Everyone has the odd occasion when they eye up the boss and think:
’I hate you so much right now!’. On some days, it seems that no matter
how many deadlines or targets you meet, all the boss can do is nag or
There is little doubt advertising sales is a tough, competitive business
and tempers do become frayed. But what happens when work becomes a
living hell, with the boss criticising every piece of work you do? Worse
still, what if it starts getting personal?
Bullying at work is a serious issue and ignoring it can cost employers
dear, both in human and economic terms. A recent study by the University
of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology estimates that UK
businesses lose 18 million working days each year as a result of
bullying in the workplace.
However, employees are beginning to fight back. Last October, workers at
Ford’s Dagenham plant staged a walkout protest to highlight the problem
of racism and bullying. In February, the Law Society, the professional
body for solicitors in England and Wales, found itself at the centre of
a huge legal row.
When it suspended vice-president Kamlesh Bahl over allegations of
bullying, she hit back with her own allegations of racism and
While the term ’bullying’ summons up images of school children extorting
dinner money, the problem with intimidating behaviour in the workplace
is that it can be altogether more subtle. One minute the boss is
laughing about a team night out, the next he is sending an e-mail to the
entire sales office criticising your recent presentation.
The Trades Union Congress ran a ’bad bosses’ hotline for five days in
December 1997. Marie, a former account manager for a telecoms company,
called the line to complain about her superior’s unpredictable
behaviour. She says: ’The boss knew she was a bully because when she
felt she had pushed things too far, she would turn on the charm,
offering us time off for our hard work. But I didn’t want time off, I
just wanted to be treated with some respect.’
However, according to Carole Spiers, an occupational stress consultant
and associate director of the Andrea Adams Consultancy, a charity
established to counteract workplace harassment, most bullies have no
idea how their behaviour affects those around them. ’They tend to think
that they are not a bully and, when challenged, say they’ve always been
like this, so what’s the problem?’ she says.
One of the problems is that there is no specific legal definition of
bullying so there are many grey areas. However, according to ACAS’s
Bullying and Harassment at Work - a Guide for Managers and Employers, in
general terms, bullying can be characterised as ’offensive,
intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of
power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or
injure the recipient’. This can cover sexual, religious and racial
harassment - and more.
Ronnie Fox, an employment law specialist and senior partner at City
solicitors Fox Williams, says he was once approached about an incident
where an employee with a penchant for munching chocolate was offended
after receiving an anonymous packet of Maltesers in the internal post.
’Some people are very robust and can ignore bad behaviour and shrug it
off,’ Fox says. ’But it differs according to people’s perceptions of
ordinary standards of good behaviour.’
In addition, some working environments are more susceptible to bullying
tactics than others. ’Bullies tend to be goal-orientated people who are
driven to achieve targets through competition and working to tight
deadlines,’ explains Fox. However, this could apply to a large number of
bosses and it is also a neat description of the average sales
However, while it is unusual for bullying in the workplace to escalate
into fisticuffs and physical abuse, whatever form such harassment takes
can result in enormous stress for the unfortunate person on the
Annabel Wright is a welfare counsellor and the helpline manager for the
National Advertising Benevolent Society, which offers advice on work
She says her organisation rarely receives specific complaints about
bullying, but then goes on to list a number of symptoms of bullying
reported by callers to the charity.
’We have heard stories of shouting, abusive language, humiliating a
person in front of others, excessive supervision, excessive criticism of
minor things, overruling a person’s authority, setting impossible
objectives, failing to communicate changes in the work remit and then
reprimanding the person, and spreading malicious rumours,’ she says.
Wright cites the example of Simon, a 32-year-old sales manager. ’Simon
had been working for a high-profile leisure magazine for five years.
David, his boss, was obviously under a lot of pressure to hit targets
and took out his stress on all the staff with his abusive and dismissive
language,’ she explains.
Interestingly, Simon and his colleagues felt this sort of behaviour was
typical of the ad sales environment. However the situation escalated
when David lost his temper with Simon over a minor incident. ’He swore
violently at him in front of the whole sales team and threatened him
with physical harm,’ says Wright. This proved to be the final straw and
Simon walked out.
On the advice of NABS, Simon arranged to talk the incident through with
his boss and make a written record of what was discussed. ’In the
meeting, David dismissed the incident and ridiculed Simon for having
taken it so seriously,’ says Wright. Simon explained that since David
refused to acknowledge his unacceptable behaviour, he would make a
formal complaint via the company’s human resources department. ’David
then realised the seriousness of the situation and agreed to be more
careful about how he dealt with people in the future,’ Wright adds.
According to experts, this is the most appropriate way to deal with
workplace bullies. By waiting for tempers to cool, it should be possible
to have a constructive discussion with the perpetrator. However, one of
the most unpleasant aspects of bullying is the ease with which one
person can disempower another.
’The problem is that the victims lose their self-esteem and don’t have
the skills to address the individual concerned directly,’ says
She also says it is easy for such talks to get out of hand with emotions
running high on both sides. ’The most forward-thinking organisations
have teams of employees trained in counselling skills,’ she adds.
If direct action is not possible, the best advice is to seek out the
human resources department and make a formal complaint to somebody who
will treat matters seriously while maintaining a neutral and objective
This is certainly how the Telegraph Group approaches bullying and
harassment issues, although corporate affairs manager Joy Grover is keen
to stress that no formal complaints have been made for at least the past
’It’s a matter of best practice that we have a policy in place that
follows the ACAS guidelines,’ she says.
In the company handbook, all Telegraph staff are advised to report any
unacceptable behaviour either to their line manager or the personnel
For potential investigative or legal purposes, employees are asked to
keep a record of all incidents, conversations and written material
relating to the complaint. In addition, staff are encouraged to talk
with the perpetrator directly.
However, if an employee wishes to make a formal complaint, a full
investigation is undertaken by the personnel department and senior
management and, depending on the outcome, disciplinary procedures may
follow. ’We also have a full-time occupational health therapist who
offers counselling and helps staff manage stress,’ adds Grover.
Bullying can take many forms, from hate-mail and abuse of automatic
supervision methods such as recording telephone conversations, to
face-to-face comments or threats.
Unfortunately, some organisations tacitly encourage a culture of
bullying as a somewhat misguided means of controlling staff or
In this case, the only recourse may be to leave the company, armed with
enough documentary evidence - e-mails, letters, memos and appraisals -
to proceed with legal action.
But for any individual who suspects their superior is a bully, the
advice is to speak up. As Spiers explains: ’Bullies who get away with it
will carry on abusing their position and can establish a reign of terror
that goes on for years.’
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the anonymity
of the individuals concerned.
CONFESSIONS OF A BULLIED SALESMAN
Steve, a sales manager, enjoyed his job. He had been with his publishing
company for six years and had reached a position where he led a
successful team. He got on well with his colleagues and thought
everything was running smoothly.
But in March 1998, Steve’s line manager moved on and was replaced by
Sam, who set about making her presence felt immediately. This heralded
the beginning of six months of hell in which Steve’s life was turned
From the outset, Steve felt Sam showed little interest in what made the
people around her tick. In addition, she seemed intent on change simply
for the sake of it. Steve, who was once part of the decision-making
process, gradually found himself left out in the cold, learning of new
developments in the department from the other members of his team.
Matters became worse when Sam began making snide comments about Steve’s
abilities in front of the rest of his team. She also increased Steve’s
workload and, when challenged, started hinting that if the job was too
much for Steve, he should consider his position.
Steve was worried and confused.
He understood a new boss would want to instigate some changes, but he
could not figure out why Sam refused to discuss the situation with him
and was shutting him out.
His anxiety soon turned to panic. ’I was being asked to do the
impossible and I began to question whether the mistakes I was supposed
to have made were really my fault,’ he says.
Steve felt life in and out of the office was becoming intolerable. His
manager was phoning him at home to ask seemingly trivial questions,
while at work she was setting unrealistic tasks and deadlines. Once,
when she realised Steve was absent, Sam even called a meeting to discuss
future plans with the rest of his team.
After several months on the receiving end of Sam’s taunts, Steve began
to display the physical symptoms of stress. He was sleeping badly,
becoming increasingly irritable and began to isolate himself from his
After work, instead of seeing friends, he would escape home to an
evening in front of the television with a few drinks for company.
’I was persistently picked on and my work was continually criticised,
even through I knew my standards hadn’t slipped,’ he says.
After one particularly nasty incident when Sam knocked his performance
in front of his team, Steve felt so stressed he went to his GP. The
doctor signed him off sick from work and Steve eventually decided to
quit the job.
Thinking he had nothing to lose, Steve used his exit interview to voice
his feelings about Sam’s misconduct. He thought the company would be
forced to act to prevent other sales people from being subjected to her
However, Sam is still with the company despite indications that two
junior members of the sales force have quit as a result of her
As for Steve, he has abandoned the sales industry. He is using his
experience to help others and now works in stress management.