Don't let bullies crush your zest

March 2, 2007

Workplace bullying is often subtle but can destroy a victim's health, confidence and career. Harriet Swain outlines the steps you can take to nip this growing problem in the bud and where to get help.

He's going to make some comment. Or maybe she will, and then they'll all smirk. You're just waiting for it to happen. But maybe it won't. Or maybe it will and they're just having a joke. Maybe they're right - you are paranoid.

The problem with being bullied at work is that it is often subtle, says Matt Witheridge, operations manager at the Andrea Adams Trust, which specialises in workplace bullying. "In isolation, many of the events that make up workplace bullying can be trivial - simply a remark here and there," he says. "The important thing about bullying is its persistence."

P. K., who writes a blog on university bullying, says most academics who are bullied do not realise it until their health suffers or they have lost their job or gone through disciplinary procedures. He cites a checklist of indicators that bullying is taking place, which includes the following: rumours and gossip circulate about the target ("Did you hear what she did last week?"); the target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees; there is a collective focus on a critical incident that "shows what kind of man he really is"; there is emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications; the bullies put a high value on secrecy; the target's real or imagined sins are added up to make something that cries for action.

He warns that even if one or more of these things is clearly taking place, institutions will tend to defend the person accused of bullying because he or she is an employee.

But Witheridge says the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence because by the time you realise there really is a problem it is often too late to do anything about it and you may have already suffered considerably.

He advises getting as much support and advice as you can, including from organisations such as his, from family members, who are likely to be affected by your problems, and from doctors. As well as being able to treat symptoms of stress, many GPs are becoming increasingly aware of how widespread bullying is, he says.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, advises keeping a diary of everything that you regard as contributing to the bullying. You should also keep copies of all letters, e-mails and anything else, such as notes of phone calls, that help establish what is going on.

He also suggests talking to your union rep, ideally the one in your own department because he or she may be aware of a pattern of bullying. "There may be other people currently being bullied, or the individual or individuals bullying you may have a history that the rep knows about but you don't," Kline says. "It may be possible to respond collectively." If there is a conflict of interest with the rep, who may be a friend of the bully, for example, you should talk to your branch or local association secretary.

P. K. says that a good union rep may be able to save your job, but it is unlikely he or she will be able to get redress against the perpetrator of the bullying. "Remember, if it went to disciplinary action your colleagues and people you consider to be your friends will think first of their jobs and won't stick their neck out for you," he warns. Nor is there any specific law in the UK against bullying.

But Kline says it is worth checking your institution's policy on bullying and harassment or dignity at work. While he advises against following any procedure without taking advice, it is useful to know what that procedure should be.

Witheridge says that making a formal complaint becomes much easier in an institution that has a good anti-bullying strategy. The strategy should set out who should deal with the complaint, how long it should take and what exactly bullying is.

Keren Eales, spokesperson for the College and University Support Network, says if the bullying can be classed as verbal or physical abuse you may also want to report it to the police, taking with you any evidence.

But a CUSN fact sheet on the topic suggests tackling the problem informally, by speaking to or writing to the person you feel is bullying you or asking someone else to speak to them on your behalf.

Charlotte Rayner, professor of human resource management at Portsmouth Business School, says the informal approach is almost always the best one to take. She says it is important to challenge unacceptable behaviour quickly and gently and not to escalate the situation. If you are not aware of informal ways of handling bullying, such as harassment advisers or mediators, ask your institution because it may prompt them to provide such methods if they don't already have them.

But if it proves impossible to resolve the matter informally, Kline says you need to take advice on formulating a grievance. This will need to set out your concerns and say clearly what you would like done, referring to the bullying and harassment or dignity-at-work policy and reminding management of the agreed timetable.

Alternatively, you could just try to tough it out or move to another area or organisation. P. K. says: "One response is to get out fast before you lose your health and get out when you are not at knives drawn with your manager." If you do decide to stay and fight it out, be prepared for it to take time.

Meanwhile, if you see someone else being bullied, say something, Witheridge urges. "One of the worst things is bystander apathy when people in the same team see what's going on and keep their head down because they don't want to attract similar attention."

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