The Gordon Brown bullying row has entertained the media and the public for a few days, but the circus is already packing up and leaving town.
However it is worth taking this opportunity to comment on the wider issues, for workplace bullying is deemed by many HR practitioners, unions and lobbying groups to be a major and growing problem. A recent survey conducted for UNISON, for example, claimed that the incidence of bullying has doubled since 1997 – and no less than a third of respondents said that they had been bullied in the last six months. In my own area, the University and College Union has claimed that bullying in higher education is rife. Nationally it is argued that 19 million days are lost to sickness absence annually through stress caused by bullying.
Strange that this takes place in workplaces which are ever more tightly constrained by employment law and where most large organisations, in both the public and private sectors, have comprehensive policies on respect and dignity at work.
There is no doubt that incidents of bullying can arise in the best-run of organisations: many of us will have been victims of occasional bad or thoughtless behaviour by managers and colleagues. But is it really the case that the modern workplace is increasingly plagued by such behaviour?
Anti-bullying lobbyists often see bullying as being the product of increasing financial pressures in a cut-throat corporate environment. However most evidence seems to suggest that perceived bullying is much more common in the public sector.
ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”. Amen to that: but its practical correlates are very much in the eye of the beholder. Examples are said to include “spreading rumours” (surely a human universal?), “overbearing supervision” (i.e. being told what work to do?), “overloading” competent workers (who judges this?) and “blocking promotion” (have we ever met colleagues who think that their talents are fully recognised?).
Like most managers I have met, I don’t approve of bullying. But vague and subjective definitions can be used – especially amongst the “protected” groups recognised in the new Equality Bill – to foment grievances which are exploited by unionists, lawyers, and HR consultancies like that run by the husband of the unfortunate Ms Christine Pratt.
Fear of ending up in a tribunal case can make many managers hold back in cases where firm and fair performance management would benefit the organisation, and in the long run its employees as well.