The school bully is now a boss - and he's even nastier

Job insecurity has left workers vulnerable - and employers are taking advantage. Michael Streeter reports
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The Independent Online
Judy first realised that something was wrong when she turned up in her classroom one day and found her desk and chair had been removed.

It was the start of a disturbing campaign waged against the teacher which ended with hertaking early retirement to escape her tormentor - the headteacher. "If I had not been able to leave then I think I would have cracked up. Deep down I felt frightened."

Judy (not her real name) is one of a growing number of people admitting they have been victims of bullying. A practice long associated with children, bullying is now recognised as a workforce problem which is thought to cost British industry millions of pounds each year in absenteeism and staff turnover.

Last week bullying hit the headlines during the start of an industrial tribunal when a librarian, Susan Sheldrick, recounted how her supervisor, Jean Garlick, had made her life miserable at the British Library's stores in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. Her boss had made her work late even when her mother died, she claimed, told her off for sneezing; timed her lavatory breaks and criticised her for taking less than her full lunchbreaks.

Many experts think such harassment is on the increase and linked closely to the great curse of the modern workplace - job insecurity. Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says: "People's fears over losing their jobs makes a more likely breeding ground for bullying. The growing group are the `situational bullies'. When people are under a lot of pressure themselves through job insecurity. They can express this pressure through bullying. The bullying can then cascade down through the system."

A survey by the MSF union found 30 per cent of members thought bullying was a "significant" problem, with a similar number claiming it had got worse over the past five years.

Judy, a London-based teacher, thinks that money was a consideration in her case. Experienced teachers cost more than newcomers and, now that every school has its own budget and has to be run as though it were a small business, headteachers are tempted to "persuade" older teachers to leave, she says.

Her ordeal began a few terms after joining an inner-city primary school. After the removal of her desk and chair, reading books for her class of eight-year-olds were "sent to the Third World". Later the headteacher logged that she had had a day off sick, even though she had never been absent in her career, and formally reprimanded her for spending too little time in the staff room.

"It was only when I began to put all these incidents together that I realised that there was a pattern, that it was just me she was after. I couldn't sleep properly, my asthma got worse, and one day driving home I had a crash which was my fault simply because I was thinking about the problems at work."

Teachers are among the worst-affected by bullies, as boards of governors and headteachers acquire more power. Jenni Watson, herself involved in a dispute over her job as a deputy head, has helped set up a support group, Redress, for such teachers. She was shocked by the scale of the response tothe organisation. "I had one lady the other day who had been kicked by her deputy headteacher. She is regularly kicked on the leg when she says something he doesn't like."

Chris Ball of the MSF is concerned at the lack of legal redress for victims. At the moment, industrial tribunals can award a maximum of only pounds 11,000 for constructive dismissal if someone is driven to quit a job by a bullying boss.

His union is drafting a Private Member's Bill which would enshrine workers' rights to "dignity at work" and provide legal remedies similar to those for sexual or racial harassment.

Meanwhile, Lyn Witheridge, from Hove, East Sussex, is hoping to take the insurance firm Sun Alliance to court over a nervous breakdown she says she suffered through individual and "corporate" bullying. Although she lost a tribunal hearing for unfair dismissal, she has won the right to appealand hopes to win.

"My health collapsed after what I went through. It was corporate bullying started by a woman manager."

Sun Alliance points to the result of the tribunal and says it has its own team of harassment advisers to help staff.