Saturday, 1 March 2008

My Head’s A Bully

A single bully in any promoted position within a school can cause enormous damage. They manipulate others, often unsuspecting senior managers who have full confidence in their judgement and do not question their trust as well as their subordinates who they can ‘ply with favours’ or manage by fear.

The bullies often tell blatant lies knowing they will be believed and that they will be supported by their managers regardless of the real facts. They will target the most competent and well liked subordinates as they are perceived by them to be a threat and need to be ‘kept down’.

The unsuspecting targets often do not even realize they are being bullied or that lies are being told to others. Initially they try hard to please the bully manager whose constant unwarranted criticism they accept but never understand.

The result is that they lose confidence. Their health suffers and the bully then uses negative impression management to destroy the reputation of the target to senior management. The management then is manipulated by the bully into increasing pressure on the target.

When this happens, the feeling of helplessness sets in. The target realizes they are being bullied but knows that they are isolated and vulnerable. If they raise a grievance then the bully, from their position of relative power, steps up the bullying hoping to further destroy their target then claim that their target has a ‘mental health problem’ so that they can claim that it is them that is being bullied rather than their target.

These bullies usually have either narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders.

These disorders allow the bullies to be seen as effective, charming and caring by senior managers and some of their subordinates but their true agenda is personal gain, dominance and control.

The result is a ‘hostile working environment’ where there are clear divisions and insecurity, with some staff being favoured and being ‘kept on side’ whilst others are targeted either individually or as a group.

Staff are often given vague instructions or are over controlled. Bullying can take many forms, too little work, too much work, being given responsibility without authority, nit picking, etc. (If it feels bad then it is probably bullying - trust your ‘gut feeling’ !)

People with these disorders have no conscience, tell lies with ease and skill, do not suffer from guilt from their wrongdoing and cannot empathize (though they can feign what they think are appropriate reactions in emotional situations).

They are very dangerous people (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - wolves in sheep’s clothing) and they often gain promotion in schools by a combination of being able to say with conviction at interview that they will do ‘what it takes to get the job done regardless of cost’ and by spreading negative information (privately of course) about their competition.

This all seems unbelievable, unfortunately it happens all too often. Some excellent reading includes - ‘Bully in Sight’, ‘Without Conscience’, ‘Where Ego’s Dare’ and ‘Nasty People’.

The most effective legislation is probably the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997 which makes LEA’s and Councils vicariously liable for stress and anxiety caused by bullying. The time limit for claims is 6 years. You do not need to leave your job and it does not matter if the bully is moved on or leaves. The employer has no defence simply by claiming that they have a ‘dignity at work’ policy in place. The precedent was set in 2006 when it was applied in an employment law situation.

Schools should be good places to work and there is no place for bullies amongst staff. Remember - “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing”.

In bullying situations, there is the bully, the bullied and the bystanders. If the bystanders do nothing then they, by default, side with the bully as they effectively condone their actions.

Finally, even when unmasked, bullies will often continue to lie with conviction and contrive stories to get them out of their situation. Fortunately, they often suffer from poor memories and trip themselves up with their lies.

When called to account, though often still protected by HR and management who do not want the negative publicity of having supported a bully, the bully will feign illness to gain sympathy and divert attention.

A common trait with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder sufferers is to look for pity - “Why does it always happen to me ?” “Why are my staff so incompetent ?”

When you realize that you or other good teachers are subject to bullying, the first thing to do is to read all that you can. Keep an accurate diary of events and file any memos, minutes and notes. Gather hard evidence and keep it at home until it is needed. Insist that any grievance is independent from the school to avoid a total ‘sham’ investigation.

Once you play your cards, ‘serial bullies’ will retaliate by distancing themselves, using others to do their dirty work.

For safety, assume that the bullies will be supported by their seniors and that they will have others lie on their behalf. Do not rely on a fair hearing or support from others as many are fearful that if they support you then they will be the next target.

Bullying is misunderstood - people think they know what it is but in reality few have a good understanding of the subject.

LEA’s and councils do not want staff to realize the extent of the problem.

In the end, the only people who gain from bullying are the bullies and other bullies within the management chain.

If you are being bullied and are forced into grievance procedures then you must be well prepared as there is often substantial bias in favour of the bully manager in internal grievance proceedings.

Neither management nor Human Resources (HR) are keen to find in favour of the complainant and will typically use a variety of tactics to intimidate or wear down the complainant all to avoid a precedent being set and opening the doors for litigation.

These tactics include :
  1. To delay proceedings so that the time limit for eligibility for taking your complaint to an Employment Tribunal is reached. (It must be initially lodged within 3 months of the last bullying incident.)

  2. HR can produce inaccurate records of meetings which you must challenge and correct which wears you down further and encourages you to lose heart.

  3. They fail to answer relevant questions even when lodged in writing. (Ignoring and trivializing are themselves both bullying tactics.)

  4. Bullying is a ‘pattern of unacceptable behaviour’. Each incident in isolation can be and often is trivialized - the focus must be kept on the grievance being a ‘pattern of unacceptable behaviour’ rather than focusing on individual incidents.

  5. Investigators are often not qualified to effectively investigate bullying - they should know to look for signs of a ‘hostile working environment’ - high staff turnover - high sickness - low morale from some of the staff - secrecy - a polarization of views from people being interviewed with some speaking very highly of the bully (those favoured by the bully and who like the status quo) while very few openly support the bullied. Investigators should but often do not take account of the employment status of those being interviewed - NQT’s, those on temporary contracts and those looking for a good report for future jobs are very scared to say anything against even the worst bully. Only the secure staff in safe positions who are not looking for anything from the bully (or management) and who have suffered themselves are likely to provide accurate information.

  6. Management often threaten Disciplinary Action on ‘trumped up’ charges to divert attention and increase stress further.

  7. They can change personnel during investigation to dilute rigor and avoid accountability when the wrong decisions are eventually reached.

  8. Probably the worst abuse is for them to ignore hard evidence which clearly demonstrates bullying and close the investigation without looking at substantial evidence they know to be available.

  9. They suggest that its simply a ‘personality clash’ or ‘a breakdown in relationships’ with ‘faults on both sides’.

  10. The bully will often lodge a counter claim that it is them that is being bullied. Experienced investigators know that counter claims actually strengthen the initial claim of the person being bullied. There are lots of other things they do - the bullies have often been through the procedures before and know how to abuse it making it even less effective. As regards claims by HR/management that there are ‘faults on both sides’ - simply point out that, like in child and domestic abuse where there is an imbalance in power, the abuser, when called to account often blames the abused and the result is a breakdown in relationships. There is only one person at fault. It’s the same with bullying. What I am saying is - be well prepared, look after yourself, know what to expect re your health as you will suffer symptoms of stress and by knowing what to expect it is less alarming when the symptoms appear, you will realise that the symptoms are a ‘normal reaction’ to bullying - keep records - keep reminding yourself or those you are supporting that you/they have done nothing to deserve the abuse received and assume that you will need to fight on and on to get justice. Read all you can.

  11. Finally - HR / management will encourage you to keep quiet about proceedings - this helps the bully - know your rights on what is confidential and what can be shared - don’t be intimidated - get things in writing and challenge unreasonable requests for secrecy - share what you can - keep your union involved (but don’t expect much support as often the bully is in the same union and the union gets scared about their own legal position. That said, the more experience the local reps get the more they will understand and be able to advise others in the future. - there is no advantage in falling out with the union, it simply plays into management’s hands.) Learn about bullying in the workplace and educate others. Like someone said earlier - Bullying has to become as socially unacceptable as drink driving, child abuse and all the discrimination that used to be widespread. For this to happen, everyone has to be able to recognize the difference between bullying and ‘strong management’. Strong management is effective but never involves bullying.