It is no wonder that the extent of bullying and harassment at work is disputed when many people who say they have been victims never make a complaint.
The University and College Union's (UCU) survey of bullying in further education, published last week, contained uncomfortable messages for the union itself, with more than half of those who do not make an official complaint about harassment also withholding their experiences from their union.
As one lecturer put it: "I am scared to use the union as in my experience, from a range of colleagues, things became worse and UCU was unable to prevent anything. So I'm worried that if I make a complaint this will lead to further unjustified intervention in my work and my life at work will be even worse than it is at the moment."
The isolation felt by people who believe they are the victims of bullying clearly runs deep, and managers and representatives face a huge challenge to reach them.
Colleges dispute the claims of widespread bullying, which came from a self-selecting group of survey respondents. But figures from Acas, the conciliation service, suggest that around one in ten workers across all industries are the victims of bullying.
So how far can strategies help colleges confront the issue? UCU and the Association of Colleges (AoC) agreed a national policy on bullying and harassment in 2008, which takes as its starting point the victim's perception (see box).
It says: "It is the individual's perception of whether the conduct in question was unacceptable that is important in determining whether harassment occurred.
"Where the conduct in question is found to have been unintentional, it will be viewed as having the effect of harassment if this could be regarded as a reasonable conclusion when taking into account all the circumstances, including the complainant's perception."
But like all such national agreements in FE, it is not binding on colleges. Many have their own bullying policies for staff and students, and some, like Swindon College, have a single policy to deal with all relations between lecturers, managers and students.
Recourse, the helpline for college lecturers, lists examples of forms of bullying mentioned by callers, many of which include a significant element of subjective judgment.
"Whatever I do never seems to be good enough and there are constant attempts to undermine me and my position, status, worth, value and potential," one caller said.
"It seems as if everyone else can get away with anything, but as soon as I put a foot wrong, he is on my case," said another.
Criticism and threats, unfair discrimination, excessive monitoring, unrealistic expectations and obstructing career progression are the most common complaints.
For some, simply airing the grievance can make a difference. The helpline cites the case of a 53-year-old lecturer who had a new line manager after 15 years in post. He felt he was being bullied and his health began to suffer.
The helpline put him in touch with a counsellor, who gave him the confidence to contact his union for support and eventually confront his line manager. The helpline took nearly 1,500 calls last year, with working conditions the third most common issue.
At Nescot College in Surrey, lecturers discovered the downside of strong bullying policies during a series of incidents last year, where they stood accused as the harassers by students who said they were being victimised. The same policy covers students and staff.
In one department, five people were suspended while investigations took place. In the end one person was dismissed, two were cleared and others resigned. Another member of staff in a separate department also resigned after becoming the subject of an investigation.
Loraine Monk, UCU representative at the college, said lecturers find it difficult to clear their name when they are accused, with many people assuming that "there's no smoke without fire".
Relations between lecturers and students could perhaps become the new battleground for bullying claims, with staff for their part reporting incidents such as personal abuse on student evaluation forms.
But Ms Monk said she found it difficult to encourage staff members who felt they were being bullied to come forward with complaints. The only recent case was judged not to warrant disciplinary action.
Bullying by managers is the most common form, according to several surveys. But Ms Monk said staff have little confidence that complaints against more senior colleagues will be taken seriously. One way to tackle that perception might be to include staff or union representatives on an investigation panel. It is not such an unlikely idea - The Manchester College has already tried it in one dispute (see story, right).
The national bullying policy and a series of roadshows that followed it are also evidence of college HR departments and unions working together on the issue.
Evan Williams, employment director at the AoC, said: "There was a lot of good, open discussion. Colleges do take bullying and harassment seriously. They carry out their own staff satisfaction surveys in order to identify concerns at an early stage."
Sunaina Mann, principal at Nescot, said its bullying procedures were vindicated last year when it won a tribunal case challenging the dismissal.
She said: "The tribunal found that Nescot had dealt with it in a very fair manner. There is no way our bullying policy is used as a way of getting rid of people. It's a serious investigation. We don't protect people who are on a management team."
Thorough investigations that take account of the full context and circumstances of alleged bullying behaviour are key, Ms Mann said.
The union added that some changes to the policy had halted the sudden rush of complaints, but the college could also say that its decisive action stopped bad behaviour in its tracks.
Stronger policies which are well-publicised can have an impact, but any individual case will always be a matter of the most delicate judgment.
All's fair: main points of the joint agreement
It is the victim's perception of acceptable conduct that is important in determining harassment. Unintentional behaviour can constitute harassment if a reasonable person would view it as such under the circumstances.
- But managers have a right to make fair and constructive criticisms of employees.
- Employees should feel able to discuss issues with their line manager, but they should be aware of other support mechanisms, such as HR, union reps or counsellors.
- A college can investigate serious bullying even without an employee registering a formal complaint.
- Complaints are dealt with in three stages: an informal discussion, perhaps with HR or union rep support; a formal, outline complaint in writing, with an investigating officer meeting both parties and any witnesses; and an appeal stage.
- The same procedures apply for allegations that students have harassed staff.
- Employees are protected from victimisation as a result of bringing a complaint under the harassment and bullying policy.