Bullying at work

The Gordon Brown bullying row has entertained the media and the public for a few days, but the circus is already packing up and leaving town.

However it is worth taking this opportunity to comment on the wider issues, for workplace bullying is deemed by many HR practitioners, unions and lobbying groups to be a major and growing problem. A recent survey conducted for UNISON, for example, claimed that the incidence of bullying has doubled since 1997 – and no less than a third of respondents said that they had been bullied in the last six months. In my own area, the University and College Union has claimed that bullying in higher education is rife. Nationally it is argued that 19 million days are lost to sickness absence annually through stress caused by bullying.

Strange that this takes place in workplaces which are ever more tightly constrained by employment law and where most large organisations, in both the public and private sectors, have comprehensive policies on respect and dignity at work.

There is no doubt that incidents of bullying can arise in the best-run of organisations: many of us will have been victims of occasional bad or thoughtless behaviour by managers and colleagues. But is it really the case that the modern workplace is increasingly plagued by such behaviour?

Anti-bullying lobbyists often see bullying as being the product of increasing financial pressures in a cut-throat corporate environment. However most evidence seems to suggest that perceived bullying is much more common in the public sector.

ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”. Amen to that: but its practical correlates are very much in the eye of the beholder. Examples are said to include “spreading rumours” (surely a human universal?), “overbearing supervision” (i.e. being told what work to do?), “overloading” competent workers (who judges this?) and “blocking promotion” (have we ever met colleagues who think that their talents are fully recognised?).

Like most managers I have met, I don’t approve of bullying. But vague and subjective definitions can be used – especially amongst the “protected” groups recognised in the new Equality Bill – to foment grievances which are exploited by unionists, lawyers, and HR consultancies like that run by the husband of the unfortunate Ms Christine Pratt.

Fear of ending up in a tribunal case can make many managers hold back in cases where firm and fair performance management would benefit the organisation, and in the long run its employees as well.

11 thoughts on “Bullying at work”

  1. Posted 25/02/2010 at 12:13 | Permalink

    You are right to highlight workplace bullying and harassment. Fomenting an anti lawyers, consultants, HR, Trade Unions, lobby group and public sector rage would be totally wrong.

    An interesting summary:


    Cost estimates vary, but a very conservative one (DTI) is £2 billion annually to the UK economy, with the disabled most likely victims.

    Tim Field’s and Andrea Adams Trust closures and the travails of the National Helpline mean victims are now more vulnerable than ever.

    I’d rather take £2bn+ off the budget deficit. Great leaders and managers don’t need to bully. CMI, IOD views?

  2. Posted 25/02/2010 at 12:26 | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more that bullying is a bad thing. But does everything reported as bullying by “victims” and their defenders really stand up? Why do you think (self-reported, remember) incidence is much higher in the public sector?

  3. Posted 25/02/2010 at 12:38 | Permalink

    Perhaps the public sector is afflicted with “victim culture” to a stronger degree than the private sector. If more people feel they are members of “oppressed groups” etc., they may be more likely to perceive they are being treated unfairly.

  4. Posted 25/02/2010 at 14:43 | Permalink

    There is little competition for labour in the public sector and many parts of the public sector monopsonise certain types of occupation more or less completely. If you are bullied as a nurse, what do you do? You do have options, but they are limited. In the private sector it is (relatively speaking) more likely to be efficient to move on than to complain. Also, for the same reasons, bosses have more power in the public sector.

  5. Posted 25/02/2010 at 15:49 | Permalink

    The truth beneath the statistics lies in more thorough research and analysis. The above are hypotheses and questions worthy of well answers, supported by facts and evidence.

    A business school professor would probably agree that sweeping generalisations, no matter how heart felt are not the way either to a better understanding, or to addressing the correct issue.

    There is some evidence to suggest that the assertions made in the top piece are not necessarily backed up by management research or facts, not least the selected interpretation of bullying behaviours, existence of policies in companies or legislative framework.

  6. Posted 25/02/2010 at 16:14 | Permalink

    Jonathan – this is a blog and it is reasonable, I think, for people to put forward hypotheses. If political discourse could only take place through peer-reviewed academic journals then it would make life very difficult. The knots we can get into are illustrated by your sentence: “A business school professor would probably agree that sweeping generalisations, no matter how heart felt, are not the way either to a better understanding, or to addressing the correct issue.” How do we know? How many business school professors? What is the evidence? Isn’t that a sweeping generalisation? But the comments boxes are there for people to come back with their facts and evidence.

  7. Posted 25/02/2010 at 16:35 | Permalink


    I understand that this is a blog.

    There has been quite a lot of research undertaken on workplace bullying by the IOD, CMI, CIPD and some business schools previously. I thought the author was a Business School Professor?

    I also thought that the IEA was a premier league think tank, promoting well reasoned debate on Economic Ideas, grounded on original research.

    I was very interested to hear about the research that IEA or Mr Shackelton had undertaken in support of the opinions outlined above?

    Perhaps it was just a topical discussion, based on media stories to promote debate?

  8. Posted 25/02/2010 at 17:19 | Permalink

    In response to your second point above a more accurate description would be bullying and harassment.

    The difficulty may be that there is quite a thin line between aspects of the two distinct behaviour patterns; clearly bullying is more serious, but often begins as harassment.

    The collective noun given to group involvement in such activity and the most sinister of all is “mobbing”.

  9. Posted 25/02/2010 at 17:27 | Permalink

    Jonathan is right to appeal to evidence, but there is relatively little firm evidence in this area. Most survey material is produced by unions and other axe-grinders. There does appear to be some consensus that public sector workers are more inclined to report bullying – the ill-fated National Bullying Helpline, for example, claimed that 80% of its calls were from public sector workers. If we take bullying as one cause of reported stress, this would square with more reliable national data which indicate that public sector workers suffer disproportionately from stress. My point in the blog was that the union-lawyer-pressure group interpretation of bullying needs to be challenged.

  10. Posted 25/02/2010 at 17:35 | Permalink

    Further to this, I wrote a chapter last year for the Smith Institute – no, not the Adam Smith Institute – which argued that the work environment in the UK was improving rather than worsening. I didn’t specifically discuss bullying but did review a range of academic literature on work and its discontents.
    In general I take Jonathan’s point about evidence. I think you will find that all my IEA blogs do have some basis in evidence but that I try to unpick the spin put on this evidence as it enters the political environment.

  11. Posted 27/02/2010 at 12:32 | Permalink

    Workplace bullying is widespread with some work. There are plenty of publications offering advice on how to lessen the impact of bullying. However they do not solve, let alone eradicate the problem. This requires the involvement and commitment of politicians and lawmakers. They in turn can be motivated to act by the people they represent. That can be done through petitions that are nowadays made easy through the internet.

    Statistics show that workplace bullying is particularly serious in higher education. Please sign the petition against workplace bullying in higher education at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Justice-Bullying/.
    Please let others know about this petition.

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