November 04, 2007

Innocent bystanders?

Bullying in the workplace can seriously damage staff morale, but should you intervene when you see a colleague being victimised? Karen Higginbottom investigates.

Karen Higginbottom - The Guardian - Saturday November 3 2007

'The only way that bullying would stop in that organisation is if somebody commits suicide," says 28-year-old Chloe*, reflecting on her experience of witnessing bullying in the HR department of a financial services firm in the City of London in 2005. "The woman who was being bullied was very popular and funny and worked in the same department as me. Everybody really liked her ... apart from the team leader," she recalls. "I saw everybody's bonuses and the minimum bonus was always given to this woman."

The bullying came in a subtle form, recalls Chloe. "I didn't see the team leader do anything horrible to her but she wasn't allowed to have a lunchbreak or go to the company gym and had to complete work even if that meant doing overtime."

Chloe commiserated with her beleaguered colleague but didn't intervene on her behalf. "I told her that the other woman's behaviour towards her was totally unfair. I didn't know what to do and I certainly didn't want to be labelled as a troublemaker for saying anything."

Strangely enough the woman, who was bullied over a three-year period, didn't quit the organisation. "She just shrugged it off. There was a bullying culture in the organisation, which had high expectations of performance and staying late."

Why don't people intervene when they see colleagues being bullied at work? Often it's the fear factor, says Mandy Telford, coordinator for Dignity at Work at Unite union. "People are frightened that bullying will happen to them and they will lose their job."

There is scant research on the impact of bullying on witnesses in the workplace. A project by Portsmouth Business School last year found that witnesses to bullying often suffered stress and became frightened and insecure in their job. A survey of more than 5,000 workers from 70 organisations carried out by the authors of Workplace Bullying: What We Know, Who Is to Blame and What Can We Do? (Taylor & Francis) suggests one in five witnesses of bullying leaves the company.

But some of us may not be aware that we're witnessing bullying, which comes in many forms and can be as subtle as deliberately excluding people from meetings or blatantly undermining comments about a person's appearance or performance, says Lynne Witheridge, chief executive of anti-bullying charity The Andrea Adams Trust.

"Bullying is often a brutal form of psychological torture and work is often just like the school playground, where people feel they have to join in with the bullying or they will be picked on," Witheridge says. She believes that the victim of bullying is often hurt by the lack of action by witnesses. "They might meet the target of the bully in the lift or a private place, but they don't stand up for them," she says.

She urges witnesses to intervene directly if they see bullying and to say that it is unacceptable behaviour.

This is what Helen* did when she witnessed the sustained bullying of her manager Mary* by her overall boss Annalise* at one of the departments within the UN Mission in Kosovo in 2001. "Annalise was in her mid-40s and started undermining Mary as soon as she arrived," recalls Helen. "She would speak to her in an undermining way in front of junior staff and talk to other people outside the department about the complete mess that Mary had made. Annalise's remarks had a personal edge to them. Mary came from a prominent political family in the US and Annalise would call her a 'privileged princess'." Helen believes that Annalise's bullying stemmed from a desire to make her mark on the department. "She was power-hungry and crazed."

Helen was initially quite friendly with Annalise, as she had arrived at the same time. "It took three months before the bullying became overt and Annalise lost her temper with Mary in a team meeting in a way that was utterly unprofessional."

The incident prompted Helen to confront Annalise later that day. "I told her I couldn't support her and felt she was victimising Mary, that her behaviour was unacceptable. However, the reason I was able to confront her was because I knew she couldn't fire me, as I had been directly appointed by the Foreign Office. It made a big difference."

Mary stayed on in her job but the atmosphere became very frosty, says Helen. Both Helen and Mary saw a counsellor at work as a result of the bullying and they approached the second-in-command at the UN mission in an attempt to tackle the problem.

"I talked to him and explained that Annalise had lied and undermined Mary, but nothing happened," says Helen. "In the end Mary and I left."

Unfortunately, managers are often inadequately trained to deal with bullying, says Mandy Telford. "Managers aren't given the skills to deal with allegations of bullying. Some employers are starting to take it seriously and others are still sweeping it under the carpet, thinking it's a personality clash or political correctness gone crazy."

John* works in an environmental role for a rural local authority. He has witnessed sustained bullying from a manager to a female colleagues in his department. "The manager was a bully who used to call staff into one-to-one sessions and criticise their work," says John. "There was one particular lady called Melinda* who was singled out. He criticised the way she did her work and made unreasonable requests of her that were beyond her remit." After one of these one-to-ones, Melinda came out of the room crying. I took her aside and asked her why she let him speak to her like that."

John advised Melinda on how to deal with the bully if she felt pressurised by him. "I recommended that she ask a colleague to be present in her one-to-one meetings and make notes of those meetings."

Melinda has stayed in the job and learned to deal with her bullying manager in the best way she can, adds John. "The management style of the council comes directly from the chief executive, who bullies the directors, who in turn bully the management." Management have been ineffectual in dealing with the bullying by this particular manager, says John.

"When it comes to a tribunal, people come forward as witnesses but then back out. Staff have been moved from the team rather than deal with the problem. That is how management deals with it." The bullying manager is still in the post. "The situation has affected staff morale, work efficiency and created a climate of distrust."

*Names have been changed

What to do if you witness bullying

· Let your HR department know right now. Tomorrow may be too late and you could be next.

· Help the bullied by letting them know that they are not the only person in the office to be on the receiving end (which research shows is usually the case).

· Try to encourage others in the office who may also be recipients or witnesses of the bullying to help support the bullied person.

· Don't be afraid to take action because many organisations now know the personal, health and organisational damage that bullying can cause.

· Remember that not only are you helping the individual and the organisation but research suggests that witnesses themselves can be damaged indirectly by a bullying culture ... so you may be preventing your own ill health.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University



Anonymous said...

The pain of loosing your job, your colleagues, bullying, intimidation, etc, etc is something I can't describe, and all my union rep did was refer me to a web page...

Nov 27th 2006 posting on this blog

Aphra Behn

peter crosby said...

Trade unionists may not be aware of the implications of the legal ruling in the Weaver v NATFHE racial discrimination case 1987, which was upheld by the EAT and Lord Justice May at the Court of Appeal. The judgement was that complainants of harassment (racist/sexist or any other form) were not eligible for union assistance because the complaint threatened the tenure of the harasser and tyhe union was under an obligation to protect members' tenure. This ruling applied irresepective of the merit of the complainants case.This policy is still the extant precedent for harassemtn cases (and bullying)and applies to all trade unions.For the reports of the Tribunals and the extensive documentation submitted to these Tribunals visit