16 November 2022

Bullies need to be rooted out – but we should be clear about what ‘bullying’ really means


If you think you’re being bullied at work there’s no end of help available. Google ‘workplace bullying’ and you’ll be directed to a list topped with law firms offering to take up cudgels on your behalf for ‘a deal that’s right for you’. Your employer, if you have one, will have a grievance policy they implore you to activate if a colleague looks sideways at you. We’re in the middle of the ‘national anti-bullying week’ with a #ReachOut theme, the architects of which urge people to wear odd socks in the office to show solidarity with victims. With all this support, why do people still harass and denigrate their colleagues?

Or, perhaps, is that proposition back to front? It’s dangerous territory, but is it possible that the unceasing focus on behaviours, attributes and foibles has caused people to think they are being bullied when they are merely being asked to do the jobs they are paid for? This week the relentless and, in my view, largely politicised pursuit of Justice Secretary Dominic Raab entered this territory. Throwing a tomato into a bag at a meeting and being ‘curt’ and ‘abrasive’ are now apparently within the purview of unacceptable behaviour. These offences might get you into trouble at the local sandwich bar, but they seem unlikely to cross the line in a government department – especially one which is known as a byword for hand wringing and sullen defiance of ministerial will. 

There are reports that such is the fear attached to Raab’s return, his private office staff are offered lifeboats away from the vegetable landing zone. The lurid reportage of his demanding management style widens by the day, but IT has curiously little depth. We are told for example by an ‘insider’ via The Guardian that the MoJ’s chief Mandarin, Permanent Secretary Antonia Romeo read Raab ‘the riot act’ about his supposed excesses after ‘tearful’ civil servants complained of his return. Whether this is true or not, it is ironic that Ms Romeo was herself the subject of a serious allegation of bullying from which she was later exonerated. Perhaps they are made for each other. 

Then there’s Gavin Williamson, who was once again forcibly retired recently. In contrast to Raab, his management style, allegedly telling people to jump out of windows or slit their throats, seems pretty clear cut. Ministers who commit potential public order offences while in office won’t have a long shelf life in any jurisdiction.

In the many opinion pieces these examples have spawned, there is a great deal of reflection on the fact that ministers often have no management experience when they take over a department, and that this in some way excuses or at least contextualises their excesses. I’m not sure this is an adequate explanation. You don’t need to have been a CEO to have basic respect for people. In fact, given the behaviour of some of our FTSE bosses, it’s a handicap. However, even someone with a Christ-like disposition would be hard pressed to remain calm in a civil service work environment that seems to be built around the continuous affirmation and validation of its workforce, as opposed to the delivery of government policy.

Perhaps Covid, and the great shift from the office to the living room sofa, is to blame for this drift. As the lines between home and work are blurred, so too are the differences in these environments and their separate spheres of behaviour. Moreover, the erosion of societal norms in everything from education to identity leaves young people entering the world of work with dramatically unsuitable ideas about their rights and expectations when they rub up against discipline, hierarchy and performance. Or just bloody difficult people, frankly.

True bullies haven’t changed much over time. They are often unhappy, inadequate people who derive comfort from deliberately humiliating others. I’ve worked with these people, disciplined them and been subjected to their behaviour myself. They are often seen in the ranks of the most pious worshippers of any new orthodoxy going. It’s a telling contradiction. In the mid-90s I produced the first nationwide anti-bullying strategy for the Prison Service – an organisation then, as now, replete with such people, often in positions of power.

Sadly, one of the consequences of blurring the line between demanding expectations and bullying is that the truly victimised are buried within a deluge of mere disappointment, laziness and incompetence. I’ve seen these three factors grow as proxies for bullying over the years, when in reality they are a refuge for thwarted expectations. Perhaps one way to sort out those deserving of help from the rest lies in better preparation by schools for the world of work. This will become more important as the labour market contracts, with an incoming recession and jobs become more competitive again, as opposed to a favour you’re reluctantly doing for an employer. People fit for work, and resilient against life’s natural ups and downs, are less likely to conclude that not being invited out for a drink with colleagues is a breach of their human rights.

We should instead turn our attention on how to stop psychologically flawed people reaching the top. When it comes to ministers of the Crown, any allegation of serious misconduct towards civil servants must be independently investigated and the result upheld by the Prime Minister – with sanctions dictated by the seriousness of the behaviour, not political calculation. 

Elsewhere, we need a renaissance of the word ‘respect’. It’s not as declarative or fashionable as many of the buzzwords that now dominate workplace relationships, but it is the benchmark of decency in a world of difference. Bullies have little respect for themselves and consequently for those around them. The systems, processes and people who elevate those who prosper from humiliating others need fixing across the board. For Cabinet ministers and CEOs, the bottom line is the same. 

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Professor Ian Acheson was a Special Constable with Devon and Cornwall police at the same time as Director of Community Safety for the Home Office.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.