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 can be trivial,” 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 gone through disciplinary procedures.
He cites a checklist of indicators that bullying is taking place. These include: rumours and gossip circulate about the target; 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 institutions will tend to defend the person accused of bullying.
Witheridge says the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence. He advises getting as much support and advice as you can: from organisations such as his; from family members; and from doctors. 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. 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. “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, 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. “If it goes to disciplinary action, colleagues you consider to be your friends will think first of their jobs,” he warns. Nor is there any specific UK law against bullying.
Kline recommends checking your institution’s policy on bullying and harassment or dignity at work. Witheridge says that making a formal complaint becomes much easier in an institution that has a good anti-bullying strategy.
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 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. If you are not aware of informal ways of handling bullying, such as harassment advisers or mediators, ask your institution.
If it proves impossible to resolve informally, Kline says you must take advice on formulating a grievance. This will need to set out your concerns and say clearly what you would like done.
Alternatively, you could just try to tough it out or move to another area or organisation. But if you do decide to 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: people keep their heads down because they don't want to attract similar attention.”