Bullying toll should ring the alarm bells

11th June 2010 at 01:00

The sample size may be small and it may be two years old, but it is hard to ignore the findings in the University and College Union's (UCU) report on bullying (page 1).

There may not be many of them, but 130 of the 324 FE respondents said they had been bullied at work in the six months prior to the survey.

It is an astonishing proportion that suggests most of your colleagues are victims or bullies, perhaps both. Can this be true?

Even the UCU is forced to consider in its report whether the results may not be representative of the experiences of its wider membership - the survey sample of 4,000 was selected randomly from the UCU's further, adult and higher education member database - or FE employees as a whole.

Perhaps victims of bullying were more likely than others to respond to the survey, raising the possibility that the thousands who failed to respond had not experienced the problem at all. So the actual level of bullying in FE could be far lower.

But even if the report falls quantitatively short, respondents' detailed picture of intimidation in FE give it qualitative power.

The types of bullying uncovered are many and varied, reflecting the cunning and inventiveness of the workplace bully.

Those accused, usually managers, will no doubt use defences such as the victim was overly sensitive or that their demands were reasonable. Often this is the case - after all, one person's unreasonable workload can be another's welcome challenge.

While simply carrying out their duties, managers are at greater risk of attracting complaints of bullying and these can be professionally and personally damaging. The handbook promised by the Association for College Management will be welcome if it improves manager-staff relations.

But what is perhaps most worrying about the survey is that it shows a majority of employees who make an official complaint feel badly treated by their institution.

To a degree this will reflect sour grapes from those whose unjustified complaints are dismissed, not to mention the skewing effects of a small sample size.

Yet the finding cannot be dismissed easily and should ring alarm bells with colleges. As the UCU says, the cuts facing colleges are likely to increase pressures on staff and the onus on managers to deliver. As a result, complaints of bullying are likely to rise.

Colleges, even the best run, may benefit from a review of relevant procedures now.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus; E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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