By the late Tim Field - Tim Field was an author of several
books on bullying and was active in the UK to stop
Staffroom bullying in schools.
Did you know?
* One teacher in three claims to have been bullied
* 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.
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? (UK)
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
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
If you can't resolve the situation, you're left with a stark choice:
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.
CASE STUDY: BULLY HEADS (UK)
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
The writer is a head in the north of England
* The UK National Work Stress Network (www.workstress.net)
aims to identify and eradicate organizational factors that create workplace
* Befrienders International (www.befrienders.org)
works to prevent suicide worldwide.
* Dealing with verbal abusive: www.verbalabuse.com.
* 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
Additional resources research by Stephen Pickles, public
services librarian at the Institute of Education, University of London.