The university of hard knocks and heartache

September 16, 2005

Are you a bully or the victim of bullying? Judging by the response to The Times Higher 's request for academics to share their experiences of aggressive colleagues, the problem is common to UK universities, with respondents recounting numerous incidents of both physical and psychological abuse. Anthea Lipsett reports

Bullying in the higher education sector is rife and the costs, emotional and financial, are huge.

Feelings of helplessness, stress and anxiety can damage self-esteem and the symptoms can continue to affect people long after the bullying has stopped.

Victims of bullying are generally less productive and less likely to deliver their best work, which, in turn, affects their university's performance. If matters come to a head, universities can also end up with hefty tribunal bills plus an incalculable loss of reputation.

The findings are a damning indictment of higher education institutions, which define themselves as scholarly communities where staff enjoy intellectual liberty and freedom of speech.

The survey suggests is that a culture of bullying existing in a university sector where poor management is endemic, where some departments resemble feudal fiefdoms and where the pressure of the research assessment exercise can be an excuse for victimisation.

Universities have anti-bullying policies but, unlike the armed forces, the police, the civil service and any number of private firms, there appears to be less urgency in universities to root out what, according to our study, is a bad case of institutionalised bullying.

One of the remarkable findings is that bullies often make no effort to hide their activities. While the majority of bullying takes place when the victim is alone (45 per cent), a large proportion is now done openly with others present, in meetings (18 per cent) or communal areas (22 per cent).

This silences victims, who feel that since nobody will stand up for them or to the bully, there is nothing they can do about the situation; they feel nobody will believe their claims or support them. This can exacerbate stress and anxiety.

Petra Boynton, a psychologist at University College London who carried out The Times Higher survey, said: "Alienating the victim is common - a device where they are increasingly isolated, making it harder to ask for help, but also making the victim start to question themselves and their behaviour, and to lose confidence.

"Bullying is a major issue affecting academia and it must be taken seriously."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "What saddens me is the fact that so many talented, committed people working in our universities will, at this very moment, be dreading the next approach from whoever is bullying them. Without real commitment from the top we are highly unlikely to see a reduction in bullying."

Bullying has huge repercussions for the efficiency of academic workplaces.

Victims of bullying work an average ten hours per week more than they are contracted to. Many people work a 50-60 hour week just to keep up with the demands of work and the consequences of being bullied.

Many respondents said they had taken time off work because of stress resulting from the bullying and the majority of these said they were absent for between a fortnight and a month.

Despite the extra hours worked, and additional stress this causes, bullied staff are generally less productive. Of those currently being bullied, 66 per cent said they had considered leaving their job or were trying to leave.

Respondents reported various reactions to being bullied, many of them psychological and all capable of having a negative impact on the victims' confidence, concentration and ability to lodge a complaint against the bully.

Roger Kline, head of the universities department of university and college lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "It's hardly a good environment to spark questioning attitudes that ought to be at the heart of academic life.

"In our experience, it is worst for female, ethnic minority and disabled staff, for whom challenging bullying can be a seriously dangerous career move.

"Too many universities have good paper policies on bullying that are not seriously implemented. For too many managers, bullying is seen as an acceptable way of treating people."


The danger signs

  • You are aggressive, violent or abusive towards work colleagues
  • You work in a caring or support profession - social sciences (particularly psychology), health/medicine and academic support or human resources - where bullying has been found to be more prevalent
  • You hold a senior position in a department - most bullies are at a higher level than their victims
  • You feel out of control and under pressure - many bullies are themselves under stress
  • You make unappreciated sarcastic comments in front of or about colleagues
  • You override decisions made by colleagues without consulting them
  • You excessively punish trivial mistakes and make co-workers feel small
  • You block others' promotion for personal, rather than professional, reasons
  • You remove areas of responsibility from colleagues without due reason
  • You alienate colleagues by ignoring or overlooking them and fail to listen to their problems or isolate them from other staff
  • Your colleagues lack confidence, suffer from sleep problems and irritability and take more time than average off work
  • You are targeting more than one colleague, or moving between several members of one particular group or department

'I felt I was on trial for witchcraft... at my most desperate i fleetingly contemplated suicide'

Laura's professional confidence and self-esteem were destroyed by the bullying she endured for several years. But when Laura (not her real name) complained and grievance procedures began, she felt as if she was on trial for witchcraft with her institution's human resources department acting more like an accuser than a supporter.

The bullying involved removing work responsibilities, personal attacks in meetings and timetables shifted to make Laura's life difficult. It led to missed work opportunities and loss of motivation, confidence and professional self-esteem.

"I started to believe that I wasn't good at my job, and I certainly didn't feel it was worth trying to be, as when I did put my all into it, all I got back was negative feedback and personal gibes.

"It's so subtle you don't realise it's happening. You might go home and cry but don't put the picture together and say, 'I am being bullied'. Who really wants to admit, to themselves and to others, that they are a victim?"

Laura tried to confront the bully through mediation and ended up taking formal grievance proceedings that went on for months.

In Laura's case the university's human resources department backed the bully and made allegations about Laura's work performance part of the grievance proceedings.

"I felt wounded that they were doing this to me when I had put so much into my job and made such a difference to so many students' lives.

"The whole grievance procedure felt like bullying too. I felt like I was on trial for witchcraft. I was undermined, patronised and lied to. All the way through there was this emphasis on turning things around to use them against me. You feel you can't possibly win.

"I know now that others who complain are attacked like this. But it can't be that we are all crap at our jobs and, even if we were, does that mean they can bully us? The attack on work performance is used purely for intimidation.

"The grievance became my life; fighting HR was a job in itself, and not one I could put to bed at 5pm. It kept me awake at night. I cried when I woke up in the morning and sometimes during the day. I have never experienced that level of stress before. It extends into your whole life. I'm so angry at them for having that kind of impact on my personal life," she says.

"At my most desperate times I fleetingly contemplated suicide as a way out, but I had a good support network to turn to. It worries me that others in my position might not be as lucky as me and might take that drastic action. I feel sure it's already happened somewhere.

"HR said they were impartial and not on anyone's side, but that's bull-shit. HR's job is to protect the univer-sity. The minute you complain, you are a potential tribunal, a threat. They drag out your grievance, breaking deadlines and twisting rules but insisting you do everything by the book, in the hope you'll get so fed up you'll give up.

"I don't know how people in HR departments sleep at night. They let bullies get away with their beha-viour, and the culture of bullying management is still seen as acceptable.

"I'm leaving academia and I will never work for anyone again, only myself.

I only hung on because I loved my job."

Are you being bullied? Giveaway signs and what to do about it

What are the symptoms?

  • Constant nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism of a trivial nature - the triviality, regularity and frequency betray bullying; often there is a grain of truth in the criticism to fool you into believing the criticism has validity
  • Constant refusal to acknowledge you and your contributions and achievements
  • Constant attempts to undermine you and your position, status, worth, value and potential
  • Singled out and treated differently
  • Isolated and separated from colleagues, excluded, marginalised, overruled, ignored, sidelined and frozen out
  • Belittled, demeaned and patronised, especially in front of others
  • Humiliated, shouted at and threatened, often in front of others
  • Overloaded with work, or having all your work taken away and replaced with either menial tasks or no work at all
  • Finding that your work - and the credit for it - is stolen and plagiarised
  • Increase in responsibility but authority taken away
  • Refused annual, sickness or compassionate leave
  • Denied training necessary for you to fulfil your duties
  • Set unrealistic goals, which change as you approach them
  • Deadlines changed at short or no notice, without informing you
  • All you say and do is twisted, distorted and misrepresented
  • Subjected to disciplinary procedures, with verbal or written warnings imposed for trivial or fabricated reasons and without proper investigation
  • Coerced into leaving through no fault of your own, through constructive dismissal, early or ill-health retirement

What can you do?

To help you think about being bullied, and to inform a case you may wish to take against your bully, we recommend the following activity designed by stress expert Melanie King ( Surviving Stress at Work: Understand It, Overcome It (Trafford Publishing))

  • Why do you think you are a victim of bullying? List examples
  • Who is bullying you? Is it one person or a team?
  • How long has this been occurring?
  • How does this make you feel? Write down separately your emotional, physical and behavioural reactions.
  • What have you done so far to alleviate the situation at work? Who have you talked to?
  • Have you done anything outside work to help you cope with this situation? Taken up a hobby, talked to a counsellor or doctor?
  • How, ideally, would you like the situation to be resolved?

Further resources can be found at:

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