Off message: Bullying at work

The news that Ban Bullying at Work Day is to be cancelled is a real kick in the teeth for those who have fought against the scourge of the workplace tyrant and the blatant abuse of those in unelevated positions who fear reprisals if they so much as wince, let alone actually make a complaint when they feel the cold, hard steel toecap of blind stupidity crunching into their bones asking them to do more for less.

And in these credit-crunched times – in which fewer workers are expected to do more work for less reward – you can bet that bullyboy employers up and down the land will be celebrating the news by invoking some age old tradition of picking on the least able to fight back and dunking them in a wheelie bin of paint and excrement.

Except, of course, they won’t. Because the very worst offenders will never even have heard of Ban Bullying at Work Day, because they do not concern themselves with the finer art of people management, preferring to focus on the simple business process of paying someone to do something, and if they don’t do it – and more often than not even if they do do it – subjecting them to some pecuniary pain or physical punishment designed to make sure they know who’s in charge.

Victorian values

Now, you might be thinking this all sounds a tad Victorian, that working practices have moved on apace since the days of the workhouse. But have they?

Sadly not. But not because there aren’t many out there trying to make a difference – not least the currently frowned-upon Labour government, which has done more for workers’ rights in the past 12 years through the introduction of a seemingly never-ending stream of employment legislation than had happened for decades previously.

The sheer volume of these new laws – flexible working rights, maternity rights, the minimum wage, increased time off, anti-discrimination legislation, and so on – has led many employers to bemoan the increased red tape and what they see as over-regulation.

As Personnel Today’s deputy editor wrote recently (27 March, Editors’ Blog,, the fact that organisations such as the TUC, Royal Mail, or in fact any major government department or private sector giant are unwilling to fund Ban Bullying at Work Day is, indeed, a “sad state of affairs”.

But is it really a surprise that such organisations have lost the stomach for the fight?

Big hitters

Could it be that the big hitters of the business world have been cowed into a small ball of fear by the clearly unencumbered-by-a-sense-of-fair-play bullies of this world? Could the nation’s big hitters really be too focused on ‘ensuring shareholder/stakeholder value’ – that is, making or not spending money – to pay any attention to something as trivial as harassment in the workplace?

Or could it be the subconcious desire to believe that getting heavy with the workforce is the only way – that the big hitters are only known as such on account of their happy-go-lucky use of the iron fist in matters of corporate governance?

Far from being a glancing blow to the forehead of workplace justice, the reluctance to fund Ban Bullying at Work Day is simply the tacit acceptance that without bullying the economy would grind to a halt.

Tough love

So where does this penchant for ‘tough love’ come from? Why do weak managers seek solace in taking it out on the smallest kid on the block?

In their book Work in the 21st Century, Frank Landy and Jeff Conte characterise the victim of bullying as being “in an inferior position”, and say that the harassment, or being made to do “humiliating tasks”, must occur “repeatedly” over a long period of time (at least two months).

Surely that is just a description of day-to-day existence for the majority of those employed in any service industry – from cleaners to call-centre operatives?

The definition of bullying used by conciliation service Acas is even clearer: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

That could be a mission statement for how unions try to persuade big companies to change their ways once they’ve thrown their toys out of the pram because they haven’t achieved their ridiculous pay demands, and serves as proof that bullying can be an organisational as well as an individual problem.

And the fact that this description is also a textbook definition of how many people imagine the world’s military organisations function on a day-to-day basis goes some way to explaining why beating up on your own staff is such a difficult habit to kick.

Higher power

The notion of being subservient to a higher power is nothing new, however – ‘God’ has a lot to answer for, really – and working for the Ministry of War (to give it its accurate name) is not a prerequisite for those seeking ritual humiliation on a grand scale. For the whole idea of work is based on one person doing another’s bidding for some kind of financial reward- as opposed to some reward in the afterlife.

But it will also mean ‘doing as you are told’, clocking in (either physically or just in the mind of the time-keeper bully who seems to exist in all organisations and cannot get their head around the idea that it’s more important to get things done rather than be seen to turn up at a set time each day, however unnecessary that might be), have meals at set times, use certain suppliers, specific stationery, hold specific beliefs (buy-in to the corporate ‘vision’) and so on.

And while this basic model of how work works remains, bullying will be going nowhere – and anyone who says differently is likely to have their teeth kicked in.

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