The problem of bullying

According to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (‘Bully Online‘), 20 per cent of calls an enquiries they receive about bullying are from higher education. The same website also draws attention to a survey which found that 40 per cent of academics believe they have been the victims of bullying. A more recent survey had even more dramatic results, with half of the nearly 10,000 respondents (all academics) reporting that they had been ‘subjected to some form of bullying or personal harassment during their career’.

Findings of this kind are not new, and moreover there is no evidence that anything is getting better, despite the growth of anti-bullying (or workplace dignity) policies that have been put in place in many institutions. There is reason to believe also that findings in Ireland would be similar.

So what is it that makes university workplaces apparently so prone to bullying behaviour? Part of it is, I think, connected with the rather robust culture of academic discourse, in which sharp exchanges are the norm. It is notable that a majority of those who say they have been bullied state that this is by another member of staff, rather than a person to whom they report or who is in some sort of position of authority over them. This kind of ‘robust’ behaviour is also now common on email and other online communications, where the harshness of what is said often appears even more aggressive than it does when said face to face.

There are some important lessons to be drawn. First, bullying is unacceptable. Academics have no less an entitlement to respect and courtesy than do people in other professions. Secondly, people working in universities should consider carefully how they communicate with others, particularly when they disagree with them, and should ask themselves whether they use hurtful or insulting language unnecessarily; this does not mean that people need to compromise on their professional opinions or views, just that they need to express themselves in a way that avoids aggression. And thirdly, we need to look at whether anti-bullying or related policies are really doing the job they are supposed to do, and indeed whether they might themselves occasionally (though probably rarely) become weapons in the hands of bullies.

DCU is currently working on a new policy with new procedural aspects, and I hope that this will make a positive contribution to creating a better and more supportive atmosphere in which people can work with confidence.

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6 Comments on “The problem of bullying”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    I represented many union members who had experienced bullying (quite apart from my own experiences in this regard). One thing that occurs to me when reading this post is that by no means are all bullies located among academic staff (though of course many are). The two ‘class action’-type cases I was involved in both accused senior administrative managers of bullying, and there were two other non-academic departments in which bullying was known to be rife – and, in relation to one of those departments, the university HR manager commented that this ‘robust’ management style should be expected in a sales-focused department.

    Interestingly, in only one case was action taken against an alleged bully as a result of complaints, even though in the other case we had more complainants and significantly more evidence. Anecdotal evidence it may be, but the manager involved in the ‘negotiated departure’ was female and the manager absolved of all charges was male.

    In academic departments, it’s my experience through my union work both at my own university and nationally that there’s a culture of silence. Those experiencing bullying may get moral support from some colleagues, but that support will mysteriously evaporate if there’s any suggestion of a complaint. Some members I knew, and some I represented, told me that they had actually been told by colleagues that if they took their complaint outside the department they would be out in the cold and people would deny everything. In my own experience, it was varyingly expressed to me that I’d be ‘finished’ if I tried to complain, that I had no support anywhere either within my department or in the union’s hierarchy, and some colleagues who had even witnessed particular examples told me explicitly ‘I never saw any bullying’. These are not isolated examples, judging by academics (male and female) I spoke to in my time in the British university system.

    The biggest deterrent to making a complaint is the belief that nothing effective will be done and complaining will do more harm than good. This belief exists for a variety of reasons:

    – the bully is usually more senior, even if he/she is not in a managerial capacity, so there’s a power imbalance and the bully will take advantage of that
    – whatever kind of anti-bullying policies are in place, it’s impossible to offer a complaints mechanism that guarantees confidentiality, and people do not want to face their bully or have him/her know that they made a complaint
    – evidence does demonstrate that effective action being taken against a bully is rare
    – the effect on the academic’s reputation if a complaint is made; if the bully is an established academic, s/he frequently has a good network and can easily trash the reputation of someone who dares to complain

    I could go on, but that’s more than enough. Suffice to add that I am aware of many ex-university employees, myself included, whose decision to leave the sector for a career-change, or to take early retirement, was at least in part influenced by bullying – and whose health was damaged, sometimes severely, as a result. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know we haven’t found it yet.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I would second Wendy’s comments. I’ve also experienced bullying, and it was from senior (academic and administrative) colleagues, and it was absolutely NOT a case of over-emphasised robust academic exchange. It took a while for another job elsewhere to appear so that I could leave. Those intervening years were not good, and I still worry about friends and colleagues who I left behind in that environment. In the current climate, leaving for another job won’t be an option for academics: I get a cold shiver when I realise how close I came to being ‘stuck’ myself. That situation will exacerbate the problem for those who now can’t leave.

    But oh boy was it lovely to move to my current, non-bullying environment! It’s only when you’re out of it that you fully realise the extent to which it dominates your life, in work and out of it.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    It’s only when you’re out of it that you fully realise the extent to which it dominates your life, in work and out of it.

    Oh, yes. I can’t echo that strongly enough – or the relief of discovering that other people actually do think you’re competent, effective and worthy of notice. The number of people I’ve known, academic and non-academic, who have been reduced to believing they are useless – as one of the effects of bullying is to destroy self-esteem – is appalling, and it’s a sad reflection on academic environments that this happens.

  4. Kelly Says:

    I have reflected on the general issue of bullying/harrassment in universities a great deal. I think there are several crucial issues: the style of leadership of individual departments, the policies that are in place to deal with bullying/harrassment, and the training of all staff in how to deal appropriately with issues of bullying and harrassment (oh, and the effectiveness and support of HR departments). University staff often seem to have their heads in the sand over this issue and would rather not recognize that it does happen. There needs to be open, honest discussions with all staff over the development of ‘dignity at work’ type policies, really good and effective training, and leaders who will deal quickly, appropriately and sympathetically with any complaints.

    Actually I know policies are a just a piece of paper to a certain extent, but in my experience it can be hugely helpful to have a statement that people can point to that basically says ‘this type of behaviour is unacceptable’.

  5. J Says:

    I am a mature student being bullied by course technicians and now the tutor also, what can I do, they have slurred my character so deeply over the years, chipping away and I know the university will not help, is there any one else that can? I need help from outside fast?

    • Vincent Says:

      The police are the next stop. If things haven’t gone so far that they aren’t in their bailiwick. They will certainly know which agency is the most suitable.

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