Is the Financial Crisis Bringing Out the Bully in Your Boss?

Last Updated Oct 27, 2008 8:25 PM EDT

Are current financial pressures going to bring out the bullies in your business? Quite possibly, according to UK experts on bullying at work.

The environment's ripe: As financial pressures push businesses to cut costs but keep up productivity, there's every possibility that stressed managers will start to exhibit the traits of a bully. Employees may be even more fearful than usual of complaining to their boss, especially if jobs are being cut: Will whining about a bully put them in the firing line? Meanwhile managers asked to deliver more with less could become highly stressed, morphing into angry aggressors who make unreasonable demands on their teams.

It could happen to anyone, too. There's no such thing as a 'typical' bully -- we can all exhibit intimidating behaviour under certain circumstances. According to Lancaster University Management School's Professor Cary Cooper, who led a major UK-wide survey into organisational bullying, 75 per cent of bullying is from manager to subordinate, and bullies are most likely to be over-stressed rather than inherently nasty individuals. In other words, pressure to deliver targets could bring out the bully in even the most benign boss -- with untrained managers promoted up the ranks particularly susceptible.

Some people don't even recognise that they are bullying people, according to workplace bullying charity Andrea Adams Trust. That's because, beyond the broad definition -- the persistent demeaning of an individual -- bullying can take myriad forms. Cooper's research identified 39 managerial behaviours associated with bullying, from active temper tantrums to more subtle sins of omission: freezing someone out, withholding information, leaving training requests unanswered.

There's no question it's on the rise in the UK, though. At any one time, 10 per cent of the UK workforce is being bullied, says Cooper. Four year ago, 12 per cent of safety representatives considered bullying a workplace hazard. Now that figure's 20 per cent, according to the latest Trades Union Congress safety representatives' survey. The primary hazards of the survey are stress and overwork -- which are both common in victims of bullying.

Cooper's research found that even non-victims who work in a department with a bullying boss are adversely affected, with absentee levels high and productivity low. "It's a case of passive or secondary bullying," says Cooper. "They are fearful they'll be next."
The Legal Side Gillian Dowling, employment technical consultant at business information specialists Croner, is a lone optimist: She sees the current financial troubles bringing out people's Dunkirk spirit. They will be looking to put their best foot forward, she says, and will be even more aware of how improper conduct could damage their career prospects.

Legally, it's a reasonable concern. Bullying is outlawed in the UK workplace under the Employment Rights Act -- in some ways, doubly so. It could be a conduct issue (which merits at least a disciplinary action and, in cases of gross misconduct, the sack.) Or it could be deemed discrimination -- violating someone's dignity or intimidating them because of their age, sex, race, sexual orientation, religion or a disability. It's usually systematic and persistent, but it's not unknown for one particularly vile comment to constitute this type of harassment.

BNET's feature package "Is the Office Bully Back?" looks at the phenomenon among U.S. businesses and offers managers advice on how to handle a problem employee. HR managers, if you want to promote awareness of the issue, November 7 is Ban Bullying at Work Day.