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When the bully is on the staff

No one seems able or willing to help a victim of workplace bullying To begin with, who will believe you? Workplace bullying is rarely conducted in public, especially if the people involved are senior figures within a school.

Doubts about the victim's competence are easily planted - especially among ambitious junior colleagues. And if, in order to get rid of the victim, the bully threatens disciplinary action, even the teacher unions tend to assume that there is no smoke without fire.

So there is a minor breakdown and a long absence on sick leave to prevent a major one. The victim, perfectly healthy away from the bully, desperately applies for other jobs and becomes more and more discouraged as she fails to reach a single shortlist.

Why is it that prospective employers aren't interested in an exceptionally well-qualified candidate? Is it the response to the dreaded question: "Have you been absent from work for health reasons for more than a fortnight in the past two years? If so, give reasons." Or is it the bully's reference, which mentions your "inability to cope with responsibility" and "prolonged period of ill health caused by stress"? And, of course, the fact that the jobs being applied for are far junior to those on the CV.

Where does the victim turn? The GP is supportive but can do little for a patient who is not taking medication. But the panic attacks, which strike when the victim encounters the bully, do warrant a sick note. Clearly she cannot go back to her old job without danger of serious breakdown but, beyond that, the GP can do nothing.

The teacher's union drags its heels, more concerned about future relations with the school than with one of its members who has left the scene. The victim is urged to sign the agreement the school has drawn up: apply for early retirement on grounds of ill health - and sign away any rights to legal redress.

The bully assures anxious parents and colleagues that, free from responsibilities with which she could not cope, the victim will live happily on her pension. The school governors (this is an independent school) would rather not know what has happened. End of story.

Only it isn't the end. The victim has a family to support; wants to continue a career which had been satisfying and successful until three years ago when she was persuaded by the bully to change jobs. The pension, even if granted, would be less than Pounds 5,000 a year - hardly enough to pay a mortgage and raise a family! And it won't be granted. The Teachers' Pension Agency calls for an independent psychiatrist's report and the victim withdraws her application for release of pension - away from the bully she is perfectly well.

She must get another job to support her family and where else but in teaching? But what are the chances of getting a job when you are over-qualified, too close to 50, have a reference which will do more harm than good and a decidedly dodgy recent record of ill health?

There is no happy ending to this story. The victim, unemployed, seeing her career in ruins, her talents wasted, can only howl at the moon: "It's not fair!" Is there anyone who will offer advice? Strategies? Routes out of a hole which was not of her own digging? Not comfort - friends and family supply that. And this victim is not oppressed. She is angry!

* Genuine advice can be sent co Sarah Bayliss, Features Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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