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Workplace bully – malicious or misunderstood?

I was recently asked onto BBC Berkshire radio to discuss the latest report published by ACAS on bullying in UK workplaces. It’s a very good report drawing together outputs from various studies and surveys carried out in the last few years as well as using data from calls to ACAS’s helpline.

Prior to going on the radio I reflected on the many cases I have mediated and considered what part bullying played in them. My conclusion was that even if the actual term ‘bullying’ was not used, the behaviours that participants described as causing the conflict came under ACAS’s own definition of bullying, which is:

“Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

The problem is that the term ‘bully’ has become a label which people all too readily apply to someone when they do something they don’t like. In mediation we look beneath the label and explore what has happened, what behaviours have been shown and how they have impacted on those involved. From there we focus on how people can work differently in the future to avoid the negative consequences of previous behaviour.

So what has come up in my experience? Whilst every case is different, I think those with the ‘bully’ label placed on them could probably be put in one of four categories. This is unscientific and purely based on my experience but hopefully it will prompt some reflection and debate.

Victim Vic

Victim Vic is someone who has been accused of bullying but it emerges that there is very little the accuser can produce to back up their argument. Victim Vic has taken some action which has caused a problem for the accuser who has then responded with a bullying accusation.

I had a situation where a manager had been obliged under their professional duty to report a situation involving their employee. Had they not reported it they could have been disciplined. The employee refused to accept this, claiming the manager could and should have taken an informal approach and that the behaviour was vindictive and race related. In fact, if there was any bullying there was a stronger case for the manager being bullied by the employee.

Annoying Anne

Annoying Anne’s accuser says her behaviour fits the bullying definition. She is saying and doing things which could be interpreted as bullying but when we get beneath the surface we identify a clash of personalities, misunderstandings and miscommunication. Annoying Anne is very different to her accuser and is probably unaware that her behaviour is impacting her accuser in that way and is upset when she hears how the other person feels.

In one of my mediations, a team member accused another team member of bullying him for over 2 years. He produced a list of many minor incidents which he claimed together added up to bullying. It was a reasonable argument but when we explored it in mediation the other person was shocked her behaviour had been taken that way and made it clear it was not intentional. They had very different personalities and work styles and had failed to communicate when the relationship started to deteriorate. In another case a new manager accused an experienced team member of trying to undermine him. She had been trying to help him but recognised the way she did it (in front of the rest of the team) could be seen as undermining.

Blundering Beth

Blundering Beth has shown behaviour that fits the bullying definition. In fact there is not much argument about it – perhaps a formal process has shown Blundering Beth’s behaviour to be inappropriate or Blundering Beth herself admits that the behaviour was wrong. What is important though is that Blundering Beth did not mean it maliciously. It was wrong, that was clear, but she may have been incompetent, or following what she believed the culture of the organisation to be.

I saw a recently appointed manager in a sales environment who had been through a disciplinary having used intimidating behaviour to one of his team. He understood after the process that the behaviour was wrong but argued that he had only been behaving as his manager had treated him. He had received no management training and basically didn’t know any better. He hadn’t meant it maliciously – it was ‘just how we do it round here’.

Malicious Mike

Malicious Mike intentionally sets out to denigrate another employee for his own benefit. His behaviour may be well hidden but is harmful to the person he targets. It may be a personal dislike or professional competition – the reason doesn’t matter. The behaviour is unacceptable in the workplace.

I can only think of one Malicious Mike in the cases I have worked on. The individual seemed to have no regard for those he worked with – I’m no psychologist but he did seem to fit some of the behaviours described as sociopathic. He had been through major trauma and despite colleagues efforts to try to accommodate him he saw no reason to change his behaviour and blamed everyone else. Whilst we seemed to make some progress in the mediation, some weeks later he ‘flipped’ resulting in dismissal. What is my conclusion? Bullying occurs in the workplace and its impact is damaging to those against whom it is targeted and also for the business as a whole. Yet when the ‘b’ word is mentioned it can sometimes lead to a kneejerk reaction. We assume there can’t be smoke without fire and somebody’s reputation can then be tarnished. We rely too heavily on formal processes but they are not the best option when dealing with relationship issues, where the situation is not black and white. As the ACAS report concludes, we do need to change and debate is needed. From my point of view, wherever we head in the future on this subject, an increased understanding and usage of mediation can only be beneficial when dealing with workplace bullying.


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