What's your problem?

I'm PA to the principal of a college of higher education. My line manager, the HR director, has been bullying and harassing, not only me, but every employee under her for seven years.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

She makes offensive remarks with regard to religion, sexual orientation and physical disabilities. She is also the director of operations and this additional role allows her to humiliate and criticise everyone, including the principal. Her powerful position means we have nowhere to turn. Many tearful employees have approached the principal, to be told that he sees no problem. He even makes excuses for her. I have read the book Bully in Sight, which describes her perfectly. But it doesn't address such a difficult situation. We have unions, but employees are so beaten that we fear the repercussions if we report her as a group. How do we handle a psychopathic personnel director?

A: I'm not surprised by your sense of desperation. If there were an easy solution to this problem, you would have grasped it by now. It continues to astonish me how one individual - admittedly with some status, but then many times multiplied by sheer force of personality - can tyrannise an entire organisation and remain seemingly immune from retribution. I'm surprised that staff turnover hasn't been fast and furious. Seven years is an extremely long time to endure such hurt and humiliation.

But on the assumption that you and the others actively want to stay with the college, or would find it dauntingly difficult to find alternative agreeable work, then mass resignation is no solution. So if that option is closed, only one remains open. If her staff are reluctant to go, then the tyrant must.

Some important part of her power clearly lies with her utter disregard for opinion. Most of us quite want to be liked; we loathe and fear open rows and confrontation, and unleash our frustrations only on luckless partners after work. Your personnel director knows all this and uses it ruthlessly. Unless and until you make it evident that she faces unified, relentless and implacable opposition, she will remain untouchable.

You must compile a meticulous dossier. Employ no generalities: only specific incidents, witnessed, counter-witnessed and dated, should be logged. Obtain evidence from those who have left as well as those who remain. Delete most adjectives; under no circumstances accuse her of being a psychopath, a tyrant or even a bully: let the facts do the work. Finally, make sure that the initiative for all this comes from a group: no single person must be left exposed and vulnerable. Your names and signatures should be listed in strict alphabetical order. As a group, you should then present this dossier to your principal, with a copy to your HR director. As a college, you presumably have a board of governors. Make it known that you have a copy for them as well - and yet another for your unions.

However weak and fearful himself, your principal will no longer be able to procrastinate. Even if he dreads the thought of an industrial tribunal, the strength of your dossier will give him the faith that the HR director would lose.

I know this kind of organised rebellion goes against every instinct of reasonable people. I would absolutely loathe to be involved in any such action myself. But I can't for the life of me offer you a better idea.


Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of both the Guardian Media Group and WPP. Address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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