Tuesday, January 05, 2010

How do we tackle bullying at work?

No real shock in the news that workplace bullying is on the increase in a recession.

In our public services management by pressure leads to a deterioration of interpersonal relationships, particuarly up and down management lines, and managers who were not at the front of the queue to get "people skills" can all to easily manage staff in a way that staff experience as bullying.

The constant assaults upon public sector workers in the media (and by our enemies such as the CBI) help to legitimise such bullying conduct (often from managers imported to public services from the private sector or working as consultants). There is a wrong headed perception that public service workers are feather-bedded and don't work hard enough.

There is however an unhelpful lack of clarity around bullying. A necessary victim-centred approach can lead to a conflict of perceptions. Staff can see bullying where more senior managers see only robust management. These differences in perception have their origin in the different interests of managers and staff.

In a recession, with public spending cuts to come, managers will face pressures to get rid of staff as cheaply as possible. Watch out for attempts to renegotiate sickness and capability procedures as cut price alternatives to redundancies (and for a less tolerant approach to disciplinary matters). Bullying is one, fairly extreme but not uncommon, response to these pressures. The problem is not with individuals but with an economic system based upon competition.

Workers who want to tackle the culture of bullying need to understand that individual complaints can, at best, only treat the symptom in one case. Somehow we need to rebuild trade union density and collectivism so that progressive peer pressure can be brought to bear to regulate conduct in the workplace.

Union activists must avoid being submerged by individual casework if we are ever to reverse the tide of workplace bullying.

1 comment:

tonyb said...

I think that you have hit on a good point that the constant denigration of public sector workers is picked up not just by managers but by rank and file workers as well. People absorb the message and believe that they are featherbedded: or at least other public sector workers are featherbedded. I think managers are often cross that they cannot just issue dictat in the same way that some private company managers can.

Having said that we should be proud of the rights that have been built up in the public sector over the years in terms of confronting bullying. BTW there is often a twist of racist, sexism, homophobia to a lot of workplace bullying along with a lot of hostility to people facing disability especially around mental health. The fight should be to confront these things whatever the status of the employer including the voluntary sector where there is a lot of guilt tripping used to get people to bow down before managers.

Unfortunately I think that bullying will become a deliberate tactic in a lot of places where managers wish to target particular individuals or teams with a view to driving out those they do not like or do not see as useful for whatever purpose that they have in mind.