Corporate bullies make life a misery for workers

A firm hand? Or harassment? It's a thin line, writes Roger Dobson
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A GROWING menace of the Nineties - bullying at work - will be highlighted in a forthcoming legal action in which an executive claims that his health suffered because his life was made impossible by a senior manager who wanted to get rid of him.

The case, the first of its kind in the UK, comes on the eve of a national conference on bullying in the workplace, and amid growing concern that tens of thousands of people suffer.

Some victims report sick, others quit their jobs, while a few take retaliatory action, including an employee who drove a forklift truck at the manager who had tried to get rid of him.

In some cases, corporate bullies are brought in by companies to get rid of people by making their lives impossible without having to pay them redundancy money, the conference in London, organised by The Industrial Society, will be told later this month. Incidents of bullying in the workplace have increased during the recession because companies want to slim down and because employees are reluctant to move.

The executive, Keith - who cannot be identified for legal reasons - left his middle management job with a south coast company and is now setting up his own business. He says he was subjected to impossible harassment. "I was subjected to scorn, insults, swearing and humiliation in front of other staff. When this was not happening, I was isolated for long periods with other members of staff told not to talk to me. At one point I found it physically impossible to walk into the office. I ended up walking straight past the place.

"The problem for the manager was that I was still doing my job well and when I won a major contract, he burst into my office shouting and swearing and saying I was trying to run the business. I left the company and I am now applying for legal aid to take action against them under the health and safety regulations. My case is that they had a duty of care towards me and failed by allowing this corporate bullying to take place."

Andrea Adams, author of Bullying at Work and a leading authority on bullying in the workplace who will be speaking at the conference on 15 September, says: "Despite the fact that the business jargon of the Nineties includes 'investment in people', both bullying of individuals and corporate bullying are increasing.

"What is often perceived as strong management crosses the boundary and becomes bullying once it is established as a source of fear and stress. Bullying is unquestionably bad for business, it creates high sickness absence and absenteeism through the impact on people's mental and physical health and it also undermines the fiscal health of an organisation."

Elaine Bennett, an adviser to the Industrial Society and a specialist in counselling on bullying says: "The bullies are not just men. Some women managers, worried about their own jobs, are like she-tigers out of hell. In a recession where people are worried about their jobs, people want to look good. One way of doing that is to make others look bad. The recession also means that people cannot walk away from jobs."

Three organisations which have tackled bullying at work - the Midland Bank, Littlewoods Home Shopping Group, and the Police Federation - will outline their experiences at the conference. The Midland Bank began to address the issue in 1992, and two years ago Littlewoods introduced a "dignity at work" policy. "By providing workable and practical solutions we are building a climate where bullying is unacceptable," says David Crew, the Midland's equal opportunities manager.