UK: IN MY OPINION. - Institute of Management companion and UMIST professor of organisational psychology Cary Cooper says action is essential to deal with workplace bullies.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Institute of Management companion and UMIST professor of organisational psychology Cary Cooper says action is essential to deal with workplace bullies.


The media have been littered with surveys over recent months indicating that workplace bullying is a significant and often subterranean problem in many organisations.

In a TUC telephone hotline to report on the worst aspects of the organisation, bullying came top with 40% of all employee complaints. In a recent survey of 1,140 personnel managers and union representatives, jointly undertaken by the Institute of Personnel and Development and the MSF union, it was found that 60% of respondents were aware of bullying within their organisations; and in a Unison study of 5,000 of its members, it was found that 18% of those surveyed had been bullied over the prior 12 months, while 61% had either been bullied or had witnessed bullying over the same period. Indeed, in a study undertaken a few years ago, it was found that about a third of all litigation claims for workplace stress being pursued at that time by employment and personal injury lawyers involved bullying at work.

So, what is it? Why is it so prevalent now, and how can we deal with it? There are a number of definitions of bullying, but basically it consists of persistent harassment, both physical and - primarily - psychological in its nature, which demeans, devalues and humiliates individuals. Obviously, bullies who shout and publicly humiliate colleagues are reasonably easy to identify. However, what about the subtle bullies who set up their staff to fail by withholding information, or call meetings when subordinates are not available, then castigate them for non-attendance, who isolate them from colleagues or from the technology they need to do their jobs, who criticise them for minor mistakes and undermine their confidence by ignoring their successes and highlighting any minor failings or faults?

But hasn't bullying always gone on? So why is it an issue now? There have always been a small number of individuals who have personal insecurities and problems that they exercise in destructive ways when they reach positions of influence or power. People, for example, who may have low self-esteem and try to enhance their self-worth by demeaning others; or who feel so insecure or threatened by high-flying colleagues that they use bullying tactics to undermine their confidence and hope it will make them less of a threat. These more 'sociopathic' bullies are probably in the workplace in the same numbers as they always have been. The increase today is in 'overloaded' bullies, who are unable to cope with workload, difficult staff, or their own or others' career-related problems, or with an autocratic management style above them, and so on. They use bullying as a management style, reflecting their inability to cope with the demands of their jobs.

This bully commonly is heard saying, 'Have you read your contract. Just get it done.' Or, 'Just remember, jobs are no longer for life.'

In essence, they have problems managing their own jobs, so they take it out on others in an irrational and autocratic style. This behaviour can be just as damaging as that of sociopathic bullies, even though underlying sources are qualitatively different. And since most bullying (but not all) occurs between bosses and subordinates, there is a means-control relationship involved that can make the victim feel even more vulnerable.

This behaviour is likely to be on the increase because of the culture of downsizing (the `too lean' organisation), greater workloads, long and unsocial hours, technology overload, the pace and hectic nature of decision-making or the 'I need it by yesterday mentality' that now permeates the social ecology of the overworked bully.

This movement towards an autocratic or bullying management style is even more significant in the context of a working environment that is increasingly more job-insecure, as shown in the IM/UMIST Quality of Working Life surveys over the last couple of years. As the psychological contract between employer and employee breaks down and the relationship becomes in essence a short-term contract, more people than ever before perceive themselves to be in a vulnerable state - and are more amenable to suffer the bully in silence.

Also, most organisations don't have in place effective mechanisms to deal with bullies - that is, procedures staff can use to 'safely' (in terms of protecting employees) inform the organisation about bullying - as well as strategies for helping the bullied and disciplining or retraining the bullies.

Bullying at work is not just a soft human resources issue but a bottom-line one as well. One bully or a culture of bullies can not only damage an employee's health but also adversely affect his or her added value to products, services and productivity - and could lead to costly litigation on health and safety grounds. We need policies and strategies to acknowledge and deal with this new millennium problem. Littlewoods and Midland Bank are among those leading the way, but more must be done if we are to counter the views of author Studs Terkel who wrote: 'Work is by its very nature, about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.

It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.' It is a challenge to all of us to eliminate these daily humiliations.

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