In the news
Bullying complaints cause many conflicts in the workplace. The Home Secretary is currently being sued by her former permanent secretary for constructive dismissal. According to the press reports Sir Philip Rutnam claims he was forced out of his job after intervening in allegations of bullying his staff made against the Home Secretary. This is currently the highest profile case in the UK involving workplace bullying. Many will think there could be no better example of someone having inadequate skills than a top civil servant who has to sue his Secretary of State rather than negotiating a resolution. There is, however, the background of a Cabinet Office enquiry into Pritti Patel’s behaviour, so this is not an isolated allegation.
Bullying complaints in the law
Whilst this is perhaps the most prominent allegation of bullying in the workplace it occurs amid a tidal wave of such claims currently being made in Britain and elsewhere. Just taking my own profession of the law there has just been a Bar Standards Board report on the prevalence of workplace bullying within barristers chambers reporting that bullying was common and manifested in various ways. This confirms what has been commonly understood for some time that allegations of bullying within Chambers are rife and increasing. The International Bar Association (IBA) published a report in May 2019 revealing that younger members of the legal profession are disproportionately affected by bullying at work. Solicitors do little better. One in seven female solicitors have experienced bullying, discrimination and harassment in the workplace over the past year, according to Law Society research.
Not just the law
Medicine seems just as bad: a 2019 NHS staff survey showed that 19 percent of staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the previous year from colleagues and 13 percent of staff experienced bullying or harassment in the previous year from managers. Getting a grip on the incidence of bullying in the workplace is not easy. One survey of 2000 employees last year reported that 23% of the British workforce has been bullied at work. Academic research reported this year that internationally the prevalence of workplace bullying varied between 3% for the most serious bullying, 10% for less serious and 20% for ‘negative social acts’. Taken together these reports and surveys appear to reveal a serious level of conflicts in workplaces both in the UK and elsewhere. All of this research also reveals a steadily increasing volume of such complaints.
The reasons why
Have work practices changed so much for the worse? Does this illustrate an increasingly abusive working environment or are there other explanations? Those who believe that human behaviour is unlikely to have changed much may find an explanation in the concept of generational differences. This suggests that generations experiencing notable events impacting on them as they grow up create a group or cohort of people who tend to react similarly to their shared experiences occurring within a specified period of time. This results in a generalised view that members of each cohort will share similar attitudes and behaviours.
Millennials have their say
At present the workforce is increasingly composed of millennials born between 1980-2000 who have been identified with many characteristics separating them from earlier generations and in particular a desire to be assertive with a wish to have an impact on the work that they do. It is quite possible that this generation are far more likely to complain and protest when ill-treated than their parents were at the same age. This is probably not the only explanation. Social attitudes change over time and movements like #MeToo have added their influence and increased intolerance of abusive behaviour.
Should we be cheerful?
A positive take on this is to welcome the increased volume of complaints as an indication of a decline in tolerance of bullying rather than a decline in standards of behaviour. If true, this is to be celebrated.
Whether this is too utopian a view will divide opinion. What can be agreed is that such conflicts need to be resolved as soon as possible after they become apparent. Delay and failing to intervene will always make matters worse. In most workplaces mediation would trump grievance procedures as I have explained elsewhere. This is one reason I have chosen to support the National Bullying Helpline which provides a helpful resource and guidance to many experiencing difficulties.