Saturday, February 09, 2008

Workplace bullying: just say no

Workplace bullying is at epidemic levels and has been for years. In a situation where you have unequal financial relationships it's bound to spill over into power dynamics. Bullying in the workplace ranges from the minor disempowerments of everyday life to full on dangerous practices or assaults.

Workers who suffer bullying, of whatever form, often suffer from ill health, stress related conditions and can even become suicidal. Under UK law stress has to be dealt with in the same way as any other work place hazard and it is the responsibility of the employer to address its causes.

However, just because it's the law doesn't mean the hundreds of thousands of employers in this country treat the subject with any seriousness. If employees don't know their rights or don't have the weight to back up grievances those legal protections may as well not exist.

I think it's possible to make a "functional" case for bullying - in the sense that bullying may perform a function in an organisation where a strict hierarchy has to be maintained. If those on the bottom of the ladder don't know their place they may start trying to make decisions and that would never do. I think that there is an element of this - but I'd argue that bullying is essentially a by-product of the way we organise work under our current economic system.

In a system where we place individuals in a position of power over others without democratic accountability or transparent process there is bound to be scope for those in a position of power to take out their frustrations and inadequacies on their subordinates, even where this cuts against the interests of the organisation. It's also important to note that, whilst the majority of bullying seems to be downward from managers to the shop floor, there is a large amount of bullying among co-workers that goes unaddressed.

Sexual harassment, racism, homophobia and just plain brutish idiocy make the daily lives of many workers in this country a bloody pain in the bum. Whilst there's little that can done about the way some people simply like to throw their weight around we can and should act to defend working people from harassment no matter what its source.

Socialists do not tolerate workplace bullying and, where we can, we should organise against it. Unfortunately it's a constant battle and one that cannot be won through simple force of argument and professionalism.

An example. When I was a UNISON steward in the NHS a few years ago I worked in a unit that had developed a real culture of bullying over a period of years. Whilst the two tiers of management we had direct contact with were, partially, responsible for this it was one worker in particular who was making life a misery.

Whilst the managers might have been lazy, unprofessional and demotivated they were not the ones who were flying into rages, making inappropriate sexual advances or muttering continuous, tedious sniping remarks, and spreading unfounded gossip.

Now I'm sure most people reading this would think "here's a job for the union". Your instincts are right and noble - but there was a difficulty. The branch secretary was married to a top manager and, as far as I'm aware, there has never been an instance of him opposing management on any substantive issue and when I approached him for advise he blankly refused to act. Why? Because the culprit in question was a member of the union.

This was an outrageous position. The idea that you don't protect workers when the bully is a union member turns union membership into something more akin to being a made man in the mafia. So we had an unofficial meeting and determined that we'd have to wage a guerilla campaign and from that day on the unit would have a "zero tolerance" attitude to bullying.

We informed the individual concerned and management of this fact and man, the reaction was instant. We'd hoped that management might take this as an opportunity to turn the unit around and sort out the problems that had clearly been effecting our efficiency and morale. No. It was made very clear that bullying was far less of a problem that complaining about bullying - no matter how systematic.

We found ourselves in the position where we'd committed to defending each other from vicitimisation but had incensed the opposition. What made it more difficult is that often this particular worker would be on shift with just one other person - making them isolated and vulnerable. Two women workers left within two weeks, no longer able to cope with being on shift with this creep.

We had another meeting where we began to understand that there was no way on our own we had the leverage to get this guy out - and we were all marked men and women. There could be no victory in our single unit alone - so we spread the word, as hard and fast as we could, and had over a hundred workers from other units sign an open letter to management demanding action.

Management called the union in to try to settle the dispute in their favour - but we couldn't have any of that, the union was in their pocket. We sent them away and said "we've given you our grievances, we've written you letters, we've made our complaints clear we want action". The bully was moved and it was put on his record that he was never to work alone with just one other worker again.

There was also, a couple of months later, a whole series of "bullying workshops" that every member of our trust had to attend. These were day long courses that were aimed at raising awareness of bullying, clarifying for us the procedure for complaining to management and setting up a non-union anti-bullying group who could be called in to lend a sympathetic ear should you need one.

There were two key problems with this. Firstly *we* were clear about the procedure for complaints - it was management that would refuse to act on them. Secondly the anti-bullying was staffed by volunteers, the extraordinary thing was it read like a list of the worst offenders in the trust who'd put themselves forward. The burglars were putting themselves in charge of the Neighbourhood Watch making the body worse than useless.

I can't tell you that it all worked out well in the end. The ring leaders were victimised, the bully's behavior left unaddressed and management continued in their war mentality against any staff member that raised work problems with them. What was clear was that if we hadn't organised, if we hadn't stood up and said we deserve better than this we'd have got nothing, not even our self respect.

The worst employers to work for are charities, unions and political parties where it is assumed that you have a vocation to work there, so you'll put up with far worse conditions than you would with another employer. Some people in powerful positions rely on the fact that staff are less likely to take action against them because staff generally believe in the work they are supposed to be doing. You're less likely to kick up a fuss, let alone take legal action, and some organisers allow that to give themselves leave to behave abominably.

Personally I've worked for a charity and I never will again - and I was once offered a full time position in a political party and you know I turned that down before they'd even finished speaking. You'd have to be a sucker to take that bait.

To fight bullying you have to have leverage. The more leverage you have the better able you are to defend yourself. A corrupt union is worse than no union at all - but a good one is your best defense. Your workmates are the best weapon you have. Solidarity is the key.

Handy link: A guide to Organising at work


Jim Jay said...

I should just make it clear my current employers are lovely!

ABC-AntiBullyingCrusador said...

Great article! My name is ABC for short, it stands for AntiBullyingCrusador. I live in the United States where most people haven't even heard the terms "work place bullying mobbing". Most everything I know about the phenomenon, I learned from websites in the United Kingdom. Stop by by website sometime:

I'll definitely stop by here again to read more. Thanks, ABC

Jim Jay said...

Thanks ABC - interesting website - I'm glad to see your own work situation seems to have improved.

ad said...

There is one other source of leverage: The easier it is to walk away from the employer, the less power anyone there has over you.

Jim Jay said...

Totally agree ad.

Factors like whether there is high unemployment or whether you, personally, are in demand make a big difference to people's willingness to take rubbish from people

weggis said...

Jim Jay said: “The worst employers to work for are charities, unions and political parties where it is assumed that you have a vocation to work there,…”

What evidence, apart from your own limited personal experience, do you have for this bold sweeping statement?

I retired in 1996. Since then I have “worked” expenses only voluntary for a small children’s charity by the name of Afasic, one day per week. Philip Booth also has connections here.

Not that I have complaints about “bullying” prior to that, but it has been a breath of fresh air in attitude and the way things are managed. I have not observed any difference in the way voluntary workers are treated as opposed to paid staff. The fact that I am still there after over 10 years is testament.

“Bullying” is a personal perception. It can crop up anywhere, anytime, or not. The label is not always justified.

Jim Jay said...

I didn't say every charity had a problem with bullying, there are some good workplaces. Where I work now has a good culture for instance.

BUT I wasn't basing the statement purely on my own (not that limitted) experience - but on the experience of the many union organisers, charity workers and party workers that I have had connection with down the years - particularly in connection with their workplaces.

Among people who organise workers its well known that these three often have the worst level of offending over bullying, conditions and wages. They can also be next to impossible to unionise properly.

Dixx said...

Good article. A sound summary of the universal problem. The course of Justice is perverted in the name of perpetuating the "problem". Bullying is therefore a common tool, not the rarity it is made out to be. Employers supported by the union.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

Bullying of Academics in Higher Education - The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public. Despite the anti-bullying policies (often token), bullying is rife across campuses, and the victims (targets) often pay a heavy price. "Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence." Leonardo da Vinci - "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing." Winston Churchill.

John Carnell said...

Complaining about bullying is often seen as a real problem, particularly in schools where it seems that it's easier to 'deal' with the victim by keeping them in at break rather than keeping the bully indoors!

John Carnell
Bullying UK