Secretarial: Keeping the work bully at bay

New research says that workplace intimidation doesn't just upset the staff - it cuts the boss's profits as well. By Roger Trapp
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TEN YEARS after the problem first came to public attention, everybody is familiar with the way that bullies can ruin workplaces with their behaviour. When people talk about bullying they are usually referring to obviously intimidating acts, such as shouting, threats and physical abuse. But recent research from the United States suggests that much lesser acts can have a significant damaging effect.

None of the incidents at the core of the study carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina's business school involved physical aggression or violence. Indeed, many were relatively mild and might even have been taken as ambiguous. They included accusations about lack of knowledge, undermining credibility in front of others and sending demeaning notes. Yet they often had a serious consequence.

According to the responses of 775 people who had been the subject of incivility at work, 53 per cent lost work time worrying about the incident or future dealings, 46 per cent contemplated changing jobs to avoid the instigator (with 12 per cent actually doing so), 37 per cent believed that their commitment to the organisation declined, 28 per cent lost work time avoiding the instigator, 22 per cent reduced their effort at work and 10 per cent decreased the amount of time they spent at work.

But there were potential "spillover" effects beyond these. Nearly everyone who had been a target of this sort of behaviour described their experiences to others. Most talked with peers at work or family members, half spoke to workplace superiors and friends outside work and about a fifth described what had occurred to subordinates.

Moreover, only a quarter of targets were satisfied with the way the organisation handled things. Consequently, more than a third said that their commitment to their organisations had declined.

According to Christine Pearson, a management professor at the Kenan-Flagler business school, who presented the findings to a recent gathering of business executives, the potential costs of rude, disrespectful encounters deserve attention from management. Leaders need to be aware that this sort of behaviour occurs, and that instigators may operate from positions of power, and with cunning. Prof Pearson thought it was particularly significant that this was not an issue confined to women; targets were divided equally between the sexes.

While some organisations might characterise those who complained of such actions as "thin-skinned" individuals, unsuited to the cut and thrust of the modern workplace, Prof Pearson believes that others will be prompted to introduce codes of conduct. Pointing out that the researchers had not found that the incidents had occurred against particularly turbulent backgrounds that might increase stress among instigators of incivility, Prof Pearson said that the general changes in corporate life could be a factor in the high number of incidents. "There's no question that the individual impact of stress in general is perceived as being higher than before. This whole idea of `mean and lean' has turned inward," she said, adding that the more co-operative environments of the past had been replaced by more competitive atmospheres.

The researchers recommend five key responses to such behaviour. Employers need to:

n Clarify expectations regarding interpersonal dealings and establish explicit codes of conduct.

n Watch closely for patterns of behaviour.

n Document deviant incidents and take account of inappropriate behaviour in evaluations.

n Deny instigators further influence over people.

n Mandate (rather than recommend) counselling, if it is deemed necessary.

More generally, employers are urged to take steps in the "employment life circle" to help minimise such episodes. These include:

n When recruiting and selecting people, checking their references carefully, assuring the fit of individuals with organisational and workplace cultures and considering the people skills that might be required of applicants.

n When inducting or training people, establishing expectations about behaviour, providing training for dealing with such issues as harassment as well as in stress management and conflict resolution.

n At evaluation time, documenting behaviour that does not meet expectations, providing corrective feedback to instigators regardless of their seniority or clout and providing opportunities for input by subordinates or peers.

n Finally, ensuring that a third party is present if an instigator is being fired, and not merely transferring people who should be fired.

How To Have A Happy, And Profitable, Office

IT IS 10 years since freelance journalist and broadcaster Andrea Adams (pictured right) undertook the first research into workplace bullying.

Three years of work on the subject produced two BBC Radio 4 documentaries, a series of ground-breaking articles in The Independent in 1991 and, following tremendous public response, a book on the phenomenon written with Neil Crawford: Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It (Virago, pounds 8.99).

Adams died in 1995, but the Andrea Adams Trust has since been established as the UK's first and only workplace bullying charity. The trust has just launched a consultancy to advise companies on creating a healthy and profitable working environment.

It has also issued a list of key points of advice for people who are being bullied at work:

n Keep a factual log of all incidents.

n Get witnesses to bullying incidents.

n Avoid being alone with a bully.

n Find out if others are being bullied/will support you.

n Does your job description match your responsibilities?

n Inform your manager, union representative or personnel officer.

n Seek advice of representative.

n Learn of options available to you.

n Use company grievance procedures to raise issues.

n Keep copies of all appraisals, letters or memos relating to your job performance.

The first international conference on workplace bullying will take place on Wednesday 1 July at Staffordshire University. For information on the conference, contact Deborah Wilne on 01785 353 702.

The Andrea Adams Trust: 01273 704 901