Bullying? Or simply firm management?

It can be hard to believe that workplace bullying happens more in the third sector than in the private and public sectors. John Plummer examines the evidence for and against and looks at how one charity collaborated with a union to stand up to the problem.

A bullied worker
A bullied worker

In recent years, charities have been bedevilled by a reputation for treating their staff badly. Bullying, it is claimed, is more common in the voluntary sector than elsewhere.

It is a damaging allegation, not least because it suggests that charities behave no better than the companies and institutions they campaign against. But is it true? Bullying is difficult to measure, partly because it's hard to define, yet two recent batches of research have painted the voluntary sector workplace as a far from harmonious place.

Managing Conflict at Work, a report published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last year, revealed that there was one grievance case for every 92 staff in the not-for-profit sector, compared with one in 516 in the private sector and one in 323 in the public sector. It also showed that one in 62 employees at not-for-profit organisations had been subject to formal disciplinary proceedings in the previous 12 months, compared with one in 119 in the private sector and one in 364 in the public sector. The survey said more people left their jobs in the not-for-profit sector than elsewhere because grievance and disciplinary proceedings could not be resolved internally.

Grievances and disciplinary action suggest discontent, but not necessarily bullying. But last month - perhaps appropriately, on Boxing Day - the trade union Unite published the results of a damning voluntary sector bullying survey. Of the 500 Unite members questioned, 42 per cent claimed to have been bullied at work over the previous two years. Previous Unite surveys across all sectors put the figure at 20 per cent over the preceding year. In the voluntary sector survey, 18 per cent said they had taken time off work because of bullying, 24 per cent said it had led to anxiety and panic attacks and 35 per cent felt it made them less productive at work.

Rachael Maskell, national officer for the voluntary sector at Unite, says the results highlight weaknesses in the sector's quality of management. "The survey results are shocking," she says. "It is outrageous that employers have let so much unacceptable behaviour, bullying and harassment go on."

'Laughable idea'

But not everyone is convinced charities are such ruthless employers. William Garnett, head of the employment department at specialist charity lawyers Bates Wells and Braithwaite, says: "The idea that there is more bullying in the charity world than there is in a commercial bank is laughable."

Bullying, he says, is a frequently misused term. "People in the voluntary sector think robust management is bullying," he says. "I can think of five cases involving household names in the charity world at the moment that involve people saying they are being bullied - but it's ridiculous.

"In the private sector, people are prepared to be treated in a robust way because they are in it for the money. When underperformance is addressed in the voluntary sector, it's often addressed too late, so it's done in a disproportionate fashion and the employee says 'you're bullying me'."

Garnett says the voluntary sector attracts two kinds of employee: those who believe in its causes, and those who can't get jobs in the commercial world. Those in the latter category are often over-indulged by managers. "One of the successes of the sector - but also one of its weaknesses - is that people feel able to express themselves, so they say they are being harshly treated," he says. "In the commercial sector, you would not be mad enough to do it because you wouldn't get another job."

Emma Burrows, head of the employment group at Trowers and Hamlins solicitors, says Unite's figures ignore the context in which charities operate, such as being less able to pay off disgruntled staff and the pressure to cut costs. Add to that a growing understanding of workplace rights, which charities are often good at promoting, and you get more employment tribunals. She does believe, however, that some managers are finding it hard to deal with the upheaval caused by the shift towards competency-based frameworks, which judge staff on skills rather than on formal qualifications.

"People are more willing to speak up and are more aware of their rights," says Burrows. "Generally, I think charities are good employers. The sort of bullying we see most commonly is when managers who are perceived to be bullying staff are simply managing them too much."

The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act defines bullying as behaviour intended to undermine the dignity of a colleague. But an employee cannot take an organisation to tribunal specifically over bullying; it can only support a wider discrimination case. John Burnell, director of human resources consultancy Personnel Solutions, is also unconvinced by the union's claim of widespread voluntary sector bullying, although he does accept the sector has a problem with more subtle forms of bullying. "It is more likely to smother people in kindness," he says. "Employers are probably being naive rather than disingenuous. It's because of the nature of the sector and the expectations staff and management have about good employment practice."

People working with the sector may be keen to defend it, but the union view has an unlikely ally in the form of the Chartered Management Institute. Jo Causon, its director of marketing and corporate affairs, says: "Our research does bear out that there is more bullying in the third sector. There has been considerable change in the sector, with great emphasis on becoming more commercial. Maybe people are more sensitive to change."

A 2005 survey by the institute revealed that 46 per cent of people in the public and third sectors said they had been bullied over the previous three years. Lack of management skills, which was cited by 66 per cent of respondents, was the main reason. Although this survey lumped the two sectors together, Causon maintains that charities do have a particular problem. She advises organisations to display policies on bullying, to train managers to deal with it and to create a culture in which people feel comfortable talking to their line managers about the subject.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

But Maria Aguilar, director of consulting at the HR Services Partnership, which advises organisations on staffing issues, remains sceptical.

"We have definitely seen an increase in the number of employees claiming bullying or harassment at work," she says. "They tend to do so after management instigates disciplinary or performance action against them, which leads us to rather cynically link the two."

The increase in bullying is to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy, she says. "A few years ago there was a huge increase in claims for stress, which was due to increased awareness," she adds. "Then it was repetitive strain injury. When trade unions decide to have campaigns, they raise awareness and suddenly you get a lot of claims. Unions are membership organisations that are constantly striving to increase their memberships.

"I'm not convinced there is an increase in bullying or harassment. The sector is much better at such things as flexible working, and equality and diversity is much better. None of this squares with an increase in tribunal claims."

Given the paucity of research on voluntary sector bullying, and disagreement on the interpretation of what does exist, opinions are likely to continue to differ sharply on whether charities have a problem. However, Unite's Maskell warns that charities cannot ignore the issue. "There is a clear difference between bullying and firm management," she says. "Managers are not trained to deal with it, and many perpetrators are unaware they are doing it."

Case study

Two years ago, a staff survey at the Children's Society revealed that about 5 per cent of employees felt they had been bullied in the previous 12 months. "The figure wasn't out of line with the rest of the sector, but it was obviously a problem," says Fergus Roseburgh, Unite's senior staff representative at the charity.

The charity agreed to work towards implementing the standards of the Dignity at Work campaign that was set up by the Department for Trade and Industry and Amicus (now respectively the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Unite) to address workplace bullying.

A senior management working group was established in 2006 to assess what was required to comply. The charity and Amicus paid jointly for Roseburgh and a colleague to attend a week's course in Italy on workplace bullying and harassment, from which they could report back to the charity, starting with HR staff, front-line managers and directors.

The charity then appointed between 10 and 15 'first contact officers' within the organisation, to be the first port of call for anyone seeking advice on bullying and harassment. Because three-quarters of bullying claims are against line managers, it gave staff another way to pursue their concerns. "They are not there to advise but to give information," says Roseburgh.

Staff can now approach a first contact officer, a union representative or a line manager, and the charity is obliged to act. "It's about making people feel confident about saying 'shouting at me doesn't work'," says Roseburgh. "Most human beings will change their behaviour if they think it's upsetting someone."

The Children's Society became a Dignity at Work signatory on Ban Bullying Day (7 November) last year, which commits it to following good practice and implementing a charter covering policies and procedures. "We didn't really have a proper understanding of what constituted bullying," says Roseburgh. "It's down to perception 99 per cent of the time. Whenever you raise awareness of bullying, what was previously regarded as acceptable soon becomes unacceptable."

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