Don's diary

March 28, 1997


Work begins at 8.40am. After picking up the morning papers to scan (and produce a cuttings sheet for top management), there is a work report meeting with my female boss. These encounters have become progressively more fraught over the past few months. I have been given only in-post training and am being subjected to a prolonged, subtle bullying campaign. The usual tactics are employed. Times of meetings are often changed with little warning, rules are altered at whim (most notably when, after weeks of producing presumably satisfactory news releases, I was told, very crossly, that they should always be double-spaced), instructions are forgotten. It is what you might call the mobile goalpost syndrome. My boss also loves acronyms, power-speak which leaves the uninitiated out in the cold, and it becomes difficult to ask what these arcane utterances mean - "The v-c is heading up the NYPD at the BU conference next month - that will, of course, need flagging in our paper".


Things improve a bit, the work moves along. This pattern of alternating fury and cold reasonableness, moving in cycles from days to weeks, is the kind of treatment that sends laboratory rats mad. I deal with the usual quota of press inquiries and requests from academics for help with publicity. Some dons are natural self-promoters, others very modest, mentioning in passing a meaty book out this week. Later a curt memo arrives ordering me to attend a meeting with a senior administrator the following morning to discuss concerns about performance. This is in a fortnight when our media coverage has included one academic on a main nightly news programme, a lecturer on Radio Four, as well as the ongoing good coverage in local papers, radio and TV.


I come to work like the unwilling schoolboy, leaden legged. The memo stated I could not bring a "union representative or friend" to the meeting as it was not formal. This follows a dispute over three contentious press releases. Two weeks back, I handed my boss three releases. She scanned, fumed, stormed into my office brandishing them with "errors" noted. These ranged from wrong spacing to a typo. She arranged a formal meeting to discuss procedures to eliminate these unacceptable mistakes. We met, unpleasantly, she sent minutes to the senior administrator and now there is a meeting with the head. I am reminded of a prep school teacher I suffered under, who caused ten-year-olds to cry when they had left their gym kit at home. The meeting is also unpleasant. I have a one-to-one chat first and am given little chance to make my case. When I indicate that one contentious release achieved some high-profile publicity, he indicated that if the department had not been perfroming well in one or two areas this would have been a disciplinary meeting. My boss enters, also nervous, and contributes little. I minute the meeting for the union representative when I return to my office, although I'm trembling. Bullying is a 100 per cent counter-productive management tool. If you wanted to find a means of losing trust, enthusiasm, commitment and hard work, this would be it.


A relatively quiet day. Ironically, in The Independent there is a piece on academic bullying. A news item relayed to me from on high may cause some problems. Some draft news releases out for checking with academic departments need chasing. I chase, politely. Lunch with colleagues. I am not alone in being treated like this. There has been a high staff turnover for several years. One gentle colleague says: "It has got to the point that I cannot discuss work with her." I work through the afternoon, wondering what to do.


Since yesterday's announcement that we have won a big science grant, I have been looking for one of the senior staff to get a good quote. He brings it to my office. A very pleasant man who doesn't find it hard to treat others as equals. A famous quote runs "It isn't possible for someone else to treat you as inferior without your permission". I am not so sure. Perhaps it is just that in our society we have lots of practice at subconsciously giving permission. At 4pm the end of week summing-up. I am not told but my boss has a guest in her office, so arrives unannounced in the corridor outside mine. We enter, me nervously registering the pockets of untidiness. I pass on the confidential piece of information which may affect our media coverage. She corrects me, wrongly, as if I do not know what I'm talking about. We run through numerous tasks. There is never any acknowledgement of work done, let alone work well done. I leave, another weekend, another respite. However, I have rung the Workplace Bullying helpline mentioned in last week's THES feature on bullying. When I was seven and somebody at school had hit me, I asked my father what to do. I waited for a line on forgiveness. He said: "You count to ten, then bop them back." The bopping back has begun.

Georgina Riley Information officer at an English university. Her name hasbeen changed for obvious reasons.

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