Persecution (is) complex

The introduction of a managerialist culture has coincided with a rise in accusations of bullying. But is there really more mistreatment, or are academics accustomed to autonomy overreacting to firm management? Melanie Newman reports

May 21, 2009

"Today I was walking to my office and Marcus (the new head of department) followed behind me," Times Higher Education's "Bullied Blogger" wrote in her inaugural web post on 12 January. "He seemed to appear from nowhere and invited himself into my office. I turned and faced him as I entered my room and decided to say what I thought. 'That's a little creepy following me like that, Marcus.' He was visibly shocked by my comment and his body jolted back. Ha! He then regained composure and asked to see an old validation document ... I said I would find it and drop it by later. He suggested I find it now, talking in a way that made me very uncomfortable. 'Can you find it? Find it!' he said abruptly. I opened the filing cabinet where I thought it was and, for the life of me, I could not locate it. Marcus made a sarcastic remark, 'That's some system you have', then left."

The Bullied Blogger's weekly online column is a personal account based on real events in the life of a lecturer, fictionalised where necessary to protect the identities of those involved. The series has attracted a sizeable following during its five months on the Times Higher Education website, with many readers identifying with the Bullied Blogger's plight and recounting their own, similar experiences.

"Unfortunately, I already know the ending - stress, illness and termination of career," wrote one reader on 15 January. Another wrote in the same week: "You can expect this to be only the very beginning of the story. This is clearly a strategy to intimidate you. The aim is to progressively increase your general level of stress, in order to slowly deteriorate your efficiency at work, and then your health. This will need a few more months."

The comments have proved remarkably prescient. On 14 April, the Bullied Blogger's post read: "I cannot sleep; when I do, I have nightmares and wake up with terrible foreboding. I have issued a grievance, I am off sick and I am the victim of a disciplinary action. I am sleeping in the spare room."

But other readers have been less than sympathetic. An early account of Marcus' unannounced decision to sit in on a lecture, his criticism of the lecturer's module and his habit of going into her office while she was absent produced some harsh responses.

"What worries me is how this blogger would fare in a 'real job'," wrote one reader. "I'd pay good money to watch this individual throw a tantrum in an open-plan office with a requirement for deadlines and profit margins. As for a room being 'his/her office', well ... here's some breaking news: it's the university's office. These kinds of articles don't help the image of academics at all." Another described the blogger as a "paranoid prima donna".

"If I could turn the clock back, I would keep quiet and just move on," the Bullied Blogger tells Times Higher Education. "When I started with my grievance, I never thought it would be so horrific. I was taking on the hierarchy and reputation of the university, and it threw its full weight at me." The columnist, whose academic work has a strong feminist element, believes this content may have initially provoked Marcus to masculine wrath: "There is no other obvious explanation for his behaviour, and feminist colleagues who have run women's studies courses at other institutions say this sort of reaction isn't unusual."

A Times Higher Education survey in 2005 of 843 academics suggested that bullying was seen as a widespread problem. Almost 700 of those surveyed reported having been bullied at some time, three quarters said someone they worked with was being bullied, while more than four in ten said they themselves were currently being bullied. Petra Boynton, the University College London psychologist who led the research, said at the time: "Just one report of bullying is one too many, and we had over 800 virtually identical accounts of abuse."

Duncan Lewis, co-director of the Centre for Research on Workplace Behaviours at the University of Glamorgan, says workplace bullying was a burgeoning phenomenon when he first began researching the topic in the mid-1990s. "That growth has not subsided, and the past decade has seen a growing evidence base to suggest that bullying at work is commonplace."

But Lewis warns that this evidence should be treated with caution. "Researchers do not agree on a definition of what workplace bullying is, and variations differ significantly," he says. While some questionnaires simply ask whether people have been bullied, others ask whether respondents have been bullied according to a specific definition. Other studies combine a definition with a list of inappropriate behaviours such as aggression, name-calling and teasing.

"When presented with a list of inappropriate behaviours and a definition of bullying, 5 to 30 per cent will indicate exposure to a range of behaviours but significantly fewer will say they are bullied - typically less than 5 per cent. Is this because there is a stigma associated with labelling oneself as bullied or because some people have different tolerance levels to negative behaviour?" Lewis asks.

If researchers fail to agree on a definition of bullying, it is hard to say whether rates of workplace bullying are increasing or whether the definition of bullying is expanding to encompass more types of behaviour. There is no statutory definition of bullying, although it is defined by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) as behaviour that is "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting; is an abuse of power, and uses means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient".

Given that terms such as "offensive" are subjective, the victim's perception that he or she is being bullied is key. Keele University's harassment policy notes that "vigorous speech and comment, academic debate and legitimate management of staff performance should be distinguished from true bullying". It goes on to say: "Many cases of alleged harassment could arise from misunderstandings, a personality clash or low self-awareness of the effects of management style."

A University and College Union representative at a post-1992 university, who prefers to remain anonymous, recalls that before laws outlawing ageism came into force, one head of school regularly asked a 64-year old when he was going to retire, "not out of concern for his wellbeing but because the head wanted a new member of staff from a different discipline to replace him.

"The member of staff used to laugh at the head's comments as just 'office banter' and no offence was taken," says the UCU representative. "I don't believe the head meant any offence, either. However, once we had the ageism legislation, heads have tended to avoid any informal chatting to staff about retirement as they approach 65."

Simon Lee, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, was recently forced to resign or face suspension while allegations that he had reduced staff to tears and accused them of disloyalty were investigated. Although, as Times Higher Education reported, Lee claimed that his opposition to plans by the chairman of the board of governors to raise tuition fees may have been the real reason behind the clash, allegations of an institutional culture of bullying have dogged both the university and the vice-chancellor for years.

Several Leeds Met staff members appeared on the BBC's Look North programme in 2007 to condemn the institution for bullying and, in 2008, Acas was brought in to facilitate talks between unions and management over the issue after a negative staff survey.

Unions also accused Lee of bullying after he wrote a memo to staff saying: "It is difficult to see why we should continue to employ" those who did not want to attend the annual "staff development festival". Comments on Times Higher Education's website following the vice-chancellor's resignation were divided between those who saw his management style as having brought about the transformation of a lackadaisical institution and those who blamed him for propagating a culture of fear.

However, while many allegations of bullying arise as a result of clashing personalities, more substantive issues may be involved. Dave Beale, an industrial relations expert and lecturer in employment studies at the University of Manchester, says the body of research into workplace bullying is dominated by psychological and socio-psychological studies. "This really needs to be discussed within the industrial relations context," he says.

There is little sense in discussing bullying separately from workplace battles over restructuring, downsizing and redundancy and the target culture, he argues. In this context, says Beale, trade unions become important. "Policies alone are inadequate. There needs to be some other party involved in tackling the problem. Employers can't do it alone because the accused are usually their own managers - there are divided loyalties - and individuals can't do it because they have no power."

Some studies indicate that bullying and inappropriate behaviour may be more prevalent in the public sector, although nationally representative studies are thin on the ground. The public sector, including higher education, may report higher rates of bullying partly because of cultural changes that have taken place over the past decade. Some employees see managerialism and the introduction of targets, greater accountability and concepts such as value for money as bullying.

Trevor Curnow, UCU branch secretary at the University of Cumbria, says: "We certainly have had cases where what is interpreted as 'firm management' on one side is interpreted as 'bullying' on the other. The onset of a more managerial culture has conflicted with the professional ethos, which has a strong element of autonomy built into it."

Curnow sees the sector's quality assurance regime as a form of collective bullying. "Many of us find that academic achievement and excellence are valued less and less and that there is an increasing sense that we are not trusted to get on and do our jobs without being monitored, inspected and appraised ad infinitum, and usually by people with far lower, if any, academic credentials. There is a defensiveness in many parts of the sector such that assaults on the autonomy we retain may be perceived as bullying."

The UCU compiled a league table of bullied staff last year based on a survey of 9,700 members. Top of the league, with 16.7 per cent of staff reporting that they were "always" or "often" bullied, was the University of East London, whose vice-chancellor, Martin Everett, was forced to resign this year following allegations of "lack of leadership" from the rest of the senior management team. Senior academics had campaigned for Everett to stay, arguing that they supported his collegiate management style.

Second was Kingston University, which was embroiled in a scandal in 2008 involving a senior academic who told students that they would not get jobs if they gave the university a poor rating in the National Student Survey. Commenting on the case in Times Higher Education, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, suggested that academics were passing on the tactics of their managers. "Many colleagues will have received emails pleading to encourage students to complete the survey. In some cases, the pressure on lecturers is relentless and exhortations are often experienced as threats," he wrote.

Students' increasing input into quality assurance and their growing awareness of their right to complain may also have led to increased levels of bullying. "Managers have to follow up any complaints, as failure to do so may lead to students threatening to make a referral to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator," points out the anonymous UCU representative. If they are not skilled in handling such matters, the managers - often principal or senior lecturers - charged with following up the complaints may leave the academics feeling as though they are "guilty as charged".

"The principal lecturer then reports his or her findings to the head of school or department. As a result, lecturers feel they are being harassed by a principal, a head and a student," the UCU representative says.

Where student complaints are found to be malicious, vexatious or frivolous after they have wound their way slowly through the complaints procedure, the student will rarely be disciplined, the UCU representative notes. "There can be little doubt that some student complaints are designed to conceal their lack of effort - in effect complaints become a form of insurance." The university's failure to take account of the effect of such complaints "leaves the staff member frustrated, resentful, aggrieved and distressed and wondering what happened to the employer's duty of care".

Helge Hoel, lecturer in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, has been studying workplace bullying since the 1990s. His research shows that targets and observers of the same behaviour perceive it differently: "Targets had the most difficulty with people applying management techniques in an arbitrary manner. They did not welcome autocratic management, which was seen as oppressive, but they felt this was easier to deal with and prepare for than unpredictable acts."

Observers were much more likely to react to autocratic management and did not attach as much importance to the arbitrary nature of an individual's behaviour. The research also found that while peer-to-peer and bottom-up bullying did occur, most complaints were made against managers. "Why don't employers do something about it?" asks Hoel. "One reason is that the individuals concerned may be useful to the organisation - if they are brilliant academics, or have another strength from an organisation perspective, they become untouchable."

Another possible reason for a university's failure to act is that, until recently, bad management has not been viewed as a destructive or negative force from an organisational point of view, but simply as ineffective. "This is something that is hardly ever addressed in the literature," says Hoel.

Some managers may resort to bullying staff because they do not know how else to handle them. Many higher education managers are academics, acting temporarily as heads of department. Deans, associate deans and other senior roles are often filled by academics with little formal training or management experience.

One academic accuses the UCU of painting a picture of managers "as 19th-century mill owners driving the staff to death" when the real picture is one of incompetence. "Most couldn't manage a whelk stall. They bully because they don't know what else to do".

John McMullen, professor of labour law at the University of Leeds and a partner at law firm Short Richardson & Forth, says new managers are often at the centre of academic tribunal claims. "My experience over the years is that many newly appointed heads of department can be a little too enthusiastic about performance improvement," he says. Many universities are now allocating members of human resources to individual disciplines to assist new managers, which McMullen says should help to reduce claims.

The Universities Personnel Association (UPA) says management and leadership development programmes, which include coaching in management style, are also helping to reduce bullying.

The UPA is working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on a project to promote staff wellbeing and foster healthy working environments, which it hopes will have the same effect.

But Kathryn Ecclestone, professor of education at Oxford Brookes University and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, suggests that such efforts may be counterproductive. Universities are not inherently unhealthy places, she argues. Rather, the definition of bullying has expanded to encompass normal everyday behaviour. "Instead of seeing bullying as a relatively rare experience, we now see it in everything from a filthy look from a manager at a staff meeting to fierce disagreement with our ideas. Bullying has expanded beyond a minority of serious incidents to encompass a very wide and ever-expanding range of slights, put-downs, insults and unfriendly behaviour," she says.

A "therapy culture" has sprung up to deal with this expanded definition of bullying, with bullying awareness sessions and counselling support on offer from a "growing army of peers acting as mentors and counsellors", Ecclestone says. The culture creates and sustains the idea that staff will suffer lasting emotional effects from everyday behaviours, she argues. "The more we talk about bullying and raise awareness and counsel victims, the more it inserts a fear before people have even articulated it. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we see ourselves as victims of bullying and come to regard normal behaviour from others as bullying."

The therapy culture's emphasis on individual emotional responses undermines efforts to resist bullying and unpleasant behaviour "collectively and robustly", she argues. "When we turn to professionalised offers of therapeutic support, we stop finding ways to resist unacceptable or unpleasant behaviour directly."

Glamorgan's Lewis believes that there should be early intervention to address inappropriate behaviour before it escalates to bullying and becomes truly destructive. He is working with Cardiff University on the UK's first nationally representative study of inappropriate behaviours at work.

"If we begin to tackle the behaviours that underpin concepts such as bullying, then we may make the progress that has eluded us so far," Lewis says. "Managers have to manage, but they must do so with dignity and respect for their colleagues. Equally, employees must treat each other and their senior colleagues with respect. We all have a responsibility to think carefully before pulling the pin on the hand grenade labelled 'bullying'."

STANDARD PRACTICE OR UNACCEPTABLE INTIMIDATION?

- "Within three months of starting, the dean told me that I was clearly no good at my job and that I had to prove myself to him. His manner was always a cross between Reggie Kray and Oscar Wilde: funny and terrifying at the same time. I did make mistakes in my first few years, and every one was dealt with aggressively. The dean would either make a sarcastic comment or start shouting and swearing and hitting the desk. Eventually, I felt more secure in my job and stopped taking crap from him, but he continues to inspire real fear and hatred in many of my colleagues."

- "A line manager has been asking a member of staff to give some information about his whereabouts during the week - where he is and what he's doing. In all the companies I've worked at, that's seen as normal, good business practice, but he sees that as harassment."

- "We had one lecturer, who was a bit unsophisticated, who was hauled into a meeting with two managers and given the third degree about complaints of unprofessional behaviour, with no examples or details. He was so taken aback that he passed out. The managers sent for a first-aider, who revived him, and they carried on with the interview. Afterwards, they allowed him to go home - unaccompanied - on public transport."

- "A senior member of management joined us recently and was made responsible for a major restructuring. She adopted a very tough line and was conducting interviews where she asked people how old they were and what their plans were and dropping comments about poor performance. She made life unpleasant for a lot of people, including the other managers. The union made a fuss and, to the university's credit, the HR director stepped in and reined her in."

- "An academic was working at home, as is permitted under the university's policy. A manager decided to check up on him, drove to his house and peered through his window. That is completely unacceptable."

- "One of our members had been bullied and harassed. He informed HR that he was putting in a grievance (letter) and within two weeks he was facing disciplinary action. The bullying involved public criticism, and then he was put down to teach modules that he wasn't qualified to teach. I see it as incompetent management but if the member of staff says it's bullying, I'm not going to disagree."

- "I find it particularly difficult to cope with the way that 'X' can be perfectly normal one minute and the next is enraged over something trivial. I find myself agreeing with him - whether I believe what he is saying or not. I remember asking if we were to be given budgets this year. 'X' looked at me, clenched his teeth, went red and growled, 'There's no more money' - and that was the end of any discussion on that subject."

WE WON'T STAND FOR THIS

Examples of unacceptable behaviour cited in institutional harassment and bullying policies

"Taking credit for someone else's work but never taking the blame if something goes wrong"

University of Glasgow

"Picking on one person when there is a common problem"

City University London

"Inconsistent management style, where some individuals are favoured more than others"

University of Plymouth

"Ostracism/exclusion"

University of Sussex

"Asserting a position of intellectual superiority in an aggressive, abusive or offensive manner"

University of Bradford

"Persistent criticism and micromanagement"

Nottingham Trent University

"Making unfounded or inappropriate threats and/or comments about job or course security"

University of Bath

"Setting an individual up for failure"

Keele University

"Refusing to delegate because of lack of trust"

University of Portsmouth

"Reducing a colleague's effectiveness by withholding important information"

De Montfort University

"Blocking attempts by an individual to complain about ill-treatment"

University of Wolverhampton.

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