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Bullying and harrassment

February 3rd, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Work · 4 Comments · Work

At the moment my union is involved in helping to draw up a number of documents for our company all related to ‘dignity at work’: policies and guidelines on bullying and harrassment feature heavily.  One type of behaviour does not feature at all, and I am not sure whether it is actually bullying or harrassment or just crass insensitivity or insecurity.  I would be interested in other opinions.The problem is that this behaviour is not easy to describe in general terms.  The closest I can get is that a manager reminds his staff at every opportunity who is the boss, and talks about firing people a lot.  I have seen it in the past and examples might be where a boss is always joking about firing people.  He might say “I hope your football team don’t beat mine at the weekend or I’ll have to fire you.” or “You took the last helping of pie in the canteen, I’ll have to sack you if that happens again”.

One ex-boss of mine, back in my ICL days, was very fond of this and hardly a day would go by without him mentioning the word “fire” or “sack”.  Personally I was not bothered, being well aware of the procedures for dismissal, and how a new boss always comes along every six months anyway, but I do wonder whether some employees might feel somewhat uneasy.  Could somebody feel constantly on the defensive?  Would a first-jobber, uncertain of how the wonderful world of employment works actually feel threatened? How about a temp?

So question one has to be: does that behaviour actually count as harrassment or bullying?   If so it leads to a more difficult question: how could you combat it?   How stupid would you feel complaining to your boss’s boss, HR or your union rep that “my manager keeps threatening to fire me”?  And what would the outcome be?  At best he (or she) might get talked to, a quiet word about inappropriate humour perhaps, and then you would be left with a distinctly poisonous atmosphere until the next reorganisation and new boss.

More interesting maybe is why some people act like that.  I am assuming here that other people have encountered the same sort of behaviour.  In the example I gave I didn’t feel threatened, but rather felt a kind of pity.  I kind of assumed my boss was either lacking in social skills or a bit insecure about his position and was trying to bolster his self-image by deluding himself that he had the power to fire at will.  Is that feasible or just a bit of pop-psychology?  Did pretending he was Alan Sugar (even before Alan Sugar was invented) give him a bit of a thrill?

Is such behaviour worse when times are such that jobs are hard to come by?

Should we find some way to succinctly describe such mannerisms and include them in a bullying policy?


4 Comments so far ↓

  • skud's sister

    I think it is bullying. In the same way that psychological cruelty is grounds for divorce. I could imagine an unprincipled boss using this kind of behaviour to ‘delegate’ a lot of stuff that they shouldn’t (taking any glory for good work and blaming for any poor work…) etc.
    I’m sure it is part of any bosses job description to keep morale up, build a team – not possible with that kind of boss.

  • Rob Glover

    I think a good litmus test to when someone is going too far, is when they have to give a forced laugh and go – “can’t you take a joke?” – well, if it really was a joke, the recipient would laugh.
    In my ideal world there should in any organisation be a policy on abuse of seniority. That would cover the bullying above, instructing staff to ignore company policies, falsification of performance reviewing, many others.
    Many organisations cover some of these in examples of misconduct, but the weakness is where there is no protection for whistle blowers.

    • ian irvine

      I think it’s a form of bullying. It’s a way for a powerful person to show how powerful they are.
      In my experience most working people are totally unaware of their employment rights, and so are vulnerable to suggestions that they could be easily sacked.
      The government introduced ‘citizenship’ as a subject in schools. Maybe lessons on employment rights could be introduced as well.

      • Skuds

        Not sure about the first point Ian. I’m not sure managers (at least in large companies which have to follow all the rules) have much power in the old sense of the word. I always saw such attitudes as a sort of vain attempt by some managers to kid themselves that they really could sack someone on a whim if they wanted to.

        Second point is good. I maybe overestimate how aware everybody is of the rights and protection that have from arbitrary acts.