I HATE MY BOSS: Sales may be a highly pressurised working environment but that does not excuse bully-boy tactics by an unprofessional boss, Mary Cowley writes

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 shout.

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

receiving end.

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

seven years.

’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

increasing profitability.

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.


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

upside down.

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

social circle.

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

unprofessional behaviour.

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.


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