The first High Court case of psychiatric injury caused directly by bullying, which an individual is taking against the Ford Motor Company this spring, will no doubt raise a few corporate eyebrows on an issue that has already been gaining steady momentum. The word 'bully' will soon be as likely to conjure up images of besuited men and women in offices as the traditional picture of child tormentors and their victims in school yards. The growing acknowledgement of the existence of the workplace bully and concern at the apparent increase in bullying behaviour could result in opening the floodgates to a whole batch of legal cases.
A survey by the Institute of Personnel Development in 1996 showed that out of 1,000 people questioned, one in eight had experienced bullying at work in the past five years. And only last December, the TUC's Bad Bosses Hotline campaign received 5,000 calls, of which the highest number, 38%, concerned bullying.
Support for sufferers is already emerging. The Andrea Adams Trust is a charity that has just been formed in order to disseminate information, campaign for legislation and promote good practice. It builds on the work of Tim Field, who set up the National Workplace Bullying Advice Line two years ago, after he suffered a breakdown induced by being bullied. 'Bullies are usually dead weights, who blame others for their mistakes,' Field says.
Concurrently, but further behind, major new research, notably at Umist, is also under way to establish a character profile of the workplace bully and his or her position within a typical company hierarchy. Although early days, patterns are already emerging - and a likely conclusion is that the bullying phenomenon owes less to sick individuals than to the sick companies at which they work.
There is, of course, the 'psychopathic bully', whose need to dominate is related to personal problems such as insecurity or having been bullied when younger. But, says Professor Cary Cooper of Umist, this is not the group responsible for an increase in bullying behaviour. Instead, a new type of bully has emerged as a result of the downsizing activity of the late '80s and early '90s, Cooper believes. 'Companies employ fewer people, there is more work for the rest and people in managerial positions can't cope. A culture develops and the demeaning or devaluing of others becomes a management style, a way of getting people to do things,' he claims.
The prototype is probably, but not necessarily, male, he adds, and is likely to be a middle-manager who will bully a subordinate on a persistent basis, usually psychologically rather than physically. A bully at the top will cause a 'cascade' of bullying down the system, as board members and top management set the agenda on what is acceptable. The bully will be under pressure or fearful of the people below him in a fast-moving culture with a substantial bottom-line, performance-oriented drive.
Peter Mead, chairman of advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, agrees.
'It's all to do with the culture of the company itself. Downsizing has created the environment where you are rewarded by the number of jobs you take out rather than create,' says Mead, who recently became patron of the Andrea Adams Trust.
'When you hear a chief executive officer saying "I'm tough but fair", it probably means he is not fair at all. There is a myth that if you keep employees nervous and edgy, in fear and off-balance, you create energy.
Psychological bullying is one of the grossest crimes that you can commit because it systematically destroys self-worth.'
Given that such behaviour is ultimately unlikely to bring out the best performance in either party, companies would be wise to consider the financial consequences of leaving bully tactics unchecked.