Forget Big Brother, macho managers are the latest TV sensation. From effing Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen to entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar on The Apprentice announcing “I am the most belligerent person you could ever meet”, it’s compulsive television.
But is it good HR practice? Probably not.
While tough management styles are sometimes appropriate – in highly-pressurised work environments such as the NHS, the Armed Forces, the entertainment industry and in the City, for instance – legal and occupational psychology experts agree that there’s a fine line between assertive management, which gets results, and bullying, which destroys staff morale.
Context is important, says David Whincup, head of the London employment department of law firm Hammonds.
“In a City dealing room, people rightly or wrongly tend to put up with a lot of abuse – it’s a ‘live fast, die young’ culture. It’s also true that the more senior you are, the more flak you are expected to be able to take.”
Situation can be an even more decisive factor. Melody Blackburn, principal consultant with organisational psychology firm OPP, says: “If a high level of control is needed – in a start-up or business turn-around, for example – an assertive management style is effective. In a crisis, decisions need to be made quickly.”
But employers need to be aware of the potential legal consequences of this ‘cruel to be kind’ approach to management, even if they are not clear-cut.
Whincup says: “You can’t be taken to court for bullying itself. The employee has to prove that the bullying has some legal consequences – for example, that you usually bully women or you are making people ill by your treatment of them.”
Either way, this is not an issue that HR can casually ignore.
Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC, believes The Apprentice is a negative influence. “It’s nauseating,” she says. “The Sir Alan Sugar line is to test people to do their jobs well under pressure. But people aren’t more effective under this kind of pressure – they don’t do well, they get sick.”
TUC statistics back this up: a 2005 survey calculated that bullying accounted for the loss of 18 million working days per year, and another TUC survey of more than 5,000 employees found that managers were responsible for 75% of bullying incidents.
Sue Scates, vice-president of support services for IT company Oracle in the UK, Ireland and South Africa, points out that leaders need more than one way of motivating staff. “You need to invest in employee learning and development, and it’s critical that their leader instils a good sense of teamwork, rather than playing staff off against each other.”
Faced with a wannabe Sir Alan Sugar among the management ranks, what role should HR take? Experts agree that a softly-softly approach is advisable.
Sally Bibb, author of The Stone Age Company: Why the companies we work for are dying and how they can be saved, has years of senior HR experience in the telecoms industry, and came across a whole range of aggressive bosses during that time.
“Out of almost 20 managers, only two were personally effective,” she says now. “My most memorable stone age boss was known to the entire company as a bully – even the CEO knew about it. But it was just accepted. He shouted and raged at people, often reducing staff to tears, and he rejoiced in that.”
After a while, Bibb decided that it would help the bullying boss if he was made aware of the effect he was having. So she had a quiet word with him. “I honestly thought ‘no-one is telling this guy what people think, and no-one is doing him any favours by not telling him’. And, of course, he exploded. The trouble is that people don’t know themselves, and they don’t want to.”
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, believes HR can only have a limited impact if bullying is part of the organisational culture.
Senior managers have a major part to play in forming this culture – and Sugar illustrates this. “His approach makes people so sycophantic,” says Cooper. “Everyone is trying to please him. They will do anything to put people down. The attitude is ‘I am going to get ahead’. There is nothing about team-building or trust.”
But how effective can HR be in countering this? Whincup observes that, because HR is often viewed as the mouthpiece of the management, there’s little it can do if the manager in question won’t learn or apologise when appropriate.
“There isn’t much HR can do except try some training both to pre-empt the behaviour in question and to form a defence if it happens anyway,” Whin-cup advises.
Don’t make it dull
But that doesn’t mean leaders can’t be dynamic and push staff to stretch themselves. Emmanuel Gobillot, a director at the Hay Group HR consultancy and author of The Connected Leader, warns against being too prescriptive about management, and making it seem dull. “People look at someone like [celebrity chef] Gordon Ramsay, and think ‘I want a bit of what he’s got’. I think we have made management seem far too boring, and imposed too much rigidity on people.
“HR needs to build awareness of what is acceptable, promote examples of good practice and look at how people feel and react to what we do,” he says.
HR must also ensure its own house is in order. Issuing endless diktats about how to crush bullying, sexual harassment and other ills is simply counter-productive, Blackburn suggests. “Autocratic management can have the effect of making people passive-aggressive – they say they will do things, but they do nothing,” she warns.
After all, HR professionals are not exempt from dishing out bully-boy tactics themselves – they can sometimes be the worst offenders.
Last month it was revealed that Suzy Walton, a senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office, was subjected to consistent bullying and sexual discrimination within the personnel department. She alleged she was repeatedly undermined, and screamed at by a senior male colleague.
Finally, it is worth remembering that, arguably, Sugar’s most dedicated apprentice was Jo Cameron, evicted from the show earlier this month.
Almost psychotically feisty, she spent much of the third episode of the series bawling out two female colleagues for their supposed ‘weaknesses’. A faithful mirror of Sugar’s trenchant style, she is, of course, an HR consultant.