How To Handle Workplace Bullying

Paul Ainsworth

Paul has been writing for the Teacher Toolkit website since 2012 and is the author of ‘No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement’. He is a system leader supporting primary schools, secondary schools and MATs currently with with Infinity Academies Trust as Education…
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How would you workplace address bullying?

Bullying in the workplace happens too often. It is a sad fact that, even if we have not been there, we have seen someone who has been through this. It can destroy self-esteem, career and even health. So, what can we do when it arises?

It is anti-bullying this week, but bullying does not only affect the pupils.

Avoid toxic cultures

We need to try and avoid working in situations where people are not treated positively. You could attempt to establish whether a school or organization that you are considering working in is toxic or not. A toxic culture might, at best feature poor people management, or at worst bullying might be endemic within the organisation. To try to assess whether an organization is toxic, you could refer to the Teacher Toolkit article, identify a toxic school and use the resource, identifying a toxic school to support your judgments. The simple truth is that unless you are the head of a school, you will not be able to change this culture. In the spirit of avoiding pain, then you are best avoiding such an organisation.

It may not be possible to identify this from the outlet. It could be a new organization with no track record. Also, a particular colleague’s or a new colleague’s behavior could change the dynamic for the worse.

The Bullying Head

The most challenging scenario is when the bully is the Headteacher. All organizations should have a whistle-blowing policy which you can use to protect you in raising allegations. Unfortunately, regardless of what is in the document, the situation can be untenable for the colleague. The only time when I have seen this work was when a very senior group of colleagues addressed the situation together and it resulted in the leader resigning from the organisation. This is exceedingly rare.

Avoidance the bully

The first strategy is simple avoidance. Please note, this is not a recommended long-term solution. Can you avoid the colleague or keep your head below the parapet? In one organisation, we had a collective joke about the ‘laser dot’ (ie the bully), moving around the room. There’s nothing like a common enemy to help you bond with colleagues! We avoided putting ourselves in the firing line and chose not to challenge certain decisions. Instead, we casually dropped in alternative suggestions over time, in the hope that the leader would accept them without them being seen as criticisms. Equally working out what the bully is most concerned about, can also help you by ensuring that those elements of your role are well done. However ultimately, although challenging, bullies should be made accountable for their behaviour.

Cutting your losses

If the bullying becomes too bad, and it affects your well-being, I would suggest looking for a new job. This may seem an extreme suggestion but there are lots of schools around and life is too short to make yourself ill or to put up with an unhappy workplace. Instead by taking control of the situation, you can find a workplace that suits you better.

The bully in the staffroom

If the bully is a leader below the Headteacher, you may have a happier outcome and a less complex solution. Try following these points.

  1. Try and stay as calm as you can, remembering that criticism or personal remarks are not related to your abilities. They reflect the bully’s weaknesses and are meant to intimidate and control you.
  2. Talk to colleagues you trust to try and discover if they also feel that you are unfairly targeted.
  3. Some people suggest trying to discuss the situation with the bully as the behavior may not be deliberate and they may not realize how their behavior has affected them. Work out what to say beforehand. Then stay calm and explain to the bully what has been happening and why your object to it.
  4. You can also try and keep a record of situations when you feel you have been bullied. Try and ensure that these notes are not emotive but based on fact.
  5. You then need to talk to a leader or governor you trust about the situation; preferably someone who is above the bully in the hierarchy. Then see if they are prepared to act. They may choose to investigate the scenario as a possible discipline incident. They may choose to look at it as a grievance and see if they can use mediation to help remediate the situation.

Take it further

If you feel that your concerns are not taken seriously, you can choose to raise it formally as a grievance or in the most serious scenario by using the whistleblowing policy. A grievance procedure is a formal way for an employee to raise a problem or complaint to their employer. The employee can raise a grievance if they feel raised it informally has not worked, they do not want it dealt with informally or it’s a very serious issue, for example, sexual harassment or ‘whistleblowing’. The whistleblowing policy should be available on your school’s website. You could take this to your Headteacher or the Chair of Governors. At this stage, it is recommended that you seek advice from your professional organization or union.

Stockholm Syndrome

One situation that unfortunately I see in many schools, is that some elements of bullying are seen as normalised, and even becoming a little like Stockholm syndrome. This is where hostages develop a bond with their captors (There is a great ‘sideways’ podcast by Matthew Syed on this topic). The teacher does not feel that they can leave the school or take any action. Instead, they end up advocating for the bully, buying gifts or praising them on social media. In the hope that this will either keep the bully happy or divert their focus to somebody else instead.

Where can I get help?

  1. Your union or professional organisation
  2. ACAS helpline
  3. Citizens Advice: Problems at work
  4. Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
  5. Samaritans
  6. Mind

Do not be alone

If you feel that you are being bullied, talk to people you trust and ask for their views. Seek informal or formal avenues to deal with your situation.

For formal avenues, always seek professional advice. If it affects your well-being, then try and take control of the situation. Moving to a different organization can give you a fresh start and may be the way to become well again.

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