Posted tagged ‘dignity’

The problem of bullying

April 20, 2009

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.