Time to ban the bullies

Monday 7 November 2005 has been designated ‘Ban Bullying Day’, as a reminder of the evils of workplace bullying. Fittingly, it coincides with the 10th anniversary of the death of Andrea Adams, whose work prompted the formation of the anti-bullying charity founded in her name. If the ubiquity of workplace bullying itself gives little cause for celebration, then the life of a freelance broadcaster who made her mark on HR practice is something to remember.

HR professionals themselves are not immune from bullying or being bullied, as shown by figures from this year’s survey carried out by Personnel Today and the Andrea Adams Trust.

As might be expected, HR professionals try to deal with the problem proactively when on the receiving end. More than half of respondents started looking for another job, 10% made formal complaints and 9% took legal advice. However, only 29% of those bullied said their actions actually resolved the problem, though 42% said they achieved a partial solution.

But why does bullying persist and often get worse? The pressures and intensification of work, long hours and crowded lives mean that we are too often living on the edge.

Organisational change and poor management training are also to blame. Margins between success and failure are often small, and we can all behave badly when tired and frustrated. Whatever the explanation, there is widespread agreement that organisational cultures valuing respect and dignity are important.

Unfortunately, commentary on bullying is not necessarily deep or profound – some borders on punditry and should be treated with caution. Accounts of bullies as ‘evil monsters’, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ characters and even being likened to Osama bin Laden, do little to inform our understanding of how organisations tolerate or nurture them. The real need is for ideas and understanding to build on the organisational theory that makes sense to HR professionals.

Much of today’s research seems a long way from that which Adams did as a broadcast journalist in the late 1980s. She stumbled on a case of a bank in Dorset where the manager was mercilessly bullying staff. Her inquiries highlighted that the problem of bullying at work could be widespread and, with Cathy Drysdale of BBC Radio 4, she presented two programmes on the issue.

Adams was not the first to highlight the issue, however. A cartoon published in 1919, by Lancashire social commentator Sam Fitton, shows a large bird labelled ‘Bully’, with a union official clipping its wings – making it remarkable that bullying only became an issue for unions to campaign around in the 1990s.

Besides the Andrea Adams Trust, there are organisations like Duty of Care, which sells video and CD-Rom training packages, and the much quoted Bully OnLine website – run by Tim Field, a former victim of bullying – provides examples of trauma and links to other sites. There is also a thriving community of counsellors, as well as employee assistance schemes and several books on the subject.

One area of research so far neglected is assessment of the ‘bullying industry’ itself. Who are the people making a living by offering solutions to bullying, and does what they say make sense?

No round up of bullying would be complete without some mention of the law. Weaknesses in individual employment law, and the problems of trying to fit bullying facts to fall within discrimination statutes, prompted attempts to introduce a specific Dignity at Work Act. Although Baroness Gibson and Lord Monkswell separately introduced private members bills in the House of Lords, they did not ultimately succeed.

Legal precedents set this year, however, have signposted other avenues. In the case of Majorwoski v Guys and St Thomas’s NHS Trust, the plaintiff brought a claim against his employer for vicarious liability under the 1997 Protection Against Harassment Act in a classic case of bullying. The Court of Appeal handed down a decision that could provide fertile ground for lawyers and litigants over coming years. Employers, it seems, can be vicariously liable for the civil tort of harassment.

Hence the lines are drawn for HR to act. The damage to organisations caused by bullying makes a powerful business case for intervention as the dangers of litigation draw ever closer. However, the fact that all this appears to be combined with as much (or more) actual bullying is puzzling.

I rather think Adams would have wanted to investigate it all once more, were she still around to do so.

Chris Ball is chairman of the Andrea Adams Trust and an adviser to the Parliamentary All Party Committee on Dignity at Work

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