Partner An unnamed firm
Columnist
Share this content
Bullying in the office
istock_bullying_AndreyPopov

Accountancy has a bullying problem

by

AccountingWEB's anonymous partner sheds light on bullying in the office, an issue that is rarely acknowledged but never goes away.

30th Nov 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
Columnist
Share this content

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.

Replies (10)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By Paul Crowley
30th Nov 2020 18:00

If Accountancy really has a problem then as a partner it is your issue to address.
Unless you are telling us the your firm is an exemplar and the problem is elsewhere.

Why do you think Accy is worse than other environments?
Any evidence?

Thanks (1)
By SteveHa
01st Dec 2020 08:22

I've only encountered one bully in accountancy, who was the business owner of a small practice I used to work at. Well, that ius until I marched him into his office and gave him an ultimatum. He stops, or I see him in court (disability discrimination act was in point).

Suffice to say, he didn't bully me again.

Thanks (1)
Replying to SteveHa:
By CazzyT
01st Dec 2020 13:18

How long did you stay afterwards?

Thanks (0)
avatar
By johnjenkins
01st Dec 2020 10:51

I have never encountered bullying in Accountancy. Heavy banter, yes, but then have you seen the Maradona jokes floating around. British humour takes many forms and can easily be mistaken for bullying, racism, sexism and any other ism. Unfortunately bullying in schools is rife and always has been. This is the time to stop the bullies in their tracks.

Thanks (2)
avatar
By sadler14
01st Dec 2020 10:55

The senior partner where I used to work periodically burst into someones office shouting and screaming ( although to be fair, never swearing ) at some innocent staff member. The time I remember well was when the practice had a visit from their governing body, who had queried why the firm had given a clean audit report on a set of accounts. He laid in to the senior who had been in charge of the audit: his parting shot being " I told them I had nothing to do with it, I only signed the audit report'. After that I couldn't really take him seriously.

My first job was at that firm, training was non-existant and I was struggling to reconcile a client's bank account. The senior in charge was in a mood about something and came over to my desk, swore at me and then slapped the side of my face, calling me ******* useless. Later that day I meet him in the corridor with no-one else about. I grabbed him by the throat, pinned him up the wall and told him if he ever touched me again he'd be through the window ( we were on the second floor ). Strangely he never bothered me again and left the firm shortly afterwards to work for his father.

Both of the bullies were actually inadequate men who didn't know any other way to behave.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By djn
01st Dec 2020 11:32

I worked for a firm a number of years ago where the boss ran the office like a dictator. Lots of pressure was put on staff and we were always stressed in case we were called into the office. Time sheets were the holy grail and anytime you exceeded the hours on a job you needed to explain on a note why. It was also frowned upon to be in the office later than 8.30 and leave before 5.30.
I see him now and again and he seems like a decent chap but his leadership skills didn't impress me.
Although for a small practice, it was probably the most profitable around as their fees were sky high. The clients had no idea what was going on in the office but they were treated like royalty.
Many staff voted with their feet and in 2 years, 12 people left. Quite a number when the full team was made up of of around 10 people.

Thanks (0)
Replying to RoughCollie:
avatar
By johnjenkins
02nd Dec 2020 09:36

Give an example please.

Thanks (0)
Replying to RoughCollie:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
02nd Dec 2020 20:28

But not you
You joined 28 Nov 2020
Senior partner no less

Thanks (0)
Replying to RoughCollie:
By Ruddles
09th Dec 2020 22:22

Yep - but by only one person under many guises. Isn’t that right, David?

Next ...

Thanks (0)
Replying to RoughCollie:
By Ruddles
12th Dec 2020 16:30

My ‘future’ (actually present) conduct will be to have your latest account blocked.

Thanks (0)