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Bullying is abhorrent and bad for business | accountingweb

Stamp out bullying before it affects your business


Bullying is a fact of life, even in accountancy. Practices shouldn’t shy away from taking all the steps necessary to protect staff and stay out of trouble.

27th Apr 2023
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In recent weeks, the media has been swamped by stories about bullying by care workers, police officers, firefighters and even government ministers.

The sad fact is that in every one of these groups, the bullies will be a rarity but they inevitably tarnish the reputation of all of their fellows.

It would be nice to think that the accountancy profession was all sweetness and light but every reader has almost certainly witnessed bullying in the workplace at some point in their careers and may even have been a victim.

The furore surrounding the recently departed deputy prime minister has shone a light on behaviour that comes into the rather amorphous category of bullying. As such, it could be helpful for those in practices trying to stamp out the behaviour.

Not tolerated

Ministers of state are obliged to “treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect… Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour… will not be tolerated.” That isn’t a bad start.

Experts have amplified this to suggest that the definition should include behaviour that is “malicious, humiliating, over-the-top or too personal”.

Even without this we can instantly establish that screaming and shouting or swearing at colleagues is unacceptable. One big plus point from the move towards open plan offices is that this kind of behaviour is literally brought out into the open and, inevitably, diminishes or ceases.

The issue that has most recently hit the headlines relates to rather more subtle and insidious attempts to coerce colleagues, which the perpetrator can portray as innocent attempts to get work done by lazy or inefficient staff but primarily junior colleagues may find very distressing.

I cannot be the only accountant who has had to comfort tearful colleagues after they have faced the wrath of partners or directors and it isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone involved.

Victim blaming

There are two sides to every story, as has been demonstrated by a pair of deputy prime ministers within the last week. In both cases, the leaders of our nation seem to be intent on what many would regard as “victim blaming”, rather than accepting responsibility and attempting to eliminate behaviour that seemingly terrorised numerous colleagues.

While the definition of bullying is grey at best, in most cases in my experience, large numbers of people have been aware of the identity of the guilty parties, since they almost always seem to be serial bullies, not victimising a single individual on one occasion but sharing their bad behaviour widely.

The sad fact is that they almost always get away with it. By the time that you have risen to a position of authority, while influential partners may be keen to stamp out the bad behaviour, ultimately they do not want to go through the very expensive process of removing an equity partner or very highly paid senior member of staff.

Bad for business

That may be a fact of life but it comes at a considerable cost.

Anyone who has worked with forceful partners for very long realises that they are very bad for business. This can manifest itself in a number of ways.

First, they tend to diminish the performance of those who consider themselves to be victims, not to mention others who spend far too much potentially productive time discussing the issue.

Next, they eventually take up a considerable amount of management time, discussing how best to deal with the miscreants without generally taking positive and highly necessary action.

In addition, they drive out not only substandard workers but also highly talented colleagues who do not like working in a fearful atmosphere. Given the current difficulties in recruiting any members of staff, let alone good ones, this is an expensive luxury that we could all do without.

In a worst-case scenario, we could also be faced with expensive and protracted legal battles or large financial settlements to buy out the problems.

Most accountancy practices are relatively pleasant organisations in which to work and it is a shame that a few bad apples spread very thinly can cause so much trouble.

Robust policies

There is no perfect solution, since firms could also face unsupported claims of bullying, which will take up a great deal of time and cause much stress for no reason.

In the current climate, every accountancy organisation should ensure that has robust policies and processes in place to ensure that bullying is reduced to a minimum and, when it does take place, remedies can be achieved with minimal disruption.

Given that some victims and maybe even the odd troublemaker might feel empowered following the highly publicised demise of the second most powerful politician in the country, it is also time for those who are aware that they have an ongoing issue to clean up their acts before staff walk and the lawyers get involved.

Replies (5)

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By Mr J Andrews
02nd May 2023 10:28

As Reggie Perrin might have said... I didn't get where I am today without being a bully.......Funny perhaps but very true. Sadly so many people get hurt along the way. With the robust policies Philip mentions , hopefully the fall from the rise will continue - and for some meaningful punishment to be imposed upon workplace bullies to compensate their victims
I would however disagree with the opening emphasis of ''EVEN'' - by Govt. Ministers. Surely they are the worst of the Rabbid lot. Was it not 24 at the last count with a certain deputy P.M. ?

Thanks (1)
By johnjenkins
02nd May 2023 11:01

Just like the strikes, now everyone is jumping on the "bullying" bandwagon. I've never come across "bullying" in the Accounting profession, banter, yes. So we are back to the "if we can't spot it let's legislate against it" scenario. Bullying in schools is rife, always has been, yet schools will say "we have a "robust anti bullying policy". Load of rubbish. Stamp bullying out in schools and the rest will follow. It also follows that where you have "Institutions" you will get "bullying". Why? because nature has a "natural" pecking order.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
By Pam Moreland
03rd May 2023 13:16

No one should ever be bullied. A good supervisor should always try to tailor their behaviour to the character of the person being supervised. Some people need more firmness than others in approach. However I just have this horrible sneaking sensation that claims of bullying could be made to cover up shoddy performance. Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable criticism and what is termed bullying?

Thanks (1)
By lawrence harrison
02nd May 2023 11:32

I had exactly the same kind of experience over 20 years ago and the effect on staff morale was awful. The relevent partner would leave emails over the weekend so that the monday morning riutal was to see who had been the worst humiliated.
No good came out of this as you cannot focus on best contact with clients if you risk being undermined in this way.
If you are well treated as an employee, you respond equally.
Is this too complicated for some people to understand? Or do bullies take out on their underlings, the mistakes they make and get criticized for ??
I run my business on t he basis that any client who mistreats my staff, mistreats me and they are set up for being disengaged. Life is too short to be engineering confrontational situations.

Thanks (2)
By 34Napier
02nd May 2023 11:57

How many of you out there have ever worked in the Civil Service? I did and it was a very unedifying business of a large cabal of people who knew they would never be sacked, doing what they wanted, when they wanted or even refusing point blank to do their paid for work and no comeback at all. The serious problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of these people in our current Civil Service and no prospect of getting rid of them. Bear in mind that the majority of them would not get a position in the "real" world and it seems to me that if Ministers and Managers cannot get them to perform their jobs even half way decently, then the country will remain in trouble. If they do not like being shouted at or told what do do "strongly" then their option is to leave, not whinge that they have hurt feelings, or are being bullied, in order to get someone else to leave, or avoid doing the job they are paid to do. Enough is enough do your job or leave! By the way I only took the job to pacify nagging parents, who after my revelations encouraged me to get the hell out.

Thanks (2)