Is it bullying?

Many of us can recall at least one job we’d sooner forget. In a people business like law, the awful jobs are often those in which we have been forced to work with a colleague or boss that has seemingly gone out of their way to make our life miserable. The bad behaviour could take many forms, from constantly denigrating your work and ideas, to making jibes about your appearance and/or ridiculing you in front of others.

Some view such experience as a rite of passage – a supposed ‘healthy toughening up’ – and it happens in every industry. There are many examples of the ‘fools errand’ with apprentices being sent off to a supplier for a ‘long stand’…

Law firms are no different, with many a partner only too willing to introduce their juniors to some of the character-forming trials of their own fledging years in law. Some tough love can even be critical for ensuring lawyers are equipped for dealing with those more challenging clients.

But where do you draw the line? Office banter is one thing. But continually being at the receiving end of practical jokes, sarcasm, or snide remarks is quite another. And bullying can be far subtler – being overloaded with work that is unachievable, for example, or being unfairly criticised, ignored, or belittled.

Unlike harassment, which deals with unwanted conduct relating to a ‘protected characteristic’ such as sex or race, what constitutes bullying is more vague but no less harmful. It is hugely stressful to the victim as well as their colleagues who witness the behaviour and its impact, but feel powerless to act. This affects the wellbeing of employees and undermines the firm as a whole.

Bullying was found to be the second biggest cause of stress for lawyers after workload, according to a survey by LawCare, a support charity for lawyers. And it is on the rise, with 19% citing bullying as the cause of their stress in 2013 compared to 14% in 2011/2012.

Bullying, while not defined in law, usually takes the form of repeated and persistent negative behaviour against an individual. For instance, most people would describe their workload as heavy but where it could be straying into bullying is if a person is being continually singled out to bear the brunt, with no good reason and without support.

Those who feel they are being treated unfairly or in a way that makes them uncomfortable, should, as a first step, calmly speak to the person involved but without labelling them as a bully. It is an emotive word and they may not even realise what they are doing. There may be a reason for their behaviour. Try to be specific about what it is that is upsetting.

If speaking directly to the bully is difficult, the victim should find a sympathetic colleague, who could raise it on their behalf. Company policy should also be checked as to what might constitute inappropriate behaviour and how it should be addressed, and if the behaviour is on-going, keep a record of what is happening. Some firms provide helplines for health and stress-related issues that can be a useful source of support.

In a lot of instances, the bullying behaviour will come to an end – either because the bully moves on to another victim, they themselves move to another job or department, or you decide to move on yourself. But just hoping it will pass is hardly an answer for those suffering the worst instances of abusive behaviour.

Zero tolerance

Firms must ensure they have the support in place to allow employees to address such problems earlier and without fear of damaging their reputation by speaking out. Remedying the problem has to extend to dealing with the bullies too – even if it’s a partner who brings in a lot of revenue but whose behaviour is known to be unacceptable. For a few firms, this still remains a challenge.

For employees, it is a tough call – you don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker or mark yourself out for further bullying. It is even harder if the bully is your supervising partner, whose goodwill you feel is critical for getting ahead. But everyone has the right to work free from abuse.

This is why it is so important that firms take a strong line on bullying. This means having a firm-wide policy on what specifically constitutes bullying behaviour, allied to clear actions designed to remedy and ultimately eradicate it. Only then can a firm boast that it truly nurtures all of its talent, so helping to attract and retain the best and building the future prosperity of the business.

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