Managers must know where to draw the line between banter and bullying

Timothy Barber
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THE accusations of staff bullying by the prime minister might sound familiar to many in the City. Whatever the truth or not of the weekend’s stories, workplace bullying is seen by many as a serious problem, and it can certainly be costly for companies. In 2003 a Cantor Fitzgerald trader, Steven Horkulak, was awarded almost £1m in compensation after he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the aggressive style of his manager. In 2006 Deutsche Bank employee Helen Green won £800,000 from the German bank as a result of treatment that would reduce her to tears at her desk.

While these cases encouraged many companies to address the problem by strengthening their anti-bullying procedures, Lyn Witheridge of anti-bullying charity The Andrea Adams Trust says the economic downturn has aggravated the problem in the City. “The recession has caused an awful lot of fear in the City where people are working under huge pressures and timelines, and a lot of bullying is going on as a result. What we hear about is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Certainly the City has its reputation for being an environment where robust exchanges of views are part of the mix, particularly on trading floors where high risks and long hours create an atmosphere in which a thick skin is desirable. However, there are those who will argue that the worst excesses are a thing of the past. One senior trader I spoke to said that, while you’ll still find something of a “locker room mentality” on the trading floor, things have changed substantially.

“You’ve got to be very careful because of political correctness, and people are definitely more aware of how they behave to each other,” he said. “You can’t take the emotive side out of things in a very tight-knit, highly-pressured community, but it’s polls apart from what it was 15 years ago.”

Nevertheless, one person’s dressing room mentality could be another’s victimisation nightmare, as could one executive’s presumed firm management style. The law, it seems, does not discriminate between the pressures of different workplaces. In the Cantor Fitzgerald case, Mr Justice Newman said in his judgment: “I reject as fallacious that where very substantial sums of money are paid by an employer, it acquires the right to treat employees according to a different standard of conduct.”

So where does office banter, or a particular management style, cross the line into bullying? Workplace psychologist Dr Binna Kandola of consultancy Pearn Kandola says that the key characteristic is persistency. “We all have bad days when we act inappropriately, but we can apologise and get over them. It’s when you have repeated acts over a period of time that denigrate a person and wear away at their self-esteem, that it becomes bullying.”

While the term is most often associated with the physical abuse meted out by children in the playground, adult workplace bullying can take much subtler forms. It may be repeated whisperings behind a person’s back disparaging their reputation; it may be repeatedly putting an employee on the spot and intimidating them, or making them the butt of jokes. Or it may be something much more obvious, like verbally or physically abusing someone directly. The effects on a person’s mental and physical health can be disastrous, from sleeplessness and nausea to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

Lyn Witheridge advises anyone who is a victim of bullying should keep a diary of events so that a pattern can be drawn around the person’s behaviour. Then, it’s essential to take action.

“People don’t like to complain for fear of being seen as weak or troublemakers, and what’s worse is the silence of the bystander,” she says. “You need to be courageous and put a stop to it.”

That doesn’t have to mean initiating formal proceedings. Bullying is best dealt with privately on an informal basis, and since many people don’t realise they’re being a bully, they can be shocked to find out and change their behaviour. If possible, raise the issue with the bully directly, explaining that their actions are causing you unhappiness.

“Rather than labelling the bully’s behaviour in a particular way, be open, talking about your own feelings and the impact upon them, because that’s irrefutable,” says Dr Kandola.

However, even challenging a bully in a spirit of good will can be extremely intimidating, and taking things a stage further doesn’t mean the problem can’t still be dealt with informally. A line manager – or if the bully is the line manager, a more senior manager or an HR executive – can mediate informally between parties before you move on to more formal procedures.

“Training and education about this is crucial, because a lot of managers are now terrified of managing strongly for fear of being called a bully, and you get a lot of malicious complaints made by people who think they can get a pay off,” says Witheridge. “But we’ve done away with sexual discrimination, and when you understand legitimately what bullying is, you can put an end to that too.”