MT Special: What Not To Say 4

The fourth instalment of author Mark Vernon's ten tips on how to deal with awkward office situations.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Office life places people cheek-by-jowl. Often, the intimacy is good, nurturing personal friendships and professional success. But it can also bring surprises – sometimes hilarious, sometimes grave. Mark Vernon looks at ten difficult moments: what’s at stake, and how should you react?

7. Confronting a bully

Bullying in the workplace is shockingly common. According to research from Dignity at Work, a joint DTI and Unite the Union project, up to 80% of managers admit that it occurs.
Bullying stands apart from, say, being firm or a little short because it is abusive: bullies deploy intimidating tactics that are designed to make the recipient feel threatened. Remember life in the playground. Adult bullying is little different. Which is also why it’s important to act: do not say nothing! Unchecked, it can destroy a victim’s life. ‘A bully is always a coward,’ the proverb goes. But bullies are masters of fear too.

‘Bullying is a severe offence that must be taken seriously by employers,’ says Mandy Telford, Amicus anti-bullying co-ordinator. ‘The longer the bullying goes on, the harder it becomes to confront.’

8. The dressing-down

One of the drawbacks of a world in which everyone is known by their first name – be it Bill or Gordon or Oprah – is that it has become much harder to give, or take, a dressing-down. Before the compulsory mateyness of the modern meritocracy, you had the hierarchy to hide behind when you had to take chastisement, or dole it out. Now the situation feels like being told off by a friend.

So when it comes to a dressing-down – or as the euphemism has it, ‘offering feedback’ – there is best practice to follow. ‘However awkward or frustrating the situation, it’s important to give feedback in a constructive way if you want a good outcome,’ explains Liz McCaw, client services director at ICAS, a company that promotes well-being in the office.

For the recipient, it is best to assume your boss has constructive intentions. In other words, deal with it!


We'll be revealing two top tips every day this week. And for more of the same, check out Mark’s latest book, What Not To Say, which is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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