Bullying is a major and growing concern. FE Focus has carried reports of "bullying cultures" in local learning and skills councils and further education colleges. It is now the third most frequent reason for members of the Association for College Management calling our helpline. The problem might be even greater as bullying may be behind other work-related stress issues.
What has led to this increase? Since incorporation there has been growing pressure on colleges and managers to perform. Years of financial constraint have led to thousands of managers being made redundant. And those who remain find themselves picking up extra responsibilities.
FE managers routinely work excessive hours. National targets, inspections and the raft of bureaucratic demands only add to the burden. On one recent visit to a college, two-thirds of ACM members had visited their doctors and been prescribed medication for work-related stress.
Bullying is persistent unwanted behaviour that causes distress to the victim. At work it often focuses on distorted or fabricated allegations of poor performance. It is a form of abuse.
Most people know when they are being bullied. Common signs include fault-finding, shouting, abusive or intimidating language, being singled out for criticism, being asked to perform unrealistic tasks, work overload or having work taken away. Bullying very often involves people being ignored, marginalised, overruled or undermined or being put down, patronised or humiliated in front of others. Bullies often do not realise they are bullying.
Regular criticism of a person's work that might contain some grain of truth is not about performance so much as the need to control. There are proper established procedures for improving performance and undue criticism is not one of them. Managers can be accused of bullying when they take up capability issues with staff, so it is vital that proper procedures are used, effective communication employed and transparency observed.
The effects of bullying can be catastrophic. The victim's performance may be affected and their self-esteem will suffer. Worse, they can become seriously ill. Common effects include stress, anxiety, frequent colds and viral infections, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and panic attacks. Victims may feel guilt, as though somehow they deserve the bully's attention. This is a normal reaction, and is caused by the bully trying to gain control over the victim, much like any abuser.
Sadly, in some colleges, bullying is endemic. For example, we know of one college where the bullying culture spread from the top down. It took a change of leadership to crack the culture, but the incoming principal had an uphill task.
Bullying is always unacceptable and can result in expensive employment tribunals. So what can colleges do? ACM believes a change in college culture is needed. Blame and shame must be replaced with communication and teamwork. Everyone should be involved in the process, from unions to senior management. The aim should be to develop not just an anti-bullying policy, but also a new approach to staff management and working together.
As well as setting out examples of unacceptable behaviour, the policy should also incorporate equal opportunities measures and procedures for tackling complaints of bullying. Simply using the grievance procedure may not be enough as victims are often reluctant to make formal complaints.
But, while an informal route is desirable, it should not be seen as a substitute for formal action. This means any complaints procedure must make clear that victimisation of those making complaints will be a serious disciplinary offence.
The policy itself should become part of the college induction and training routine. More important, senior management should embrace it. A culture of bullying is often a sign that employment relations practice is also in a poor state. So a wider programme of management training on employment procedures may be desirable. Often, the first hurdle is recognising there is a problem. Senior management should talk to the unions and look at sickness records. High levels of stress absence may indicate an underlying bullying culture.
At national level, politicians and bureaucrats should consider the often-unintended results of their policies. The LSC should keep its promises to reduce red tape and simplify funding. The inspection framework should recognise the external pressures that affect colleges' performance, as happens in schools.
Failure to confront bullying will only lead to more managers leaving colleges, something the sector just cannot afford.
Peter Pendle is general secretary of the Association for College Management Have you been bullied at work? Ring 020 7782 338532843049