Bullying in the workplace can affect lives in a devastating way. It’s even worse when employers deny the issue and even work against the victims.
Professor Dora Kostakopoulou joined Warwick University in 2012 as professor of European Law. She states she was targeted in 2016 by the head of the Law Department when she complained about breaches of data protection law.
She was informed by email that the Head of the Department was taking disciplinary action against her. She complained to Human Resources and to the Vice-Chancellor about victimisation and the breach of the university’s own procedures and the law.
When her complaint was received Dora was suspended for four months and she says she had false and defamatory allegations made against her. She was not given an opportunity to be heard and subsequently her own evidence of her innocence was ignored.
Dora brought employment tribunal action in 2017 and states that in the course of the legal proceedings, she was once again subjected to retaliatory fabricated allegations of misconduct. When she brought a grievance against members of staff, she was suspended for six months.
Whilst Dora was certified medically unfit for her duties, the university convened a disciplinary hearing against her in her absence and dismissed her. She was notified by email nine days later on 29 July 2020.
Dora has begun a campaign to help protect women from bullying in UK universities.
This story illustrates what could happen to anyone, and it is important we all understand what to do.
Be well informed
Bullying and harassment are defined as any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, Section 26, but bizarrely, bullying itself is not against the law – not yet. Rachael Maskell MP is currently trying to get a bill passed to protect workers from bullying.
Harassment is defined as behaviour related to any one of the following protected characteristics: age, sex, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation.
Bullying in the workplace can take a variety of forms: exclusion from social activities, hurtful remarks or malicious gossip, targeting the victim in numbers (‘mobbing’), extra workloads, sabotaging of work, interference with work performance, interrupting, confrontational behaviour, verbal abuse in front of others, and denying the individual training or promotion opportunities. Bullying and harassment can also happen on social media, face-to-face, in mobs (‘mobees’), by letter, by email, by phone or text.
Take steps to deal with bullying
The first step is to recognise if you’re being bullied. Is a colleague’s behaviour making you feel belittled or uneasy? Do you feel undermined and intimidated? Is it an isolated incident or is it repeated treatment? Is your wellbeing and mental health being consistently affected by a co-worker’s behaviour? If so, it can be classed as bullying and action needs to be taken.
The second step is the absolute importance of keeping records. You should immediately begin to record the bully’s behaviour. Take detailed notes that document what happened, when and where. Make a note of any witnesses (although be warned, friends and co-workers will not always speak up for fear of retaliation). This will then give you factual issues to discuss with the bully or for reporting further on.
The third step is to speak to the bully. The official advice states that efforts should be made to handle the situation informally before taking the next steps. As hard as this may be, it is sometimes the best way to get the behaviour to stop, as bullies do not like being challenged. Make sure you record the conversation in notes or audio, telling the bully you are doing so; this is to prove it took place as an informal step and avoids the problem of bullies’ tendency to lie if it goes further.
Beware of the backlash of the bully turning it round on you for daring to expose them, known as ‘deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender’ (DARVO). If face-to-face is too intimidating, you could send an email with a read receipt, requesting that the behaviour stops.
Further steps to take
Should you find that the perpetrator continues bullying you despite taking the informal step, you are then within your rights to report them to either your manager, or if the bully is your manager, the Human Resources (HR) department, and/or trade union representative. The fact that you have tried the informal route to address the bullying before taking this step should support your case.
If no resolution can be reached after the bullying has been reported you may have to submit a formal complaint, instigating the employer’s grievance procedure policy. The usual steps taken are: submit a written complaint, a formal meeting takes place, and an investigation starts with interviewing others (including the bully/bullies). This may give a platform to the bully to officially defame you, which the employer can then use against you, should you take a claim to an employment tribunal. Warning: a formal complaint may not bring a positive outcome.
Do not take this decision lightly as it is very time consuming, mentally draining and does not always bring a positive outcome for the victim; for example, the grievance procedure may be drawn out until the official policy time frame expires. This may lead to the claim being thrown out at an employment tribunal.
Of concern is the issue that people can become so unwell that they have to go on long-term sick leave and sometimes resign. Of even greater concern is institutional betrayal where the victim is inappropriately investigated, gaslighted, retaliated against by HR and sacked.
Common tactics are used against individuals who raise concerns; many employers are aware of how to use ‘textbook tactics’, with many employees ambushed into career suicide, and blacklisted in the sector as a noted troublemaker for speaking out.
My own experience (and feedback from other union members) shows the unions are not without blame either; they did nothing to fight for the victims’ rights, apart from trying to arrange a settlement agreement to exit the business. This normally involves a gagging clause to prevent the victim ever speaking out about their experiences and trauma, as the case of Paul Calvert demonstrates.
Why do bullies target a victim?
There are several reasons, none of which are justified.
- You may be a newcomer who knows your stuff, and are great at your job. This may make you a potential threat to some that have been underperforming, so they think they must get rid of you.
- You may be new management that highlights individuals’ underperformance, and reveals that they are not willing to embrace change; you may end up with a group of people mobbing you with the motivation to stop you exposing them.
- You may be a whistleblower, speaking up about misconduct, fraud and/or the covering up of it. Harassment and bullying may be the way to silence you.
The National Bullying Helpline is a good source of information if you are being bullied.
The second part of this article addresses whistleblowing in the public interest.