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Ignoring bullying boss may not be best

SHARE Ignoring bullying boss may not be best

Judging by the abundance of information, from books to CD-ROMS to courses on how to become a better boss, one might suppose there was no reason for anyone to suffer from bad management any longer.

Ah, if only.

The unfortunate reality, according to one recent survey, is that you are as likely to encounter a bad boss as a good one. The study, carried out by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, surveyed 5,000 employees from public, private and volunteer sectors, almost half of whom said they had experienced or witnessed bullying in the past five years.

And the perpetrators? Surprise, surprise; in three-quarters of cases it was the boss who was to blame.

Take your pick from a catalog of sins: criticizing competent staff, taking away responsibilities and assigning trivial tasks instead, shouting at staff, picking on people in front of colleagues, blocking promotion, setting impossible deadlines and regularly making the same person the butt of jokes.

Sound familiar? If so, you are likely to appreciate the devastating effect this kind of behavior can have on employees — both physically and psychologically.

An experienced public accountant, Angela Holmes had worked for her boss, a senior member of a multinational corporation, for six years before his arrogant manner became too much to bear.

"He was very demanding and I'd seen him behave appallingly to other people, but he was generally OK with me. . . .

"Then one day, when he was on holiday, another colleague asked me to do something for him. Normally I would have been happy to help, but I wasn't able to on that occasion because I was about to go on a computer course. When my boss returned from his holiday, this colleague informed him that I'd been uncooperative. My boss went absolutely ballistic and threw a can of soft drink at me, which hurt me quite badly."

This incident was witnessed by several staffers and she went straight to the human-resources department to lodge a complaint. But there was such animosity between Holmes and her boss that it was decided she should go on sick leave until the matter was sorted out.

"I had a lot of support from my colleagues," says Holmes, "but to be honest I felt that human resources was very much on the management's side. They kept trying to find fault with me even though I'd done nothing wrong, and went back through all my old appraisal records, which were all glowing."

She eventually agreed to leave the company with a fairly substantial financial compensation. "It was a very high-profile company and they were terrified about this getting out. It reflected very badly on them."

Rob Phillips' experience was even worse.

For more than two years he has been seeking recompense for psychiatric injuries he said were inflicted by his former boss.

Although Phillips felt suited to his job and was enjoying a certain amount of success, his boss made him feel so incompetent and worthless that in July 1997 he was diagnosed with a "mixed anxiety and depressive disorder" and has since been under the care of a psychiatrist.

"The company continues to deny that there was such a regime, although my boss was sacked within days of my bringing the situation to the notice of the chief executive. Nothing can prepare you for working with a serial bully. It is the most devastating, draining, misunderstood and ultimately futile experience imaginable."

Experts generally agree that while ignoring the problem may seem the easiest solution, in the long term it may not be the wisest way to proceed.

Their advice ranges from seeking the support of colleagues to making contingency plans and, in particular, putting everything in writing. You may ultimately decide you will be happier elsewhere, but making a positive decision to move is at least preferable to becoming sick as a result of stress and depression.

It is important, they say, to keep a diary of aggressive incidents and to confide in a colleague you trust who might be able to help you develop a strategy to cope. Don't be afraid to contact your human-development department or another manager, but if you still feel unsupported it might be worth talking to a lawyer.

If all else fails and you feel you really must move on, don't let it shake your own self-esteem. Take the moral high ground on your way out — demand exit interviews with top managers and tell anyone who will listen about what has happened. Doing so will be cathartic and allow you to leave with a clear conscience.