Restraining the Workplace Bully

Workplace bullying is not to be taken lightly. For the victim it can be traumatising. It is a symptom of poor management and badly-functioning teamwork, and now, at last, it is not only contemptible but also illegal

Recently a young IT programmer in New York City took his own life after being vilely tormented at work. During his persecution, human faeces had been placed on his chair, smeared on his face and on his bicycle

There is nothing new about being the victim of a stone-headed bullyboy or girl at work. Sadly, it isn’t rare to experience that sickening feeling of panic that turns the stomach inside out and makes the victim hesitate to step outside his door. According to researchers, it now happens to one in five of us sometime in our career. A study due to be published early next year will suggest that victims sometimes suffer the same psychological symptoms as adults who have been traumatised by a train crash, witnessed a murder or who have suffered ‘combat shock’.

Dr Tony Williams, a chartered psychologist who works for a number of academic bodies in the UK and US founded a company that helps organisations to stop bullying, and is at the forefront of research that links workplace harassment to Post-traumatic Stress disorder or PTSD.

In a study of 175 members of the ‘new’ professions, including IT, Dr Williams discovered that 37 per cent of the men and 41 per cent of the women reported having experienced bullying or harassment at work.

By any account, it is a shocking report. A worse shock is the news that British ICT workers are more at risk of being attacked and harassed at work than their counterparts in many other European countries.

‘Onlookers often underestimate the rollercoaster of emotions people who are being bullied have to grapple with. Even the most successful businessmen, the toughest negotiators can lose their objectivity,’ says Williams.

” It’s a bit like divorce
– it will dominate your life for a long time “

‘Bullying in the workplace is the same as any psychological abuse and once it’s over matters take longer to resolve than you might at first think, particularly if you are at loggerheads with your empoyers at how the bully has been dealt with. It’s a bit like divorce – it will dominate your life for a long time to come and everything else will come second.

‘The results in the latest study are really striking,’ Williams tells me. ‘About 25 per cent of those surveyed throughout the IT industry study reported the three main symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.’

There are the three classic signs, he explains,

  • Hyperarousal, characterised by a feeling of constant anxiety and over-vigilance;
  • avoidance of anything to do with the traumatising event;
  • re-experiencing, in which subjects suffer flashbacks or obsessive thoughts concerning the trauma

‘In some cases,’ Williams adds, ‘it appeared that victims of bullying had worse cases of PTSD than those traumatised by accidents, because the experience they had suffered was directed at them intentionally.’

He accepts that his research will be controversial. Bullying, after all, is not recognised as a cause of PTSD in the textbook ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’, often used by psychiatrists and psychologists.

He is keen, nonetheless, that workplace bullying should be recognised as a potential source of clinical illness.

‘I’ve spoken to people who didn’t know they were becoming ill, and by the time they realised they were ill, it was too late for them to handle it alone. These people need the treatment we give to trauma victims.’

Williams says financial institutions and IT departments are often cited as having the darkest atmosphere because of the high-pressure. Businesses can be blighted by a macho culture where psychical and mental abuse is common and sexual harassment rife.

Bullying in the Workplace

Are our desk-bound ‘techies’ in our own IT industry really suffering the same sort of stress, brain-deadening anxiety and discomfort as soldiers who are fighting on the front-line in say Afghanistan or Iraq?

A recent study carried out by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) suggests that this could well be the case. The University found that out of 5,300 employees in more than 70 organisations, one in ten said they had been victims of workplace bullying in the past six months. All display symptoms similar to PTSD.

Even in milder cases, UMIST researchers say that the psychological stress caused may show itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, backache and digestion trouble.

But when exactly does gentle mocking, harmless banter, and playful teasing become full-blown harassment? After all, for the main part, one empire builder’s sense of fun can be another’s tribulation.

Charlotte Lovelace, a former professor of human resources management at the Harvard Business School, says that, in her view, ‘any action, from shouting and door-slamming to forcing an employee to do a repetitive, meaningless task, can qualify as bullying’.

” Bullying can be subtle,
but it’s always nasty and persistent “

‘Bullying can be subtle, but it’s always nasty and persistent – we usually say it has to last for six months to qualify as such but it is always an undermining and upsetting act. It is enough to get you crying or wishing not to go into work then that’s my definition of harassment.’

Dr Andreas Liefooghe, an organisational psychologist at Birkbeck College in London, draws a distinction between milder cases – unpleasant but less of a health risk – and ‘clinical bullying’.

Tackling clinical cases, he says, is a health necessity, but it’s difficult: direct confrontation is rarely the answer. The key, he argues, is that victims have forgotten that they have options and can hit back.

‘Victims of severe bullying tend to become obsessed with their tormentors, and find it hard to break free. They need to remind themselves that they don’t have to put up with what’s happening. ‘

In the meantime, Liefhooghe advises, victims should seek support. ‘It takes resilience to admit to being bullied at work. Telling someone, and being believed, is the vital first step.’

The Incompetent Manager

Many complaints of harassment are due to the disastrously poor calibre of management in many industries. It is now regarded as a classic sign of institutional management failings.

‘We see an awful lot more cases of harassment than are actually taken to court, mostly because civil law remedies are time-consuming and expensive, and employment tribunals lack a coherent code of law that can give victims a remedy (beyond resigning). Most of the time these cases have at their heart incompetent management,’ Dorothy Hendesron a partner at Travers Smith, a long-established law firm tells me.

Simon Levine-West, another lawyer who specialises in employment law and has worked for a giant IT firm or two has launched a voluntary campaign against workplace bullying called. ‘Ban Bullying in the Workplace’.

The double-barrelled former army officer says the time has come for victims, and employers too, to stop messing around with the civil law and instead make use of the remedies provided by the criminal law. In short, if you are being bullied at work, call the cops. According to Levine-West, it’s not as mad as you might think.

‘Office politics has become more central to our lives than ever which generally means that workers have become loathe to drop their colleagues in the mess. They’ve also been slow to twig their rights. The young man who committed suicide in New York City might still be alive if he had dialled 911. And those who abused him might have been heavily fined or even imprisoned for their conduct’ he argues.

‘I think that the sight of a few idiots facing the possibility of being hauled off to gaol would have a salutary effect on other workplace bullies and could contribute to a long overdue improvement of the atmosphere in thousands of companies.’

Even the City bully-boys might just think twice after they had seen a colleague helping with the police with their inquiries.

‘I’ve heard of people being singled out for bullying if they stop for lunch. It’s a commonplace problem they dodge at business school. They teach graduates stuff about boosting the firm’s bottom line but they don’t give them much direct advice about what to do when someone sits on your face or constantly nicks your food.’

‘The office dilemmas that matter to ordinary mortals, you see, don’t have simple management guru answers. There’s no flow chart for dealing with a colleague who hates you.’

‘This is where my new campaign comes in. You have to be direct. And if you’re being harassed or bullied then that’s a crime. So call in the cops because the criminal law both in the UK and US provides a surprising number of remedies to restrain the workplace bully.’

How can one fight back?

Help is at hand for workers in the UK, Levine-West suggests, in the Prevention of Harassment Act. It was a measure brought forward by Tony Blair in 1997 when he was at the height of his popularity. Section 264 Criminal Code of Canada or various State laws in the US cover the same ground.

” It’s a good
slap in the face “

The good lawyer emphasises that his new campaign aims to dispense water-cooler wisdom, not motivational gobble-gook.

‘If an employer will not listen to his workers, or internal disciplinary procedures do not work, then get the cops involved. If you can get a conviction the court will also make a restraining order to protect the victim from further conduct that amounts to either harassment or causing fear of violence. In an appropriate case, the order can be indefinite. It’s a good slap in the face.’

The most frequent cause of harassment, he says is the misuse of email. Evidence is easy to come by.

‘A lot of people don’t realise that, since the Sarbanes-Oxley of 2002 and other regulations, all publicly traded companies are required to archive all email messages. Employers in the private sector also have complete authority to scrutinize every word, provided the have established a policy and put it in writing. ‘

‘There are ways round this through Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo, because they operate through a standard web browser but some companies can monitor all web traffic.’

But is the strategy of employing the criminal law as legal barbed wire the ideal way to tackle bullies at work ? Almost certainly not, but campaigners argue that a courtroom is sometimes a safer haven than the boardroom and that the voluntary approach will take time to produce results and, meanwhile, the problem persists.

Legal redress

Dr Tony Williams, the psychologist we first met at the beginning of this article, warns that, like their American counterparts, UK companies are potentially open to an avalanche of legal action following recent rulings that allow the bullied and harassed to sue companies for negligence.

‘When I did the analysis into my report, I was surprised by the UK’s poor performance, particularly when you consider how very costly these cases can be for companies in terms of both hard cash and reputation. I was also surprised at the sheer number of people who claim to have suffered bullying at work’ said Williams.

What then, in Williams’ view, are the chief reasons for the explosion in bullying and harassment?

As part of his extensive report he will suggest that increased pressure on workers in a more competitive, ‘globalised’ economy, and high levels of violence in wider society, as possible root causes.

The study also highlights the finding of several previous studies that have found that women, the disabled and ethnic minorities are most likely to be bullied and harassed at work and that public sector workers are more likely to experience bullying than those in the private sector.

Addressing the Culture of Work

Sally Humpage from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said companies, in whatever part of the world that they are based, must address their whole culture as part of an anti-harassment strategy.

A policy would have little effect if the internal culture were coercive.

‘It’s extremely difficult to change a bullying culture in a company,’ she says. ‘It requires time, zero tolerance, clear policies, good communication and training.’

‘Our own research has found that only 30% of companies rate their managers able to deal with the issue, but that only 37% provide the necessary training. This is critical. You can’t expect managers to deal with it if you don’t give them the skills.’

Humpage also says that firms should make clear what kind of behaviour they expected from staff the moment a new employee crossed their threshold.

‘The process of has to begin right at the start of someone’s career. Sometimes bullying can be related to the changes in work practice and that can be confused with people being uncomfortable with change.’

‘Bullying in small offices tends to be a bigger problem than at larger firms because people share a more intimate place. But we have identified a few contributing factors to perceptions of bullying.’

‘They include the extent to which staff were involved in change and the way that change is managed. I think getting change right is one of the greatest protective factors when it comes to staff feeling bullied or harassed at work. We have to be careful with reading too much into statistics.’

The last few words of this article fall to Simon Levine-West.

‘The upshot is that many firms are committed to stamping out bullying but few comply the law as they should. Until all companies begin treating bullying and harassment with a greater degree of seriousness, we must expect the bullied like the young programmer in New York City to resort to desperate measures.’

‘The only question is: how many more incidents of this nature will it take before companies learn the simple lesson that looking after their employees means a happier workforce and a more productive one?’