Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Beating the bully

No one likes a bully. Most of us would feel wounded if accused of bullying. But if calls to the ASCL hotline are indicative, it seems that bullying and harassment happen more often than we want to admit: not pupil on pupil, but adult on adult.

Workplace bullying can have its roots in any number of causes. In schools and colleges, the shift of culture from teachers as semi-autonomous professionals, led by people who are first among equals, to one of performance management has most certainly had an impact.

Staff, satisfied with their own performance, can be resentful when someone questions it; they may then seek revenge on a person below them.

Spotting bullying

Workplace bullying is essentially harassment from a position of power. In a school or college that power will generally, but not always, be managerial authority.

In law, harassment has two main definitions. One, coming from discrimination legislation, is unwanted conduct that violates people's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, religion or belief, disability and, after October 2006, age.

The second definition comes from the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, which was intended to prevent stalking, but has been extended by interpretation to cover newspapers, aggressive parents and managerial bullying. It added to the definition any conduct intended to cause 'alarm and distress'.

The test for harassment is objective; it is not the person's actual reactions that matter, it is whether a reasonable person in possession of the facts would regard it as reasonable to be alarmed or distressed. So, while an aggressive parent may not frighten you, a reasonable person might reasonably conclude that you should have been alarmed, or even distressed.

Legal action

Employees who are harassed or bullied have a wide range of legal remedies. If there is an element of discrimination you can go to the relevant tribunal. If there is no discrimination, you can resign and claim that the employer's failure in its duty of care is a fundamental breach of trust and confidence and so you have been dismissed wrongfully. Since a recent Appeal Court ruling, you can take action under the 1997 act for a breach of statutory duty.

For some of these actions you must use grievance procedures first. Normally the period within which you may make a claim is three years, but in cases brought under the 1997 act it is six. In a case under common law, you must prove actual damage. Under the 1997 act, you can obtain compensation for your feelings.

In most cases, the employer can be pursued as well as the harasser. This is because an employer, in general, is held responsible for actions by employees 'in the course of employment'.

The complexity of the legal situation means one thing: get advice early.

End of strong management?

Looking from the other end of the telescope, does all this mean that strong management is ruled out?

No. While bullying and harassment are not allowed, judges have acknowledged that there is a distinction between strong management and bullying.

They will accept that: "Employees may be distressed, and understandably so, by managerial conduct which, for instance, being properly and reasonably critical of an employee's poor performance, is entirely within the proper and reasonable scope of the manager's functions and duties."

Within the law

The moral is quite clear. When confronted with difficult or incompetent members of staff, use established procedures.

Do not be excessively critical of and strict about their time-keeping and work. Do not isolate them by refusing to talk to them or treat them differently or unfavourably compared to other staff. Do not be rude and abusive in front of other staff, impose unrealistic performance targets, or threaten with disciplinary action if targets are not met.

Be aware of what is going on below you and know that people may interpret your example in ways that you would not approve of.

Leadership behaviour is modelled, intentionally or not. While you may take a strong management style, your deputy may then be 'a bit fierce'; and your head of faculty may be a bully and think that's what you want.

The school or college should have an anti-harassment policy and provide training for line managers. Staff can be harassed by parents, pupils and governors and remedy for that should be included in the policy too.

Bullying and harassment destroy morale and undermine a school or college. As school leaders, we have a duty to protect our colleagues, for their well-being and that of the institution.

By Richard Bird, ASCL legal consultant

© 2018 Association of School and College Leaders