City: There's only one way of dealing with the office bully, right?

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Victims of the office bully are finding the law may be on their side. But is litigation the right way to handle the problem, asks Kate Hilpern, or should bullies be tackled on their own turf - in the workplace.

Laura Banks had been in a managerial position within a City bank for two years when it started. Her boss was replaced and so began nine months of hell. She was ridiculed in front of her colleagues, made to rewrite reports several times, denied training, excluded from meetings and expected to answer to the call of "Over here - now". She suffered from sleeping problems and headaches and would get drunk after work simply to unwind. When it affected her relationship with her partner, she'd reached her breaking point and resigned.

In a recent survey, the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) found that one in eight people had been bullied at work in the last five years. Nationally, that's three million people. Although progress has been slow, says Tim Field, founder of the National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and author of Bully in Sight (pounds 12.95, Success Unlimited), during the past few months the law has finally begun to recognise the word "bullying" in industrial tribunal verdicts for unfair dismissal and cases of discrimination and harrassment. And while there's still no law that directly addresses bullying in the workplace, a White Paper on employment rights, which is to be finalised early next year by the Department of Trade and Industry, will aim to do just that. A Private Members Bill, the Dignity At Work Bill might have done so earlier but was shelved by the Conservative government in February. "Nevertheless, I am confident that the White Paper will address the problem of workcase bullying just as well," says Lord Monkswell, who originally introduced the Bill. And if it is finally recognised within the law, says Tim Field, there will undoubtedly be an influx of cases like Lydia's that will end up in court.

But is the courtroom really the appropriate battleground? Pursuing such a case will still be harrowing, costly and time-consuming. And although it would no longer be compulsory to resign or be fired in advance before bringing a case, victims must question what would be added to their already diminishing mental health by continuing to work for someone whom they are taking to court. Not to mention that prospective employers will be few and far between once they see that they are "trouble". Surely, in reality, the ideal place to resolve the problem - preferably by nipping it in the bud - must be the workplace itself.

Jenny Summerfield, an independent business psychologist and co-author of Counselling in the Workplace (pounds 18.95, IPD), believes that the dynamics of personality which cause bullying are best dealt with by the people directly involved. "In most cases, it can be prevented very early on by a non-aggressive but assertive confrontation by the victim. Bullies are, in fact, weak characters and will usually back down when challenged. Sadly, though, I have found men are less likely to confront bullies than women, because bullying either triggers aggression or is a threat to their masculinity, which makes it hard for them to admit they feel victimised."

Which is why, according to Lynn Witheridge of the Andrea Adams Trust, it is often best to get support from occupational health or personnel prior to confrontation. Set up in memory of the journalist who died of cancer in 1995 after spending years uncovering the effects of workplace bullying, the trust was the first charity to exclusively support victims. "From my experience, it is vital that the situation is addressed on a professional level, without emotion," says Lynn. Certainly, experts who advise approaching the perpetrator are divided as to whether the word "bully" should be used, simply because it is so emotive and can, in some cases, be red rag to a... well, bull.

Tim Field believes that any direct challenge whatsoever to the bully will have exactly that effect. "You can never deal with bullying alone because, in my experience, nine out of ten cases involve a manager and subordinate. Questioning your boss can be very dangerous. Not to mention that the purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and if that inadequacy is revealed, it can exacerbate the situation. Additionally, you are usually dealing with someone who doesn't care how his or her behaviour affects others."

One of the major reasons Tim favours legislation is because even third parties in the workplace can be of little use. "You can't approach the boss because he is the bully. And often you can't even approach the personnel department because, in many companies, they are not familiar with the devastating effects of bullying, and therefore fail to offer the support required. While you can approach a counsellor or GP, that will do little to prevent the perpetrator's behaviour."

Helen Cross has good reason to agree. She had worked as marketing manager for a publishing company for two years when discrimination and bullying by her new superior led to her dismissal. "Although the company eventually admitted liability through an out-of-court settlement for unfair dismissal - and although the pressures of work caused me to become ill - I was very disappointed with the level of support from personnel. The company even withheld my P45 and wages following my dismissal, and personnel simply claimed it was 'inappropriate' to give them to me."

Helen had felt that taking legal action was her only chance of justice - and even that was very nsatisfactory, although she got the maximum compensation possible. Her story is not untypical. "There is no legal aid available and the maximum compensation is pounds 11,300. My salary was over pounds 30,000 and now I can't work because of the consequences of stress."

According to Lynn Witheridge, just 5 per cent of major companies in the UK have the kind of specific anti-bullying policies in place that could have prevented Helen's situation. If this figure continues to rise, it is likely that employees will start to feel confident enough to tackle bullying immediately with no further action needed - which is ultimately what Lynn is aiming for. "It is becoming a problem that is too costly for businesses to ignore. Not only is legal action on the up but companies are becoming aware that it causes low morale, high staff turnover and reduces productivity." One reason why bullying isn't taken as seriously as it should be by the companies themselves is that victims tend to keep quiet, failing to recognise it as such.

Experts agree that bullying thrives where it is common behaviour across the management hierarchy. "This is especially the case in highly competitive environments where many individuals consider bullying as the accepted method of motivating staff," says Lynn Witheridge - accounting for one of the reasons that 90 per cent of bullying is estimated to involve professional or office-based employees. Experts agree that a woman's chances of being victimised are greater than a man's because their role has historically been seen as less important, especially in the office environment. Those aged between 20 and 30 are particularly at risk because the Old School Tie type often feel threatened by ambitious and successful young women.

But it is attitudes like this that must be stamped out completely before any anti-bullying strategy has a chance of taking effect. Bullying is not something that can be eradicated by a staff training course. It is a phenomenon that has always existed and is unlikely to go away. The desire to gain power over others is, after all, part of basic human nature, exemplified by the youngest of children. But just as schools are proving, with the right ethos, it can be minimised in order to prevent situations like Laura's and Helen's. Only then, says Lynn Witheridge, will industrial tribunals become perceived as what should surely be their proper place - a last resort.

how to beat bullying

Recognise it is bullying. The problem is with the bully, not with you.

Keep a record of every incident. It's not just individual incidents but a regular pattern of behaviour that will be the best defence.

Ask colleagues if they have the same problem. You'll have a stronger case if you can take joint action.

Decide whether you think confronting the bully will prevent his or her behaviour and act accordingly.

Inform personnel and occupational health. The extent of their support will vary according to the company, but it's worth a try. Ask for a copy of your employer's anti-bullying policy, if it exists.

If you belong to a union, ask if it has an anti-bullying policy.

Consider leaving. It can take years to recover your health and self- esteem after bullying.

If all else fails, think about taking legal action.