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Staffroom bullying

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 21 June, 2002 | By: Tim Field

Did you know?

* One teacher in three claims to have been bullied at work

* More than 90 per cent of reported cases of workplace bullying are caused by a serial bully

* Bullying is not a gender issue. But women make up 75 per cent of victims who seek help

* In 1998, a Northumberland primary teacher won £100,000 in an out-of-court settlement after he'd been bullied by his head

* There is no legislation that directly addresses bullying

Bullying is all about power. Bullies want control - control of their victims and of their environment.

Mention bullying and most people think of kids scrapping in the playground. Few of us see it as an adult problem, destroying careers and families or causing long-term psychological and emotional damage. But research published by the University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) in April 2000, found that one in four workers in the UK had experienced bullying in the workplace at some point in the previous five years. For teachers, the figure was markedly higher - with more than one in three claiming to have been bullied and a further 20 per cent saying they had seen bullying. And if the prevalence of workplace bullying is startling, so too are the consequences. A run-in with a bully can cause stress, permanently damaged self-esteem, psychiatric injury and even suicide.

What is bullying?

Each case is unique, but calls to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and its website, Bully OnLine, reveal common experiences - constant, trivial nit-picking and destructive criticism, combined with a refusal to value or acknowledge performance and achievements. This can come from a colleague, a manager, a governor or a parent. It can be directed at anyone from a headteacher to a newly qualified teacher.

Bullying can be physical - intimidating body language, even a slap or a punch - but as adults it is more likely to be a case of long-term psychological attrition. The bully will try to isolate his or her victim by turning colleagues against the person. Rumours might be spread about a victim's mental health or ability to do the job. A bullying manager might set the victim up to fail - contriving to allocate the worst classes, the most time-consuming schedule and the fewest resources.

Bullying can be a drawn-out and subtle process, so it is often difficult for others to know exactly what is going on, but it does seem possible to identify certain conditions in which bullying can flourish. A major school reorganisation or the appointment of a new manager or headteacher are common triggers for an episode. Bullying among staff is also closely linked to "unhappy" schools - although it's not clear whether the bullying is the cause of disaffection or the result of it.

Who are the bullies?

Conforming to one victim's description of a "convincing and practised liar with a Jekyll and Hyde nature", the adult bully is often charming. He or she is usually verbally confident and can be adept at using language to make his or her actions seem plausible. But there are several indicators that under the sweet talk all may not be well. These include random and impulsive decision-making, an obsession with conformity and procedures, an inability to distinguish the important from the trivial, an officious manner and petty-mindedness. Many bullies are emotionally or professionally insecure, but this will rarely show. What will come across is arrogance and a constant denial of any wrong-doing.

More than 90 per cent of reported cases are caused by a serial bully. Bullying is not just a matter of taking a dislike to someone - it's a more deep-rooted psychological problem that means the bully moves easily from victim to victim. And, as in the playground, those who are bullied are likely to bully others.

Who are the victims?

Victims may do nothing to attract bullying - they may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But bullies will often target people they consider a threat - perhaps because they are good at their job or because they are popular. A typical target is conscientious, competent and well liked by colleagues, pupils and parents. By contrast, bullies are usually disliked by all - except their superiors - and jealous of attention given to others. Getting recognition for work well done may be enough to trigger their unwanted attentions. Often a victim will have a vulnerability which the bully can exploit - needing to pay the mortgage, being a single parent, or living alone, having caring responsibilities, going through separation, divorce or bereavement, or belonging to a minority. Usually it is those who are least able to pack in their job to escape who are most likely to be victimised.

The caring professions seem particularly vulnerable to bullying. Teachers and lecturers consistently form the largest group of callers to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (about 20 per cent of 6,000 cases over six years). But the health service and the police force also figure prominently. Perhaps public service workers are vulnerable because the bullied employee feels a responsibility to others. But Professor Cary Cooper of Umist argues that it's the unique pressure of the public services that creates a culture of bullying. "There are no more psychopathic bullies in teaching than in any other profession," he says. "But there's another type of bully, the one who can't cope and takes it out on others. Excessive initiatives, heavy workload and a lack of resources are likely to breed more of these overload bullies."

How do bullies work?

Bullying is all about power. Bullies want control - of their victim and their environment. And their main instrument of control is criticism. A colleague may focus on alleged underperformance. A manager may criticise everything from professional conduct to personal appearance. To correct the alleged failing, the victim jumps through more and more hoops, but the harder victims work, and the more they achieve, the greater the bully's insecurity. This damaging cycle often ends in the victim facing disciplinary procedures or a stress breakdown - or both. The bully then selects someone else to pick on and starts all over again.

Isolating victims from their friends and colleagues is key to a bully's tactics. The effects of this should not be underestimated - it can be emotionally and psychologically damaging. In a bullying workplace, colleagues are often afraid to stand up for the victim in case they become targets themselves. Those who speak out for friends being bullied or who blow the whistle on a bullying environment have been shown to be future targets.

As serial bullies move up the professional ladder, they become more and more able to abuse their power. So although not all bullies are managers - indeed, it's possible to bully your superiors - it is often most difficult to deal with problems arising from those who are in a position of power.

Bully boys?

Bullying is not a gender issue. But men are most likely to be physically harassing or aggressive, whereas many female bullies rely on the psychological tactics of exclusion, isolation, manipulation, deception - and charm. Women, however, make up 75 per cent of victims who seek help. The stigma of being bullied and the fear of being labelled a wimp keep many men quiet in the hope that they can handle it, or it will go away. It won't.

Those who can, do; those who can't, bully There are many myths surrounding bullying, including the perception that it's "tough management" and "you've got to bully people to get the job done". But research shows that a toxic working environment where threat, coercion and blame are commonplace will be characterised by low morale, disaffection and demotivation. There's also likely to be a high level of sickness absence and a quick turnover of staff. All of which means standards fall and the pupils lose out. The Umist research asked participants to rate their own productivity. Those who hadn't been bullied believed they were working at more than 90 per cent of their capacity; those who had been bullied estimated they were working at around 60 per cent.

Bullying isn't tough management - it's bad management. But inevitably there will be times when senior teachers have to apply pressure to their colleagues, and it's important to remember that not all criticism is bullying. Good managers, though, are open and honest. They keep detailed documentation of any meetings or reprimands, and have a clear grievance procedure should you be unhappy with their actions.

Just grin and bear it?

No. Bullying is not to be taken lightly. It can last for years, with victims continuing to do their jobs under increasingly stressful circumstances. The result is cumulative injury to victims' health. They can, for instance, suffer many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including a compromised immune system, sleep problems, excessive guilt, irritability, hypervigilance (which feels like paranoia, but isn't), constant anxiety, reactive depression and suicidal thoughts. Stress is now officially the number one cause of sickness absence from work, and the Umist research found that bullying in the workplace was a key factor in more than one in three stress cases. While there are other contributing factors to stress, including excessive workloads and long hours, it's no coincidence that bullying and stress frequently go together.

What legislation exists?

There is no legislation that directly addresses the issue of bullying. That doesn't mean legal action can't succeed - it just makes proving your case difficult. If you are bullied on grounds of race, gender or disability, harassment and discrimination laws can deal with it. But other forms of victimisation require a different approach.

Health and safety legislation offers one line of approach. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that the work environment is not detrimental to an employee's health. Given the links between bullying and stress, employers who allow bullying to flourish may be found to be in breach of their "duty of care".

Another possibility is to bring a case for "constructive dismissal" - where the emphasis is on proving that there has been a "significant breach" of normal working relations. The downside here is that you have to quit your job first. While there have been significant victories for bullied staff - in 1998 one primary school teacher in Northumberland won £100,000 in an out-of-court settlement - the unions are wary of going to the courts. "It's a last resort," says Ian Draper of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "The way the law stands it is difficult. It's not enough to prove bullying in itself - you have to prove the motive for the bullying, or its consequences." But that could be about to change. A Dignity at Work Bill has been passed in the House of Lords. If it gets rubber-stamped in the Commons, bullying at work will be an offence in the same way as harassment and discrimination.

If I'm being targeted, what can I do?

Don't suffer in silence. When the bullying starts it's tempting to do nothing and see if the problem goes away. In fact, your best chance of stopping the bullying is to react promptly before a pattern of behaviour becomes established. It's a good idea to notify your union, even if you don't want to get it involved straight away. Advisers will almost certainly recommend you keep a diary, logging details of incidents and noting any witnesses. Even seemingly trivial events may be important if they form part of a larger pattern. Depending on who is doing the bullying, it may be appropriate to speak to your head of department or your headteacher.

Inexperienced teachers may worry about being perceived as a troublemaker or victim, but providing you are calm and rational, there should be no problem. And take the chance to talk to other trusted colleagues - you may be surprised at how many other people have had similar experiences. Indeed, there have been cases of headteachers being removed by the authority after the entire staffroom has complained, as a body, of systematic bullying. Whether or not you decide to confront the bully directly is a matter for your own discretion. "Sometimes it brings everything into the open and helps resolve matters," says Ian Draper. "Other times it just makes things worse."

If you can't resolve the situation, you're left with a stark choice: take legal action or find a new job. Moving on may seem an admission of defeat and a victory for the bully - though if you move to a happier school, it's you who is the real winner. Going through the courts can be an expensive and drawn-out process. Listen to your heart, your head and your union before rushing into either course of action.

Tim Field is the author of Bully in Sight and webmaster of Bully OnLine at www.successunlimited.co.uk

CASE STUDY: BULLY HEADS

A chance remark after a staff meeting on behaviour led us from bullying among children to bullying of teachers by senior managers. Having never encountered this in my career, I'd never given it serious thought. Naively assuming that senior managers in schools, while not necessarily perfect, were at least caring professionals, I was astonished to learn that one of my newer teachers - an excellent practitioner - had been bullied by her previous head. Then, while discussing the issue with heads from neighbouring schools, I discovered bullying was nowhere near as rare as I'd thought.

"Though I'm happy now," said Victoria, "every time an adult enters my classroom I still feel my stomach lurch." After the experiences in her first year of teaching, it's hardly surprising. She'd been warmly welcomed, only realising why when she learned of the annual exodus of shell-shocked young teachers. The head was a businesswoman who kept her distance from anything that looked like a child, and a ruthless bureaucrat. New teachers faced constant demands. As the head was rarely in school, the non-teaching deputy filled in for her, wandering into Victoria's classroom regularly and sitting with a clipboard prominently on her knee. Aggressive lesson assessments followed, often with contradictory advice.

Victoria's teaching performance suffered but the deputy merely stepped up her visits. Though she'd had excellent teaching practice reports, Victoria convinced herself that she wasn't much good. During one lesson, she was visited by the deputy and head, and they sat in the corner muttering and shaking their heads. After two terms, Victoria was about to leave teaching when she saw a job advertised at a school where she'd done a teaching practice. The school remembered her and employed her immediately.

Anthony's head was a weak, aggressive manager who resented Anthony's openness and enthusiasm for moving the school forward. Anthony had been a successful member of the senior management team under the previous head, but found the new head's style divisive and intimidatory. Soon, there was unhappiness among the staff, and good people began to leave. When Anthony began to question this, he found his lessons were inspected frequently, his planning was studied in detail, and he was given more "jobs". When these totalled 17 after just three months, he queried it. The head's response was to bring a disciplinary action against him, and to monitor him even more aggressively. The governors offered no support and his union was sluggish. Disillusioned, he left teaching.

Janice worked in an unhappy school where the head was omnipotent and no fan of democracy. Staff whispered in corridors and grumbled in cliques, and 12 teachers had left in the space of three years. Janice is an experienced foundation stage teacher who'd given the school 11 years of dedicated service but, as her unit was in a separate building, she'd been able to avoid the hot spots. Parents prized her expertise and were delighted when their children were in her class. The unit included a classroom assistant, and when she left the school, a new appointment was made, strongly supported by the head. Janice was seriously worried; basic literacy skills were essential, but the new appointee could barely write. Janice reported this to the head, who seemed to take it as an affront. Things went downhill as the head and deputy seemed to target her. She approached the governors, but got nowhere. Finally, suffering from stress, Janice did what the others had done. She left.

The writer is a head in the north of England

Resources

WEBSITES

* Bully OnLine at www.successunlimited.co.uk provides comprehensive information on bullying in the workplace as well as in schools. Lots of insight and links to websites, organisations and people tackling bullying worldwide, as well as a support forum to chat with others experiencing bullying. Free monthly e-newsletter available on email.

* The Andrea Adams Trust (www.andreaadamstrust.org) is the UK national charity devoted to raising awareness of and tackling bullying, and produces several publications.

* The UK National Work Stress Network (www.workstress.net) aims to identify and eradicate organisational factors that create workplace stress.

* Call Teacher Support Line on 08000 562 561 or email from the website, www.teachersupport. org.uk.

* Befrienders International (www.befrienders.org) works to prevent suicide worldwide.

* Dealing with verbal abusive: www.verbalabuse.com.

* www.workplacebullying.com is dedicated to Jermaine Lee, a Royal Mail worker who committed suicide after suffering racial abuse at work. Includes a comprehensive resources list.

* www.bullydissolver.com is based on "how workplace bullying in education is getting to be an occupational hazard". Set up by the wife of Geoff Hetherington, a primary deputy (pictured) awarded £15,000 in 2000 after he was bullied by his headteacher.

* www.stress.org.uk/bullying.htm outlines research on the roots of bullying and the cost of the stress it causes to individuals and employers. The study, by Andy Ellis of Ruskin College, Oxford, is based on the retail industry but has wide general application.

* www.the-shelf.co.uk offers general resources for managers and human resources departments, many of which are free and can be applied to education. For example, see "Who Cares About Workplace Bullying" at www.the-shelf.co.uk/spot_bully_July1999.asp?

* Check your trade union websites, too: National Union of Teachers (www.teachers. org.uk), National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (www.nasuwt.org. uk) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (www.atl.org.uk).

Book

* Building a Culture of Respect: managing bullying at work, edited by Noreen Tehrani (Taylor and Francis, £19.99), looks at organisational cultures, how much bullying happens, health problems caused by bullying and the organisational polices required to build a culture of respect.

Additional resources research by Stephen Pickles, public services librarian at the Institute of Education, University of London.


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Comment (4)

  • I would have to say where is the balance in this article? You have quoted all the “bullies” but where is their say. In many cases of this type of thing that I have seen people play the system. They are totally incompetent and when a manager starts to collect evidence on them to get rid of them as every other option has failed they cry wolf. Problem with this is most managers don’t have the skills to document all things properly i.e. record meeting and get people to sign outcomes. I certainly will do this if there is a problem and make sure it is documented at the time. Then claims like this will be proved untrue! Obviously I am not talking about every case! Maybe a case to have LEA’s provide HR support as a matter of course like they used to and get more involved in this type of thing to check the rules are being followed. Also finally the best way to teach a bully a lesson is give them a bloody nose. Walk with your feet and withraw your labour. You never win in the long term with a crap head, just walk away and work in a place where your skills are valued. His / her school will be worse for your loss and eventually enough people will go to make the point.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    8:48
    23 August, 2008

    Orion

  • i am doing research on similar topic and came across these
    worth reading

    http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=377203

    http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=380686

    just shows the flaws from which we look away

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    13:21
    14 March, 2010

    cuthrough

  • Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    1:56
    22 July, 2013

    SI-IAN

  • Reading this article has been reassuring for me as I feel I am being bullied at work by a couple who are part of our school's SLT. I found they constantly criticize my hard work because their own is not up to standard. Working with one of them in sharing plans I found just old planning was used and never differentiated so every week I'd be sorting his work out. However during a monitoring meeting he used his psrtners position to discredit all my work and take out minor mistakes and displayed them as major mistakes. When I explained I would be speaking to senior management they backed off. The second day both of these SLT went around different classes to different colleagues discrediting me.

    I find both these colleagues to be intimidating and bullying not just me but other staff members do too. Its hard to reveal your identity in these situations but I feel this very distressing and is affecting my health.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    2:03
    22 July, 2013

    SI-IAN

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