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Are you being bullied?

When boardroom banter gets sinister

Are you being bullied?
31 October 2011

"It was just silly things, really,” says Joe Robinson, with a hint of embarrassment. “I’ve got this habit of twiddling my hair, so I’d be leaning back in my chair doing it, then I’d spin around and everybody else would be doing the same thing and laughing at me.”

He isn’t recounting a distant childhood memory while ShortList nods sagely and does its best Sigmund Freud impression. The events he’s describing took place just a few years ago at his old job. But it wasn’t only mass mimicry that Robinson, 25, a media executive who’s now working elsewhere, had to contend with. “I ended up being turned into the whipping boy,” he says. “People would talk down to me and it got to the stage where I didn’t want to go into the office.”

Robinson can’t quite bring himself to utter the word ‘bullying’ (more on that later), but it’s clear that the ritual humiliations, the mocking and the irrational criticism went beyond hair-ruffling playfulness. And he’s certainly not alone.

A 2010 survey by human resources agency ACAS found that one in 10 people — twice as many as a decade ago — will suffer some form of harassment or bullying at work.

Let’s clarify, though. We’re not talking about anything as overt as bog-washing, Chinese burns or stolen dinner money. It’s more the pointedly absent invites to the pub, the undermining comments and the meeting emails that fail to make their way to your inbox that can make life impossible.

“I work extensively with more and more people who have been bullied at work,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Roger Kingerlee. “It’s hard to think of a workplace where it wouldn’t happen, but for men in particular it presents a big problem as they struggle to talk about it.”

It’s hardly surprising that most guys are reluctant to open up about it. The very notion of bullying feels bizarrely childish. Like it should have been consigned to the dustbin of the past with other youthful concerns such as grazed knees and football stickers. But with careers and happiness at stake, it’s even more dangerous to bottle it up. So how can you deftly nip it in the bud? Why is the brutal law of the playground back in such a big way? And why, if you’ll allow us to come perilously close to a bout of campfire singing, can’t we all just get along?


Simply put, the reason for the current spike in bullying cases is that places of work have never been more pressurised or volatile. “I’ve seen a marked rise over the past few years, and think that it’s completely down to the present financial climate,” reasons employment law solicitor and Guardian columnist Philip Landau. “Employers are driving their workforces much harder, especially in sales-orientated roles where targets are expected to be met.”

Landau also claims this atmosphere has fostered “macho-style managers” whose own paranoia about the redundancy trapdoor can make them tetchy, spiteful and ill-equipped to deal with their employees. “It’s not just sales, though,” adds Landau. “I’ve seen a rise in bullying claims in all industry sectors, as managers are out to prove themselves and don’t mind sacrificing members of the team to do so.”

Factor in the pop-culture influence of no-nonsense business bruisers such as Lord Sugar, or even the cash-stroking residents of Dragons’ Den, and you can see why often this unpleasant behaviour tends to be a senior going too far with an underling. That was certainly the case for Chris Jenkins (not his real name), a 26-year-old sales representative from London.

“I used to work for a guy who had a pointed way of putting me down,” admits Jenkins. “Every time I stepped up with an opinion he’d slap it down and make sure he found some fault in it.” He laughs with disbelief, remembering something. “You know how if somebody at work wants to b*llock you, they normally take you into a room and do it there? Well he’d make sure it was done on the sales floor in front of everyone. And it was just me he did it to.”

This intense needling lasted for six months, and Jenkins freely admits that he may have repressed some of the worst incidents. “I think I’ve blanked out some of the bad experiences,” he says. “Other people at work might be able to tell you more than me.”

He’s not wrong. ShortList’s conversation with a colleague of his (who, again, wanted to remain anonymous) revealed that the boss in question would regularly force Jenkins to recite a mocking mantra. “He’d go, ‘What are you?’ then Chris would go, ‘I’m useless.’ Then, ‘What else?’ and he’d have to go, ‘I’m lazy.’ And so on. It was shocking.”

Shocking and needlessly demeaning. But it should be pointed out that Jenkins’ tone while talking about all this isn’t one of wobbly-lipped despair. It’s more surprise and bafflement that these sinister schoolyard tactics would still occur between two adult professionals.

But there’s the lingering impression in some offices that it’s all just a laugh; a give-as-good-as-you-get part of the job that shouldn’t be taken to heart.

Nobody would want to work in a sterilised atmosphere where missing someone off a tea round leads to tearful complaints and an employment tribunal. But the sort of treatment that Jenkins endured can’t be purely dismissed as innocent fun. So when does banter actually turn into bullying?


“I see a lot of managers, especially in the finance and banking sector, using the ‘banter’ excuse,” says Landau. “Banter is all well and good, but if it becomes personal and causes someone obvious distress, then it’s a different matter. It’s not always clear where the line is drawn, but if you make it clear that somebody has gone too far, that’s a sensible starting point.”

Dr Kingerlee suggests that if something is stalking your thoughts outside of work, it may have crossed the line. “Stress, general concentration issues, difficulties getting to sleep and problems with your work performance are the kind of things to watch out for,” he suggests.

Joe Robinson certainly found that the jibes at work began to occupy his mind long after he’d gone home. “I had to think about what I was wearing and try to hide anything that they could pick out,” he explains. “As soon as there was something different about me, like if I’d had a haircut, they’d tear me apart for half an hour.”

You’d think that when office abuse led to you actively avoiding a trip to the barbers, it might be time to speak up. But here’s where we encounter the strange male omertà when it comes to workplace bullying: speaking to senior figures is tantamount to telling the teacher.

“Telling someone is the worst thing to do,” says Robinson. “If I went to the director, people would say, ‘Why the f*ck have you done that, mate? You’ve just got me in sh*t.’ So the only way I learned to get through it was to give back as much as I got, try to take it on the chin and just carry on.”

Jenkins goes even further, recounting his own self-imposed code of silence. “It felt like if a husband beats his wife,” he says. “The wife’s being beaten but she doesn’t want to tell anyone about it. The guy will say, ‘I’ll never do it again,’ just like the manager will say, ‘I’ll never shout at you again, I’ll never talk to you like that in public.’ And you believe them because you think that they’ve got your best interests at heart.”

A tellingly grim analogy which shows that while the approach of clamming up and carrying on might work for some people, it’s hardly healthy. As Dr Kingerlee explains: “Men find it a lot harder than women to ask for help. But even though you think you’ll lose face, it’s actually self-protective to admit, even to yourself, that something is going on. Talk it through with a trusted other or your GP. I’ve found it helps for men to get a second opinion.”

In the end, Jenkins didn’t need to say anything, because his colleagues decided that they’d had enough of watching the torment. “It got to the point where people actually pulled the boss aside and said to him, ‘What you’re doing is bullying. You’ve got to slow down with this guy because he will leave if it carries on,’” he explains. “He stopped a little bit, but it would creep back in until he left after outgrowing the company, which has made work so much easier.”

A happy (if somewhat fortunate) conclusion, then. But not everybody’s desk-mates will have the courage to fight their colleague’s corner. So is there a tactful way to deal with it yourself? “Talk to your line manager — and go higher up if they’re the ones involved — or a union official,” suggests Landau. “You could even speak to the person that’s bullying you. They may not realise they’re doing it, and the more people that know about it, the more difficult it is for the bullying to continue.” It’s also worth stepping back and taking stock of the situation, advises Dr Kingerlee, who notes that you may have just crossed paths with “a serial bully”.

So whether you speak to a doctor, a senior, the bully or simply say, “I’m not imagining this, am I?” to a colleague over a post-work pint, it seems clear that the worst thing to do is to keep completely schtum. Otherwise people will barrel through their professional life like Nelson Muntz in a Next suit, forever thinking it’s all right to treat people badly. To paraphrase the immortal words of Bob Hoskins, it really is good to talk.

Philip Landau is partner at LZW Solicitors; Dr Roger Kingerlee is from the British Psychological Society;

(Image: All Star)