Agony aunt

March 31, 2000

Q My life is being made a misery by my department head's bullying attitude. What can I do?

A The old folk wisdom that bullies can sense vulnerable victims and need to be challenged is as true as ever.

You do not say what form the bullying takes, whether it is unreasonable work demands or more overt aggressive behaviour such as physical or psychological intimidation. You also do not say whether they are someone who enjoys bullying or whether they are responding to heavy pressure on them. The latter type of bullying is becoming more common in universities.

Do not suffer in silence. Make it clear to the bully how you perceive their behaviour and that it is unacceptable. In the case of the overloaded bully this may be sufficient - they may be unaware of the true significance of their actions.

The nasty bully is less easy to deal with, but they may retreat at the sign of resistance, especially if you have support. Bullying is defined in terms of repeated activity, so keep a log of incidents, a simple factual record that would appear reasonable to any reader.

Talk to other colleagues. If the bullying is generalised, there may be a group of you who can work together. Trade unions and professional bodies are seriously concerned about bullying at work, so use them.

Your employer has a duty towards you, and there should be a formal complaints or grievance procedure to use if the situation is intolerable. If bullying cannot be resolved by negotiation, it has to be challenged head-on. The bully's greatest strength is in the passivity of their victim. You cannot afford to be perceived as passive.

Steve Bradley

Lecturer in psychology

University of Wales, Swansea and member of national executive, Association of Executive Teachers

A Being bullied is isolating and draining. But if your boss has "a bullying attitude", it is unlikely you are the sole victim. Do not think that only the weak "allow themselves" to be bullied (the battered-wife syndrome). Put out a few feelers and find fellow sufferers. But if there are a group of you, guard against becoming a mutual whinge society. Conversely, do not turn into a gang just as guilty of bullying.

It can be helpful to put yourself into the bully's shoes. The bullying may seem simply malicious, but things are rarely that straightforward. You could use your group to role play some of your experiences; it is surprising how often ideas for addressing difficult situations arise from this kind of exercise.

It is important to remember that few managers in universities have had any significant training in managing people. Often they will be only vaguely aware of proper process and procedure. Although personnel departments are willing to help and support, too few managers seek their professional advice. Why not take the initiative and seek help yourself from personnel?

In whatever way works for you, ultimately you must address this difficulty with the bully. It is even possible that they do not realise the distress they are causing. However, you must regain your own equanimity and self-respect in order to retain your dignity while asserting your right to be treated properly.

A sentence caught my eye today: "People cannot build, plan or work towards goals when threatened by tumult." The article was not about bullying, but I find the sentiment apposite.

Sandi Golbey

Senior learning support officer, University of Nottingham AUT secretary.

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