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Bullying – a complicated matter!

Bullying was in the news before Christmas because of things going on at the highest level of government. This piece is most definitely not a comment on that, but it did serve as a reminder of how complex an issue bullying can be.

I retired from IBEX at the end of 2019, but while working I had an occasional involvement with the Trade Unions, including participating in training about bullying. This was a real eye-opener for all concerned. Many people might consider the Trade Unions as “reds under the bed”, but that is far from the truth these days. Trade Union officers are in my experience eminently sensible, pragmatic and committed people - there are many good examples of agreements being worked out between Employers and Unions to ensure the smooth working of a workplace to the benefit of all concerned.

But bullying is a much wider issue than you might think. It is not just about threatening someone smaller than you and stealing their dinner money, picking on someone smaller or weaker. A great range of activities and attitudes should come into the reckoning, some of which could be unintentional - far more harmless things than Priti Patel was accused of.

Just to broaden it a little, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that while there is no legal definition, bullying can take many forms and can for example involve:

  • ignoring or excluding someone;

  • spreading malicious rumours or gossip;

  • humiliating someone in public;

  • giving someone unachievable or meaningless tasks; and

  • constantly undervaluing someone's work performance.

It says that bullies are often, but not always, more senior than the person they are bullying and that they may target groups as well as individuals.

So if a manager berates loudly a member of his staff in the hearing of others, maybe in an open plan office, particularly if it is by design but even if it is on the spur of a moment, that is bullying. If a manager is just “down” on someone for no good reason and either on one extreme sets them up to fail or at the other extreme never gives them anything useful or challenging to do, that too should be considered as bullying.

The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) definition of bullying is: "Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, involving an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient." This definition concentrates on how bullies abuse their power relationship, which is presumably why it is frequently used in Industrial Tribunals.

But bullying can also go the other way, being aimed by more junior people at the boss, whether just (just?) deliberately undermining or sabotaging things or whether descending into real nastiness with gossip and lies. I know from personal experience in the workplace (before I ever worked for the Church, I hasten to add) how relatively harmless but unfounded gossip can become accepted as the gospel truth. If that gossip is the subject of a devious, planned and malicious campaign it will be far more effective. And it does happen…… frequently.

I might have implied in that last paragraph that these things do not happen in the Church with the words “Before I ever worked for the Church, I hasten to add”. But they do! They very much do. On the course I participated in, there was a Methodist Minister who shared his own situation of being systematically and continuously undermined, undervalued and sidelined by his senior Circuit Steward, this to the extent that it had very seriously undermined his mental health. I have also been aware in the past closer to home of a situation where a minister and his circuit stewards were at loggerheads, and to an impartial outsider, it might even have seemed there was bullying on both sides. These things can be very complicated.

And Mental Health is another important issue here. Mental health charity Mind defines work bullying as "when someone persistently acts in a discriminatory way towards an employee which hurts, criticises or condemns them." A Mental Health charity is interested in this precisely because it can and does affect people’s mental health. On mental health, people will be aware of cyber-bullying, the targeted malevolent use of social media and the internet mainly but not exclusively among young people which has been known to drive individuals to suicide.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of what is bullying. It is much more about encouraging people to think about what they are doing. It is about relationships, how you deal with people, listening, communicating. Bullying can be upfront and nasty, it can be just thoughtless and unintentional. In the Priti Patel situation, I have read that people were quaking with fear in meetings, that people were tasked with doing things that were clearly beyond their capabilities, tasked with achieving things which were just not achievable. But we will all be aware of actual instances of bullying in (all) the other political parties, in the Trade Unions and in other parts of public life.

Maybe we could all be more thoughtful, try imagining ourselves in the other person’s shoes. But there will still be people who will do it deliberately. So as the very wonderful Sergeant Esterhaus used to say at the end of his start of shift briefings in Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there!”


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