The growl and the pussycat

January 17, 1997

I once tried to tackle the issue of a colleague who was being systematically bullied by her superior. I complained to someone higher up but was told no action could be taken without witnesses and, although it was well known that the person was a bully, "the trouble is, he delivers". This encapsulates all the problems about dealing with bullying at work. If senior management are not openly committed to eliminating it, they become part of the problem. The amazing thing about these monsters is that they appear to be unaware of their impact on others. In fact, they think they are warm, cuddly pussycats.

Education ranked second in the stress ratings in a recent survey of 7,000 health and safety representatives, with 80 per cent reporting it as a major problem. Half blamed new management techniques and 14 per cent cited bullying as a factor. Rather than negotiating changes with unions, managers are more likely to impose changes that make individuals feel undervalued and powerless. It would be interesting to find out whether macho management in universities provides a natural home for the bully. Finding out the extent of the problem is difficult and possibly subjective. A survey in Staffordshire University in 1994 found that 53 per cent of those surveyed had been bullied at work.

Cary Cooper, a leading researcher in occupational stress at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says that bullying at work probably accounts for between a third and a half of all stress-related illnesses.

Bullying is an abuse of power used to undermine confidence and to intimidate. A main aim is to emphasise someone else's inadequacies to enhance one's own abilities and protect one's own position in an increasingly insecure working environment. Bullies expect total and unquestioning loyalty. They often have a record of complete success on paper: "He delivers"; "OK, so a lot of the duds drop out of his course but he achieves marvellous results". So, far from counting the cost of bullying, too many employers are prepared to justify it and give it a different name to salve their conscience. Constant harassment is called "chivvying" or even monitoring, But the long-term cost to employers could be significant because of consequent ill-health absence, low morale, lost resources through skilled people leaving early. It also calls into question the value employers place on their staff and the kind of culture they wish to encourage in their organisation.

Too often the campus bully is the line manager whom a complainant is supposed to approach in the first instance. Any procedures for dealing with bullying at work must take this into account.

A few universities have agreements with their campus unions on how to combat harassment at work and a separate policy on bullying could well be drawn from this. Fortunately there are now several agencies issuing advice. The Health and Safety Executive issued a guide to employers in 1995 about preventing occupational stress and European action on stress is expected when the European Union's working group has reported. Unison won substantial damages against Northumberland County Council on behalf of a member because of a stress-related illness arising from his workload. It is only a matter of time before an employer has to try to defend workplace bullying in the courts and face substantial damages too. Let us hope universities are not first in the queue, and that our campus pussycats are purring rather than growling.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union and a member of the national executive council of Unison and of the TUC General Council.

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