Accountancy has a bullying problemby
AccountingWEB's anonymous partner sheds light on bullying in the office, an issue that is rarely acknowledged but never goes away.
Working from home can offer many advantages, one of which tends not to hit the headlines. This is the chance to escape the ravages of office bullies.
I have no doubt that the best proponents of this art will manage to exert their malign influence over Zoom, the phone or by email but those who rely on the common skill sets (ie screaming, shouting and going very red in the face) might be disarmed when socially distanced, let alone several miles from their intended victims.
The accountancy profession has become far more skilled in identifying and attempting to deal with many forms of bad behaviour. The vast majority of firms now take gender equality and racial equality at least relatively seriously and would take precipitate action if partners breached ethical guidelines in carrying out their daily duties.
However, when it comes to bullying in the office, I doubt that things have changed significantly in generations, with a single proviso.
In order to bully effectively, most of the superstars in this field require a relatively private workspace. The move to open plan offices will have been a devastating blow to those who like to attack and demean junior colleagues behind closed doors. Make no mistake, this is a serious issue. It is the bane of many employees’ lives and, in extremis, can damage careers or even lead to thoughts of suicide. Only last year, two prominent female partners quit KPMG over the alledged bullying conduct of a partner.
In my career, I have encountered two memorable bullies of the screaming and shouting variety, though both were much too genteel to swear.
For the avoidance of doubt, the powers that be were well aware of the bad behaviour but, beyond repeatedly asking the perpetrators to reform, failed to go the extra mile by either asking them to leave or, at the very least, cutting their profit shares.
I always assumed that the individuals concerned were sad, inadequate men (for once gender bias seems worth stating but this is a very small sample) who might well have been treated like dish rags by their wives, disrespected by their children and felt the need to take it out on secretaries, new recruits and occasionally even managers.
Oddly, I was always able to cope with this type of bullying, merely letting it wash over me and trying not to burst out laughing when the perpetrators became too ridiculous.
I would suggest that the passive aggressive variety of bullying is much more insidious and might be equivalent to what is now known as a coercive partner (not the accountancy variety).
In these cases, the bullies felt no need to make a noise. Instead, they made employees’ lives hell by other means, demanding standards that were unreasonable, quietly criticising and ensuring that promotions and pay rises did not come in a timely manner.
I have never understood such behaviour. Sometimes, it appears to be a deliberate policy to clear out members of a team, either for personal or what were perceived to be professional reasons.
To my mind, it would be better to be honest and tell people they were no longer wanted. However, that might entail an expensive termination package so driving people out is undoubtedly cheaper, unless you get it wrong and let lawyers have a field day.
The other variety of bully that tends to roam around accountants’ offices is the sexual predator. Make no mistake, these can be of either gender and frequently cause despair in the minds of their innocent victims, who can think of no escape beyond changing employment.
They can also unbalance a practice remarkably quickly, since capable staff will often decide that their future careers lie elsewhere. On departing, intimidated levers then take the opportunity to denounce the bully in exit interviews, which should spur action but tend to get filed away forever.
As I see it, the real problem that bullies are typically influential partners or senior managers and it is almost unprecedented for any firm to be bold enough to march them off the premises.
Whatever anybody says, bullies never reform. When threatened with sanctions, they promise to change their ways but even if they manage the odd clean month or two, like any true addict, they will always revert to type.
I would love to imagine that after reading this article partners everywhere will turn over a new leaf but that is almost certainly wishful thinking.