
Defining where that line is, and when it is crossed, can be difficult. If you've failed to meet your project deadline, should your boss take you to one side and sweetly tell you you didn't make the grade, or does he or she have a right to shout at you and demand answers?
In the various interpretations of workplace bullying, there is a common thread - it is when the behaviour humiliates and offends the victim, is a personal attack, and is an abuse of power.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents recruitment experts, defines it as this:
"Bullying at work involves repeated negative actions and practices that are directed at one or more workers.
"The behaviours are unwelcome to the victim and undertaken in circumstances where the victim has difficulty in defending themselves.
"The behaviours may be carried out as a deliberate act or unconsciously. These behaviours cause humiliation, offence and distress to the victim."
But even then, it can be hard to know what distinguishes an ebullient manager from a bullying boss.
"Strong managers are given power because they are managers," says Lynn Witheridge, chief executive of the Andrea Adams Consultancy which was set up to deal with workplace victimisation. "It's their job to use and to wield it but not to abuse."
CASE STUDY: SARAH LEWIS
Works in NHS Hospital
Accused manager of bullying
Problems largely resolved by mediation
"When I left the department I had to tell her where I was going, whether I was going to a meeting or to the loo."
"She used to have a very nasty temper and we worked in an open plan office. She would start screaming and all these other sections would see. It was quite demeaning. On one occasion she was so angry she smacked a ruler down on her desk."
For many people, the embodiment of an irascible boss is TV chef Gordon Ramsay, or Alan Sugar, who wields the firing finger in the BBC's The Apprentice. Both have formidable characters and don't hesitate to deliver withering comments.
But by Ms Witheridge's definition only Ramsay's approach could be considered a form of workplace bullying.
"He is absolutely [a bully] because it becomes personal... he uses swearing, and shouts at people saying they're thick."
Sugar, however, is not, she says.
"He has to pick the very best but it doesn't get personal. He doesn't use personal traits and accuse them of being thick
he strongly manages them."
But others might see the behaviour of the head chef as entirely reasonable, given the pressurised environment of a professional kitchen.
Most people understand that at busy times, it is high tension, says Jenny Stringer, acting managing director of Leiths School of Food and Wine.
"You need to be quite vocal, depending on the kitchen you need to speak loudly. I don't think that's what anyone means by bullying," she says.
There's a clear difference between yelling orders at people and operating normal quality control, and repeatedly physically confronting a single member of staff, she notes.
Some environments, like kitchens, may seem intimidating to the layman
It's not just in kitchens that tempers are frequently raised. Shouting at someone who is late to meet their deadline might not seem out of place in a newspaper office, or in a trading room where a certain level of robustness is expected.
Neil Addison, a barrister who specialises in harassment cases, says context is key.
"What might not be bullying in the barrack room, might be harassment in a school. If you're training for the SAS there's no point complaining that a sergeant is shouting at you because that's what goes with the job.
"But if you're a teacher in a school or a worker in an office there's no reason for your boss to shout at you."
Some of those who have experienced workplace bullying say the stereotype of being barked at by a short-tempered boss is missing the point. It can manifest itself in a more subtle, yet sustained, manner.
Mark, who worked for a private firm that was contracted by the NHS several years ago, became a victim.
"It wasn't a question of pushing and shoving, but it was nasty stuff.
"There was an attempt to to show you up in meetings. Saying to your face you didn't know what you were talking about, putting self-doubt in your mind."
Yet when he tried to raise the issue, he was given the brush off.
"I tried to do the right thing and reported it to HR. They told me it wasn't bullying. They said 'it's just your boss, it's the way he is'."
Mark eventually took voluntary redundancy, and now runs his own antiques business.
"I got to the point where I went off for a while with stress. I was unable to do my job.
"This kind of background bullying, it isn't as overt as someone standing yelling at your face from two inches away. It hits you in the guts. You think 'maybe I'm making this up'."
Part of the problem could be the label of "bullying" which comes with a good deal of emotional baggage, says Lynn Witheridge.
"People are so fearful of using this word. The childish connotations of the word makes them feel weak or a trouble-maker."
Additional reporting by Finlo Rohrer.
Below is a selection of your comments on the story
I've encountered bullying a couple of times in my career, and it doesn't need to come from someone more senior than you. I've just moved on to another job. I know that's not easy at the moment, but consider this:
From others I know who have got themselves into serious trouble with being bullied they've left it too late to do anything about it. Few people will stand up for themselves in the workplace, especially if it's someone more senior than you. It drags on until either you're off sick or you get sacked after your previously perfect record has been utterly shredded to a point where the company doesn't want you any more.
Bullies will never change. Either stand up to them or leave, don't carry on thinking it'll be OK or your work will speak for itself, it won't, these people will make sure of it. If you currently find yourself in this position then chances are you should have left years ago!
Bullying is more often than not perceptive. I have seen a senior police officer accused of bullying simply for asking someone to do his job properly. The last job I had was one I walked out of because of the bullying attitude of a woman co-worker. She was not my supervisor but she was afraid I was after her job. She was nasty, spiteful and vindictive and told lies about me to other people. I saw that as bullying and in retrospect I felt sorry for her. Bullies are nearly always inadequate people who find ways of dominating people either because they are afraid of them or wish to make them afraid to get their own way.
Bullying can take all forms and sometimes against the person who is in charge. A few years ago I was local chairman of a charity helping carers and their family. I had a disagreement with two members of staff about their terrible timekeeping etc. Within hours they had told our clients I was having an affair, then I had deserted my wife and was living with another woman. None of it was true but the damage was done. And because "I had allowed it" I was labelled weak by other board members.
I was recently forced out of a job in the civil service because of bullying and although my complaint was taken seriously and investigated... the perpetrator was able to deny the episodes recorded in my complaint and any third party who had agreed to come forward refused to based on a "conflict of interest".
When it gets to the point of the bully getting away with it (even though it is painfully obvious they are bullies) it makes a mockery of any procedure put in place and turns the whole exercise into routine pen pushing procedures. Unless a bully actually holds their hands up to their ways - an unlikely scenario considering most bullies are in effect, cowards - the only way to really halt this rather below the belt practise is to stand up to them and risk maybe your job but hopefully maintain your self worth.
Andrew Cooper, London
I had a wretched experience with a workplace bully a couple of years back. It completely ruined my relationship with the company I've given 15 years of my life to. Management ignored the problem until that became impossible and then dumped responsibility on me, with a transfer to a different site. Shortly thereafter a colleague who remained behind was pressured into doing something dangerous and broke his leg. I would leave this company in a second if there was any chance I could get another job.
Jude Kirkham, Vancouver, Canada
It has often been my experience that staff that are under performing take any form of guidance or criticism as bullying. In the same vein stress has become the new back ache. This country is becoming a place for shirkers NOT workers.
A Manager, London, UK
Several people were forced out of a company I worked for by various means. The odd thing was that many of them were, like me, extremely capable IT staff. The problems came down to one line manager who took an almost pathological dislike to anyone in a position to question him (which means experienced people in particular). I had some ludicrous performance appraisals after a year of good work. On one occasion I was put on a disciplinary notice after I'd refused to go on a company "curry night". I was set a target of "socislising with the team x number of times" in the next appraisal period. There were countless other petty infringements on my personal life in that vein until finally I left work sick with depression and even had to abandon extra-mural charity work.
After many months I returned, only to be treated to an immediate performance appraisal based on the "work" I'd done in the first week back and, needless to say, within 3 weeks I was off work again. After a successful working life running my own company, I was reduced to a welfare case by these "people". On one occasion I even taped a performance review, for replaying in case nobody believed what I'd been saying. I cannot even bear to listen to it now, nearly 10 years later. The bullying there was systematised and relentless.
Richard Blake-Reed, Bath, England
There are many subtle ways to bully and I think my boss knows them all. Moving you from high profile projects every time you really get them going, then he lets them die, and blames you in front of upper management. Despite excellent credentials, being passed over for promotion as I'm "not his sort of person". Blocking transfers to other departments. Stopping me from attending training courses as I'm "too busy". Less than average pay rises every year I've been here after scoring bad appraisals. A new (less subjective) system was brought in last year and I was in the top 1% of all employees worldwide, but there was no pay rise last year for workers! He's been caught trying to subvert the system already this year, trying to mark people down. He's recently survived a bullying enquiry brought by a number of people as others are too scared to recall incidents! If the company itself wasn't so good, I would not have lasted 10 years under him.
At my place of work, a small construction company, the bosses actively encourage bullying as the primary means of punishment, to weed out the weaklings, and the test the limits of a worker's ability to "take it". As a coordinator I am often told to "make him feel as stupid as possible - in front of everybody!" This is what happens when the untrained and uneducated become bosses.
TheBigW, Vancouver Canada
I have had personal experience of being bullied while working in the civil service, it was a subtle sort of bullying, where I was subjected to behaviour which served to humiliate me, during the time, I found it difficult to defend myself. This kind of behaviour I have found is most prevalent during your probationary periods by managers and team leaders, especially when you are most vulnerable.
Having been an airline pilot for 34 years and a captain for more than half of that time, when you can consider yourself a manager of both the rest of the flight crew and cabin crew, although you tried to avoid stressful situations for obvious reasons, when such a situation arose the very last thing you would consider was any form of bullying, confrontation or intimidation as it was totally counter productive and conceivably dangerous. It is perhaps not so risky in an office but nonetheless unnecessary and unlikely to produce results. Very few people achieve any improvement in performance as a result and usually it shows some character problem - often insecurity - in the individual perpetrator.
Chris Brockman, Crowthorne England
Academia is one of the worst places for bullying. You are expected to develop a thick skin because criticism of your work can be harsh. Most supervisors are very supportive and encouraging, but a minority take the approach that they can treat you however they like, and you just have to accept it. When I took up my first postdoctoral position, I unfortunately ended up working for a bully. Despite the fact that he was only in the office for two days a week, he regularly claimed (without any evidence) that I was slacking off and not doing what I was meant to be doing. The fact of the matter was that I was putting in 15-hour days and working weekends.
At meetings, he would regularly shout down others, or roll his eyes when someone else (myself included) put forward an idea. Some people reading this might be thinking that he was simply highly intelligent, and therefore expected high standards. If only! The other principal investigators on our project were far more cutting-edge (and far more reasonable) than him, and so I guess he felt like he had to make up for it through aggressive behaviour. In the end, I pitied him as he rode through his career on the coat-tails of superior researchers.
Withheld, London, UK
Sorry, but when you're trying to drag the country out of a massive financial and social hole, hurting the feelings of someone who makes the tea shouldn't be number one concern. Leave Brown alone to do his job - hugs and flowers will not save us from economic meltdown.
Dragging the country out of a massive hole requires strong leadership. Bullying is a sign of a weakness, not strength. A good leader inspires those around them, and doesn't need to scare them into performing well. Staff should be treated with respect, regardless of what role they perform. Those who don't come up to the mark should be helped to improve, intimidating people doesn't exactly help them to get better. Gordon should find himself a venting buddy; someone who gives him permission to let off steam in a controlled and private environment. I've never seen anyone make a sensible decision when the red mist comes down; they become spiteful and vindictive.
Trouble is, bullying is very counter productive. Most people work best when interested, motiviated and trusted. For the minority who take the mickey (and there certainely are those who do) I always found a quiet but firm and factual word in their shell like, invariably the best option.
Work place bullying is often a relic of past poor managers and directors, passed down a company management line and is difficult to eradicate. Position gives power and authority, but not the right to be unreasonably aggressive, swear, rant and rave and generally be publicly demeaning of others. It's just not acceptable and shouldn't be tolerated.
Charles, York, UK
Bullying is a problem throughout our society and can simply be viewed as a game of cat and mouse. Those who think they are more deserving and superior subjugate the prey (you can tell when the line is crossed into bullying because you are instantly de-humanised - you are fat, lazy, stupid, work shy, inadequate, polish, estate agent etc).
Shouting is just pressure. Short temper is just frustration. Blocking is political manoeuvring. Over use of assertive behaviour is bullying. Spreading malicious rumours is bullying.
I worked for a company where I was threatened with the sack for complaining after my car was vandalised on the company car park in company time. The individual concerned bragged about the incident and I complained to my manager and the Police. The manager and the perpetrator were sports buddies so obviously I was the trouble maker. The Police gave it little time. Shortly after the perpetrator was promoted over me - I left as soon as possible. Bullying is hard to prove and is often seen as a method to coerce and constrain employees. Just make sure you are not the mouse!
Kevin Ian Cottrell, Chippenham
I've worked for a consultancy firm, on the periphery of the City for 20 years. 10 years ago the sort of bullying described above would have happened here, not frequently, but from time to time. What's interesting is that companies like this have really cleaned up their act with respect to bullying. Some of the worst offenders then are the most pleasant to work for now. I'd love to know what their bosses said to them, I can only assume that their attitude to team members was taken into account when they were assessed for pay.
I'm looking with open mouth at the comments from Kate of Lancashire! You really think that "someone who makes the tea" is any less entitled to their dignity, than Gordon? Because someone who IS Prime Minister by definition should be able to rise above what he is being accused of! People who use that sort of analogy strike me as being part of the problem. When I worked at the local airport, we had a supervisor there, who thought it was his job to evaluate and determine who was and was not doing their job in the correct fashion. Fair enough but not "in your face" and well within the proximity of aircraft which were being moved, engines started, and other activities considered a danger to life and limb. This person had eventually to be restrained by management after nearly causing a fatality by his bullying of a ground handler.
Bill, Richmond BC Canada
When I was 16 I worked part-time as a waitress, whilst studying for my A-levels. What I experienced was systematic bullying by the chefs, consisting of a sexual nickname they gave me, along with endless questions of an incredibly personal and sexual nature. I was 16 and a virgin, and they knew it. I later learnt that this bullying was inflicted on every teenage girl who worked there, they would bully you for a while, until they realised that they couldn't make you cry anymore and you had no intention of quitting.
After suffering horrendous bullying including a premeditated ambush attack that nearly killed me, followed by some even worse bullying; I deduced that Bullying is so ingrained in some personality types that the only remedy is to make sure that these people do not attain positions of authority as they will just abuse.
I do not think Gordon Brown is a bully though. Certain types will regress to bullying under pressure of too much work and he falls into this category. Lesser mortals may bully when they are in a job beyond their capabilities. But they are not bullies by nature. Passive-aggressive behaviour can occur in a strong hierarchal or bullying environment. This is an understandable reaction by the bullied person.
Bullies congregate together and their collective bullying may occur in some jobs more than others.
Britain can not manage thats the bottom line, we criticise faster than praise. We get angry rather than deal with problems constructively.
Nick, Kings Lynn, Norfolk
There is a massive difference between bullying and assertive management. All those who comment that it is subjective or that people's feelings are irrelevant should check your behaviour you may be bullies and not realise it. Bullying is unjustified picking on people; for whatever reason. Assertive management can be aggressive, shouting, in your face or anything else - but is justified and proportionate.
So if you manage a team of people and one makes a mistake feel free to scream and shout, just as long as you scream and shout at all other staff that make similar mistakes and are certain that it was their error. You are an assertive aggressive manager with nothing to fear.
If you find that you are in fact screaming because it is Jones and they are an upstart/pain in the a$$/person with whom you have a 'personality clash' or that you are screaming at Jones for a mistake that Smith made, but you like Smith so to make the point you'll have a go at Jones again - you are a bully. You are weak, you fear being found out and you do not disserve your position and your staff already know. Resign. Your team is already starting to fail and the boss will find out eventually and sack you.
I work in an office now where workplace bullying is the norm, unfortunately it's the owner of the company who does the bullying so the only option is to put up with it or leave. He revels in public humiliation and morale is awful. Most of the day the staff sit with headphones on trying to avoid catching his attention. He seems to think it's good management (ie. keeping them on their toes...) but for the workers it's soul destroying and demoralising.
Withheld, Islington, London
I was off sick for six months because of workplace bullying by my then senior officer. When I complained to his senior officer I was told "You are far from the only person he treats like that, but he achieves what I want him to achieve. So, if you don't like it, perhaps you should look for another job." It was easier to adopt that approach than to tackle the accepted weaknesses in the managing systems. The galling thing is that this organisation gets all sorts of awards for Human Resources excellence! Just goes to show what a farce that is too.
Deep Blue, Cardiff
Playground bullies often grow up to be workplace bullies as they a promoted to positions in which they have a free hand to bully those below them. Workplace bullying is on the increase as people are so desperate to keep their jobs they are vulnerable. Bullies sense vulnerability and use it To intimidate and as a means of control. Very often they bully their families too. The only way to stop it is for higher management to sack the bullies and support the victims, not the other way around. What's wrong with a little more mutual consideration and a lot more temper control? Another sickness of our society-bullying means you succeed. Shouting is particularly nasty, as is constant criticism and bitchiness. Bullies are sad, sick folk indeed. Throw the book at them.
Jen Ballington-James, Folkestone
My ex boss had a very subtle way of demeaning me. He would laugh at the way I pronounced certain words that I had trouble with or didn't know. He even said that he had made a note of them and could I pretend to leave my post so at my leaving do he could read them out! When I finally left my post I had to have an exit interview where I would flag up any issues, not him. Instead I said nothing and he ranted on about my sick days and made me cry throughout entire meeting! Glad he is behind me!
P, Cardiff, Wales
I was falsely accused of bullying. After a 4 month investigation by senior NHS managers I was totally cleared of any wrongdoing. However, the NHS Trust refused to move the person who made the allegations and we were forced to continue working together. There was no redress whatsoever against the person who made the allegations. I was told it was an occupational hazard of being a manager in the NHS. However, it could have easily put a hot to my career within the NHS.
A skilled boss will never have to resort to bullying. If an employee is not performing properly then there are means and ways to deal with the problem effectively. Also, a boss who treats his or her employees well and does not bully is likely to have a more productive workforce. Bullying is a sign of weakness.
Christopher Barrett, France