Having suffered three months of bullying, a journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes his experiences, and talks to an expert in the field about why HR is so ill-equipped to deal with the problem
Three months after starting a dream job in a press office, it had turned into a nightmare. At interview, I was told I would be using my creativity and intelligence to publicise fascinating research. It seemed my partner and I had fallen on our feet, both landing apparently secure, rewarding jobs outside London.
But the unease soon began to set in. I quickly realised the office’s main topics of conversation were the boss, and her “management methods”.
Sitting across from her in an office separate from other colleagues, it wasn’t long before I began to feel uncomfortable. I was subjected to constant criticism, and was even told off for slurping my tea. I became afraid to use the phone when she was there because every time I did she would interrupt and “correct” what I was saying. If I asked her questions about the job, she was bad-tempered and unapproachable.
In meetings she would talk over people and her anger rose quickly and visibly. She had an unfocused and haphazard approach, which made following orders particularly fraught. Super-fast note-taking was essential to catch her unstructured thoughts – if you missed one little thing, you were in trouble. All of this sat oddly with her radical persona of feminist and trade union activist.
If things went wrong – and they often did – her first instinct was to lay blame. It became a standing joke, how everything I did was wrong.
Within a month, she moved me out of her office with no explanation. Although I was now out of the immediate firing line, things didn’t get any better. In busy periods, the lack of planning and briefing meant that crises soon developed. I couldn’t do my job without discussion with her, but she refused to have meetings with me, or behaved so badly during them that the job became near impossible. As the pressure mounted, she frequently told me that my future there was limited.
When I went to HR, they told me to keep a diary, inform my boss’s manager, and return if anything else happened.
HR met with my boss and the worst excesses of her behaviour were tempered, but I was still being overloaded with work, undermined and sniped at. I kept HR informed when incidents occurred, and my colleagues started telling them about the way she treated them, too.
After two months, it was clear that things weren’t improving. HR offered three months pay in lieu of notice if I resigned. I took it. I could have fought on, but I was worn out. The bully is still in place.
Fortunately, I have not been damaged by it – I always kept faith in my ability. But why was HR so powerless to act?
Professor Charlotte Rayner of the University of Portsmouth Business School has conducted major studies for the BBC and trade union Unison on workplace bullying. She says HR departments are ill-equipped to deal with it.
“Workplace bullying is very damaging to productivity because it stops people doing their jobs properly,” she says. “But it is difficult to spot, because the classic symptoms involve the bully not doing something, such as not saying good morning, or withholding information to make it difficult for someone to do their job.”
Sick leave is a tell-tale sign, says Rayner. “Look for long-term sickness – a bad back, or irritable bowel syndrome brought on by stress. Be alert for offices where staff are on edge and scared of being reprimanded.
“You need to catch bullying early,” she adds. “If someone is not given support to do their job, creativity is stifled and they can’t take risks. That’s a recipe for organisational stagnation.”
Rayner’s research has found 25 per cent of people bullied in workplaces, and more than 20 per cent of those who witness bullying, leave. Alarm bells should be ringing where turnover is high and fast, or people leave after long service for reasons that don’t add up. Use exit interviews to find out if bullying is a cause.
Those being bullied are usually too scared to do anything about it, but HR staff could do more to detect it, says Rayner. “HR needs a more informal approach and better ‘antennae’. You find out what’s happening by walking the corridors or having HR people on site, so the small signs – the non-behaviours – can be spotted.”
But even when bullying is known about, HR is often unable to act. “Bullying is a pattern of behaviour – a routine of apparently ‘acceptable’ things,” says Rayner. “HR is not equipped to deal with that in the way they are with sexual harassment, or racism. There is an unwillingness to act unless there is a formal complaint, and by that point the situation is probably lost.”
So what can HR departments do to prevent bullies gaining a foothold?
“Take it seriously,” says Rayner. “Train HR staff and managers to deal with complaints of bullying and establish bullying as an offence which is first-time dismissable -let bullies know they have to clean up their act or they’ll be out. Once the HR department has policies and procedures in place, it can launch an awareness campaign among the workforce.”
In my case, the lack of a firm policy on bullying cost me a potentially rewarding job and my employer a valuable employee who had been recruited and trained at great cost. There’s only been one winner – and that’s the bully.