Labour Market

Bullying in the workplace, and the weird world of Whitehall. 


Government and Institutions
Trade, Development, and Immigration
Almost exactly a decade ago, I wrote about bullying at work, in light of accusations laid against the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Allegations of bullying by politicians are in the news again. Following hard on the accusations against former Speaker John Bercow, we now have Home Secretary Priti Patel accused of mistreating her senior officials, while the iconoclastic Dominic Cummings has also been seen as a bully. It’s inappropriate to offer any view here about the rights and wrongs of particular events and personalities. Nevertheless, it is useful to contextualise this by delving into what we mean in general by bullying at work, and its implications for the weird world of Whitehall.

Forget the stereotype of bullying you may remember from school. This is not Flashman and Tom Brown. Bullied workers are thankfully rarely physically abused or tortured in Britain today. Bullying is a far more subtle thing. The government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (acas) defines it as “behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable”. This may involve feeling frightened or intimidated, less respected or put down, (‘degraded’). You may be made fun of and feel uncomfortable or humiliated. You may be upset or ‘offended’.

Examples given by acas include “somebody has spread a false rumour about you, someone keeps putting you down in meetings, your boss does not let you go on training courses but they allow everyone else to, your boss keeps giving you heavier workloads than everyone else, your team never lets you join social events”.

Although this may sound rather like teenagers’ complaints to their parents, there is no doubt that many instances of bad adult workplace behaviour are serious, create great stress and can damage employees’ mental health. But given this range of examples, it is apparent that what counts as bullying is essentially subjective, and it is not surprising that some studies report that as many as a third of all employees have suffered bullying at work. I can certainly remember some events in my career than could be classified in this way. But are we all victims? Managers may often disagree. What they may see as appropriate and even necessary behaviour, employees may regard as unreasonable. The worst possible interpretations can be put on incidents if people are feeling unhappy for other reasons. With differing expectations and attitudes, neither party is necessarily right or wrong.

Has perceived bullying increased recently? There is no convincing evidence, because consistent surveys have never been carried out. You’d expect that it would have declined, given the increasing regulation of employment and the relentless expansion of the HR function in large organisations, with its emphasis on training, mentorship, whistleblowing and so on.

Some argue, however, that bullying is increasing as a result of growing competitive pressures in business. This sort of argument tends to be made by trade unions and others on the left who demand further restrictions on management prerogatives. However, I have also seen the argument that bullying may have increased precisely because of increasing regulation. For example, employment protection legislation makes it difficult to fire incompetent workers, so managers react by making life unpleasant for them, perhaps in the hope that they will leave. Or maybe this behaviour isn’t conscious, but simply an instinctive reaction to people who present problems.

One thing many studies seem to agree on is that bullying complaints are more common in the public sector than in the private sector. This may be because of the necessarily hierarchical nature of job responsibilities, or because of the demands of certain types of work, or because different types of people prefer to work in the public sector. The fact that unionisation is greater in this sector may also be a factor if it shapes expectations of antagonistic worker-management relations.

To come back to our politicians, increasingly a caste apart. So many have gone from school to university, worked in think tanks, in unions or as SpAds, and then gone into Parliament. Many have never worked in large organisations like the Civil Service. When an MP is appointed as a minister, he or she knows nothing about rules and procedures or about reasonable expectations of the civil servants working for him or her.

The fledgling minister is under tremendous pressure to get results quickly. Few ministers last long: the post of universities minister, for example, has changed hands five times in two years. When civil servants, used to a fairly leisurely pace, get confronted by a particularly energetic new minister, there is a potential problem. When senior officials, themselves an odd elite apart (why on earth do people get knighted while doing their normal work?), think the minister is doing the wrong thing, they may tend to drag their feet. Ministers become frustrated. Harsh words are spoken which, while perhaps not out of place in the House of Commons or the hustings, come over as bullying in the quiet offices of Whitehall.

Ministers need to cool it, perhaps, but civil service officials also need to think about their own responsibilities. Crying ‘bullying’ and leaking like a sieve to mischief-making journalists is not helpful. It also devalues the real problems of more junior people who are much more exposed to potentially abusing managers than the Sir Humphreys.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

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