Bossing and bullying - the difference

Bullies can make your life a misery, blighting schooldays, work and social life with far-reaching consequences.

It happens but it is rarely spoken of - bullying at work.

You may be aware of it; you may be the victim of it but it is one of the hardest things to acknowledge and is notoriously difficult to deal with, especially when the bully is your boss.

You might ask why would a boss need to bully - surely he or she is already in charge and shouldn't need to resort to such tactics?

Bullying is a nasty process by which someone assumes power over another person and then sets about damaging their confidence and self-esteem.

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It may involve threats, overt or tacit.

Bullying at work is in the spotlight this week after allegations in a new book that Prime Minister Gordon Brown bullied Downing Street staff. Mr Brown has dismissed claims he intimidated junior staff.

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Lord Sugar, appointed Enterprise Tsar last year, contributed to the debate yesterday, saying: “Do you want some docile type of person who is just not going to have any spirit about them or do you want someone who has got a bit of fire in their belly, who will react, who will get a bit emotional sometimes?”

“That is not bullying as far as I am concerned,” he said, adding that there was a distinct difference between a bully and a boss that “gets frustrated or upset about inefficiency, about mistakes that are going on or pressures that are being brought to bear on them.”

It won't have escaped anyone's notice that we are approaching a general election and there will be political flak flying in all directions but while the Westminster commentators may mull over specific ministerial anger management issues, it is no bad thing that people are talking about bullying at work.

It can be hard to admit you are being bullied. The word is most often thought of in relation to children and playground behaviour but there is an element of savagery about bullying. It is sometimes perceived as the strong preying on the weak but, in reality, the bully is more often attempting to disguise his or her own weaknesses by striking out.

A dictionary definition of a bully describes a “blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people”.

According to Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, bullying can mean offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour.

It can also be an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Acas says bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people.

Bullying may be obvious or it may be insidious.

Bullying behaviour can include spreading malicious rumours, insulting someone by word or behaviour, copying memos that are critical about someone to others, ridiculing or demeaning someone, setting them up to fail and overbearing supervision may all constitute bullying .

Behaviour classed as bullying may also include making threats or comments about job security without foundation, deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism or preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.

Acas stresses that bullying does not have to be face to face, it can occur in written communications, by email, by phone, or even in behaviour like automatically recording a worker's downtime if it does not apply to all workers.

The victim may end up feeling anxious, humiliated, angry and frustrated at being unable to cope.

Some may try to retaliate, others become frightened and demotivated according to Acas.

The stress and loss of self-confidence can lead to illness, absence from work and even resignation.

Acas advises anyone who is not sure whether their treatment is acceptable to consider if there is a change of management or organisational style to which they need time to adjust.

It suggests talking over any worries with the personnel manager, line manager, union representative or colleagues and consulting the organisation's guide on expected standards of behaviour. Acas has a helpline on 08457 474747.

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying in the workplace and an organisational statement to all staff about the standards of behaviour expected can make everyone aware of their responsibilities to others.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and if that trust is broken, an employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal on the grounds of breach of contract if they have worked there for at least 12 months.

Acas says employers must protect an employee's health and safety at work and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says employers must take steps to make sure employees “do not suffer stress-related illness as a result of work”.

The Government website addresses the issue on its employment pages, giving examples of bullying behaviour as being constantly picked on; humiliated in front of colleagues; regularly unfairly treated; physically or verbally abused; blamed for problems caused by others ; always given too much to do, so that you regularly fail in your work; regularly threatened with the sack; unfairly passed over for promotion or denied training opportunities.

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