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. …