Bullying in the House

It turns out there is bullying going on in Parliament. No shit, Sherlock! Who’d have thought it?

As Guardian columnist Gaby Hinscliff put it, “…putting a bunch of power-hungry people into a culture of near-obsequious deference in a building that looks like Downton Abbey was always going to end badly.”

It’s not just our ridiculously arcane and stilted political system that causes it, bullying is endemic in our institutions and our society at large. Bullying is a feature of the workplace experience for far too many people.

I encountered it in my career, along with many others. In a part of a large corporate that I had the misfortune to linger in, it was the preferred management style. ‘Senior Management’ used the searchlight technique, where people would be mostly ignored unless something, usually a cock-up of some sort, would bring them to their attention and then they would be caught in the  searchlight. 

Imagine one of those old war movies or US gangster films, where the lights from the prison search towers are scanning the perimeter and suddenly pick out a would-be escapee up against the fence. Well, we all know what happens next, right?

In this case, it would be a period of intense scrutiny. People from all departments would descend on the hapless employee and their team and demand all sorts of information in ridiculous time scales. They would be quizzed about every aspect of their work and harried for responses. They would be expected to work late and through weekends to come up with the answers. Family life would be disrupted, social plans suspended, sleep would be a luxury. Stress levels would go through the roof.

And then, suddenly, the spotlight would move on. Some other emergency, or an even bigger cock-up, would take precedence and as quickly as the pressure had arrived, it would be gone. For now. Because who knew when you’d find yourself back in the searchlight again?

This created an underlying level of fear and insecurity, which was thought to be a good way to ‘keep people on their toes’. Of course, it’s no such thing, it’s a way to make people defensive and cautious and to kill any creativity or risk-taking, things that ‘Senior Management’ claimed they wanted. (We always referred to them as ‘Senior Management’, by the way. And we talked about ‘getting caught in the searchlight’. Even more revealing, we talked about ‘career-limiting acts’, which you could be knowingly or accidentally commit.).

So that was the institutional bullying, and then there was the personal stuff. From the screaming and shouting and public humiliation to the more subtle fault-finding, overworking and isolation that I experienced.

And I know that my experience is not uncommon, both  from personal conversations and from the research on employee engagement and corporate cultures. It’s everywhere, in our offices, classrooms, hospital wards and our government. It’s ingrained in the way that we are organised, the target-driven, cost-cutting, efficiency-obsessed approach that has invaded the business and public realms.

We need to recognise it for what it is. We must stop calling it ‘bullying’, with it’s echoes of the children’s playground and ‘character-building’ experiences. We must call it what it is – abuse. Psychological and physical abuse.

Our workplaces have become abusive environments. That abuse is damaging people and it is damaging our society. And we need to call it out and bring it to a halt.

It’s not acceptable in Parliament and it’s not acceptable in your workplace or mine. We stopped beating people a long time ago, now we need to stop this psychological abuse. People have the right to be treated with respect and civility, no more and no less.

It’s time to stop workplace abuse. Everywhere.

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