When Claims of Bullying are Utter Rubbish

When Claims of Bullying are Utter Rubbish

I once worked for a large electrical company. The then HR director, John F, was known as a bully. Unfortunately, I was on the receiving end of some seriously vile behaviour for several months. A performance appraisal that starts like this: “You may want to sit with your back to the glass wall so that people won’t see you crying ….”. I’m not joking – and I had always been an exemplary employee. I have never forgotten it or forgiven him. I left and it was the best thing I ever did.

In the end I had the last laugh. Without John F I may never have had the courage to start my own business. It’s been more exciting and enjoyable than being an employee ever was and I swore that never again would I work for or with anyone who treated me with less than courtesy. It may be a luxury to turn business down, but it’s made a better quality of life. I’m glad I let John F to fry in his own poisonous juices and did my own thing. It taught me a lot.

Bullying is a horrible thing. It’s quite right that employers should take steps to identify, prevent and root out bullying. But sometimes the instances described as bullying really aren’t.

Over the last 25 years I have worked with all sorts of businesses, most of whom have gone out of their way to be good employers. The interesting thing is that nearly all of them have been accused of bullying at one time or another. It’s almost always triggered by the same set of circumstances. Either an employer has concerns about an employee’s conduct or performance and seeks to address it, or the employer asks the employee to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. The next thing that follows – almost invariably– are cries that the employer is bullying them.

Here’s a recent example. I have been advising a new CEO (B) on a problem employee (N) for some months now. Just before B started in the company, the outgoing CEO recruited a director (N) who is very expensive and is not just incompetent but toxic to boot. The B has given a good deal of informal feedback and help to N. She wants to help N to improve, but all her efforts have fallen on stony ground.

N has blamed everyone else, made no effort whatsoever to improve and is disingenuous in the extreme. She has behaved like a hissy brat and now that she’s facing formal discipline N has launched a grievance alleging bullying against B. I presume this is to delay the likely outcome of the discipline. It won’t. We’ll separate the grievance from the performance issues, deal with them concurrently with different people chairing the meetings and crack on to explore whether there’s likely to be any change.

If an employer gives feedback to an employee that his or her performance or conduct falls below standard that is not bullying and we should not allow perfectly proper disciplinary processes to be derailed by such accusations. Too many employers are allowing staff to get away with doing the very barest minimum (if that and then badly) because they’re afraid they’ll be called out for bullying.

Look at the nonsense around Dominic Raab….. I cannot comment on whether he has done other things that constitute bullying. What I can say is that some of the examples given, i.e. hard stares. Where does that allegation leave our ursine national treasure, Paddington, whose celebrated hard stares are part of his charm?. Then there’s the throwing of three tomatoes into a paper bag. There are no allegations Mr Raab threw the tomatoes at his staff; which would be grounds for complaint. But these particular complaints are ridiculous and are not acts of bullying. Glaring and stomping round may well be symptoms of utter frustration. Civil servants do not have a reputation for carrying out work efficiently and in a timely manner and his patience may have been tried. If so perhaps Mr Raab should have contained his irritation and quietly chucked the tomatoes into the bin. But none of us are angels.

What saddens me are some of broadsheet newspapers seem to accept these allegations without even the most basic examination of the facts. Such inadequate journalism is shoddy, biased and therefore far worse that any of the red top gutter press.

It may be that some employees need to understand they must accept honest feedback when they receive it. Staff are employed to work. It is perfectly proper for employers to set standards, require them to be achieved and to provide feedback of they are not achieved. It is not bullying to do so. I wish more employers would have the courage of their convictions and start managing under-performers.


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Copyright © 2023 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.