Anti-bullying therapists, you’re fired!
As The Apprentice comes to an end, let us challenge the idea that bullying bosses are making life hell for British workers.
Lucinda Ledgerwood, a successful risk manager from Edinburgh, was the latest candidate to be fired from BBC TV’s hit reality show The Apprentice. Boss Sir Alan Sugar said she was ‘too zany’. Predictably, Lucinda, like some of her fellow fired contestants, complained that she had been bullied. She said the other contestants did not like her because of her posh accent and her quirky dress style.
International car trader, Sara Dhada, who was fired in week eight of the show, also claimed that she was bullied throughout the contest, and she was offended at being asked to sell curry in a pub during the month of Ramadan. A top Liverpool lawyer, Rex Makin, accused Sir Alan of bullying the half-Jewish Michael Sophocles when he laid into him for not knowing what kosher meant. Sugar, himself Jewish, suggested Sophocles pull his pants down to reveal whether he was really a ‘good Jewish boy’.
You could say that The Apprentice is just a reality TV show that needs to attract millions of viewers each week (last week’s episode drew 7.5million viewers), so it is not really surprising that it contains a bit of high-strung drama. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the recent accusations of bullying on The Apprentice as exceptional; they are, in fact, examples of a wider social phenomenon. Many would have us believe that there is an ‘epidemic’ of bullying in the workplace.
The UK Nursing Times reported last month that 60 per cent of nurses from 37 nursing theatres had experienced bullying, shouting or rudeness from a surgeon in the past six months. When Unite, the UK’s largest union, surveyed 860 members working in the electronics and IT sectors earlier this year, 65 per cent reported that they had experienced bullying at work; 55 per cent said they had witnessed bullying in their workplace. Another recent survey by the Work-Life Balance Centre at Coventry University, England, highlighted the IT sector as one of the worst areas of bullying.
We read and hear more and more about instances of bullying in the workplace. Why is this word ‘bullying’ so widely used today – one might even say overused? I have been a manager for 20 years and it is only in the past 10 to 12 years that the term ‘bullying’ has gained resonance at the workplace. So what has changed?
In the past, as now, work was about delivering objectives; this is what people are employed to do. Then, as now, you would befriend some colleagues, hate working with others, and gossip about all sorts of things at work – including any ‘juicy’ news about your supervisor – and then go home to another life with your parents, partners or children. At the end of the day, you understood that even if you did not get on with all your colleagues, the job had to be finished or you would risk getting fired, taking a pay cut or losing your bonus.
If a workmate was very rude or aggressive to you, you might moan about it to your best friend at work or try to keep out of that person’s way. Sometimes, other workmates may decide to disown the ‘aggressor’ on your behalf, or the hostility would just die down after a while. Mostly, colleagues showed a sense of togetherness in the face of their sometimes hectoring supervisors.
If your supervisor behaved harshly, as some people believe Sir Alan Sugar does, then you normally would have put it down to the prerogative of management. Similarly, if, during an operation, a surgeon behaved in a rude fashion to the theatre nurse, it would generally be understood that such behaviour is normal in stressful moments; I used to be a theatre nurse myself and, believe me, work in a life-or-death situation can be terrifying.
That, perhaps, is what it used to be like – but workplaces and workers have changed. Or have they? The objective of work today remains the same: fulfilling what you were employed to do and earning your pay. Professional procedures also remain very similar; we still work with others and report to a supervisor or manager. However, from the mid-1990s onwards, certain actions at work began to be defined through the prism of bullying. Employers were encouraged to put in place processes for employees to use if they felt they were being bullied. It soon became unfashionable to cry on a workmate’s shoulder if you thought someone was behaving badly to you. Today, it is more common to use a formal process, which can involve endless meetings with your manager and with the aggressor. At the end, both you and your ‘bully’ could be offered some kind of therapy to teach you how to behave and how to cope with your troubled emotions.
No one in their right mind would say that bullying never occurs at workplaces. What is questionable is the broadness of the definition of bullying and the form of the solutions offered. According to these definitions, just about anyone who has ever worked has experienced workplace bullying. The list of things that have been defined as bullying is almost endless. Some examples are: being given too much work by your managers, other workers making unwanted eye contact or smiling at you in the ‘wrong way’, being excluded from meetings or social events, and being ridiculed or excessively monitored.
With the definition being so generic, we could all be instigating bullying grievance procedures! What’s more, the large number of surveys asking us to consider things like ‘are you being treated fairly by your employer and by your fellow employees?’ just keep the potential of being bullied constantly in our minds, making us overly self-conscious and suspicious of others.
So perhaps we should not be surprised to hear accusations of bullying by the wannabe apprentices on Sir Alan’s TV show. I am sure more accusations will fly this week, when three more contestants get fired in the final episode and one gets hired.
Should we accept that life at work has simply changed, and that people’s attitudes have changed, too? Perhaps people today simply accept this trend of being suspicious of others at work?
I don’t wish to romanticise what went on before the bullying phenomenon crept into our work life, but there was something different then that is worth reviving. Rather than running to your supervisor with stories of being bullied, you tended to find solace with your workmates. That sense of togetherness – of your friends helping you out and looking after you – made companionship at work a special type of relationship. It also demonstrated that you and your colleagues were able to resolve issues on your own – like adults.
This meant people also had enough common sense to know when an act really was so serious that it should be escalated further up the management line. Now we are all encouraged to report on each other so that someone up there – who is usually external to the office: a therapist for instance – can protect us. Today, we are increasingly treated like sensitive children who can’t sort out our own problems but must get help from an authority figure. This is a step backwards.
Pettiness in the office is nothing new and competition, jealousy and rivalry are all part of work. It is in our interest to accept this as part of everyday office life. The push to make us question our work life and relations with colleagues can only have the effect of distracting us from delivering on organisational objectives, performing well and developing professionally. It becomes a self-limiting preoccupation, and it increases the individuation that already exists at the modern-day workplace.
It’s time to say ‘you’re fired’ to the army of occupational therapists and other professionals obsessing about our emotional life.
Para Mullan is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She has been working in human resources for 15 years, currently as operations director in a digital agency. Para is convening the session ‘Picking on The Apprentice: is there an epidemic of bullying at work?’ at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.
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