Is there bullying in your workplace? Here's why

When superiors fire off insults, it is a symptom of instability within the organisation


Bullying at work is a nasty phenomenon that has become more common. Its prevalence is a further aspect of hard economic times. To understand bullying at work, you can listen to the “human resources” experts or read academic papers. But best of all would be to study the incredible mea culpa published by the troubled Care Quality Commission (CQC) a few days ago. Here are some of the things that the Commission’s independent review into bullying within the organisation was told.

“She started the meeting by saying, ‘Do you think this is the right place for you?’. I was completely shocked”. Another staff member told the enquiry: “In the team meeting she shouted at the top of her voice, ‘You never, ever leave anything’.” In a further case, the reviewers heard: “My manager shouted at me, right in my face, in front of the team. After the meeting she apologised. I was off sick for six weeks”.

Here are three more examples. “I did the right thing and decided to discuss it with her. I said, ‘I think that you have been bullying me and I can’t work in this team’. She said, ‘Oh, when are you going then?’ As usual none of this ever gets written up – it’s her word against mine.” In another case: “She emailed all team members, ‘Can you help X plan her diary as she doesn’t seem to be doing enough work’.” Finally there was this one: “In front of the team he suggested I went to the gym or bought a bike so I could lose weight. I was deeply shocked and humiliated.”

While reading these examples, which come from a long list, I suddenly noticed an unexpected feature. A majority of the bosses quoted as handing out reprimands, using sarcastic language and firing off insults at their staff, were women. When men behave in this way, they are derided as being “macho”. But when women do it? In fact this aspect of bullying at work, that it is not a specifically masculine thing, points to a more general explanation: it is a symptom of instability within the organisation.

One researcher argues that the more staff have experienced periods of significant change in which they “lose” colleagues, the greater impact there is upon their morale and their motivation. The Care Quality Commission review quotes Professor Frans Cilliers’s view that bullying often surfaces in organisations during periods of significant change and transformation in which there are high levels of performance anxiety. The bullying behaviour is a manifestation of collective anxiety. And in these circumstances, some weak managers, finding themselves faced with situations for which nothing in their training or experience has prepared them, can find only one response, which to start shouting at their staff.

Now anybody who works for the Care Quality Commission, especially those whose career stretches back to its predecessors, can be forgiven for feeling anxious. Three bodies were brought together into a single organisation in 2008. Or to put it more realistically, three different cultures were forcibly merged. Then came austerity, which meant that vacancies had to be left unfilled. Furthermore, over the last three years the Care Quality Commission has restructured a number of times and has made major changes in its remit and scope of operations.

Now put yourself into the shoes of the staff as all this is done to them. They have lost colleagues as a result of a redundancy. They have been moved from the inspection teams with which they were familiar to new ones organised on different lines. Some have been asked to work from home rather than from the office – nice at first, but isolating in practice.

They have had to register and inspect dentists for the first time. They have found that some of their new colleagues have different qualifications from the usual ones. In addition, they have found themselves working for new managers who have been set different targets than before. Then on top of all this, the organisation itself has been heavily criticised and its top team more or less run out of town to be replaced by new leaders. It is not surprising that some staff have developed a “survivor” mentality and become fearful. So while some claims of being subjected to bullying will be well founded, others will be essentially defence mechanisms. As one manager told the review teams, “It is really difficult to manage poor performers without them taking out a grievance”.

None of the changes described above are bad in themselves. Many organisations have had to lose staff, reorganise themselves, take on new work and bring in new executives. In these days of austerity, all that is relatively normal. But during such testing times, what counts above all is, naturally, leadership.

In his book The Leader’s Code, Donovan Campbell writes something surprising coming from a former captain in the US Marine Corps who served in Iraq. He observes that the best and most effective leaders are those who practice kindness regularly and intentionally. Over time they produce the best and most effective teams. Properly used, it does not appear weak, undisciplined or unfair. I add that if that works under fire in Iraq, it would certainly be effective in the average British organisation that finds itself in a period of turmoil. There wouldn’t be any complaints of bullying.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?