For reasons so obscure that they now escape me, I found myself the other day looking at the results of a 2008 survey on workplace bullying in Poland. I did say the reasons were obscure!
The article, on the website of the European Working Conditions Observatory European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) included some illuminating statistics on both the nature and perpetrators of such bullying (known as “mobbing” in Poland). These showed that men in Poland are mostly bullied by other men, while women are predominantly bullied by other women. The peak age for being bullied was 41-50 for both sexes. The statistics were mostly “illuminating”, however, because they show a substantial mirror of the sort of bullying complaints we see increasingly in the UK. The most commonly-experienced form of bullying? By the narrowest of margins, “unfair assessment of efforts”, closely followed by “criticism of the victim’s decisions” and in honourable third place, “slander”.
It must of course be accepted that some employers can be utterly repellent in these and many other ways, but is it not at least theoretically possible that to some extent this is merely the product of people who are making poor decisions or doing poor work being told about it? After all, one man’s bullying is another’s management.
The statistics highlight the perennial difficulty in objectivising managerial behaviours without an absolutely full picture of the context. Is shouting at an employee, though obviously never desirable, still bullying if it follows that employee’s persistent failure to get something right? Is bad language, again never really justifiable, at least more excusable in an environment where it is commonplace? Is “shunning by superior” (the fourth most popular form of bullying in the Polish survey) still bullying if the boss is merely keeping a distance to protect himself from allegations of harassment? And what heed can be taken of the nature of the individual alleging “mobbing”? If he is a bit of a thug himself, does that make it OK (in the sense of not really bullying) to treat him in a way that you would not use for the acknowledged wallflowers in your workforce?
Perhaps it is these questions which explain why English law has never been able to define bullying and why there is (and hopefully remains) no free-standing cause of action for it in the UK unless it is attached to discrimination, breach of contract or personal injury. And if you do not believe me on this, find an old copy of the Dignity at Work Bill from 1997 Dignity at Work Bill 1997 – Bing as the most recent attempt on this, and see what might have been if reality had not intruded.