Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

When bullies grow up

Staff meeting

School leaders are used to dealing with bullies at school, but these are on the playground. What about the staffroom bullies? Richard Fawcett and Edward Gildea offer techniques for confronting aggressive staff.

Just as with children, bullying in the workplace can take place covertly over years, with the victim or target feeling coerced into secrecy for fear of making the situation worse.

Schools have a duty of care to protect children and may face civil action if bullying goes unresolved.

So too, heads and governors have a duty to their employees and may be liable to prosecution under a whole range of acts from the Race Relation Act 1976 to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The good news is that all this legislation is on your side once you decide to tackle the bully; you have the power of the law with you.

Adult bullying comes in numerous guises, from chronic low key undermining of a colleague's self esteem, disregarding or taking credit for their achievements, ostracism and unfair timetabling practices to overt sexual harassment, defamation and physical intimidation.

Usually it will happen behind closed doors with no witnesses present. Solid evidence may be hard to come by and the bully may be highly skilled in denial.

Assertive management

You will first need to establish that you have reason to suspect bullying is taking place. Adults can sometimes mistake tough, assertive management for bullying, or in rare cases, you may encounter malicious intent on the part of the 'victim'.

It is always worth ensuring that your policy on equal opportunities and employees' code of conduct are up to date, cover bullying in the workplace and are well communicated to staff.

Once an initial investigation has shown a legitimate case for bullying, you will need to take a strategic decision: whether to start disciplinary procedures with a view to dismissal or whether to resolve the problem constructively, because the alleged bully is a valued member of staff and the bullying has been mild or ambiguous.

The strategy outlined below focuses on a 'constructive resolution' route. Each situation will be different and this is just one option for dealing with a suspected bullying case.

Begin by having a good, long conversation with the target of the behaviour, ideally with a trusted senior colleague present. Concentrate on listening, asking open questions, allowing for long silences and trying to tease out the underlying causes of the problem. How deep does the problem go?

This might involve going back over months or years of grievances, resentment points, misconceptions and genuine pain.

Encourage the target to keep a diary, contemporaneous notes of any incidents and copies of all emails, letters, memos or text messages received from the alleged bully.

Fact-finding mission

Next is a meeting with the alleged bully. Make it clear that this is a fact-finding meeting rather than a disciplinary one.

Your questioning will have to be skilful now, because you may well be faced with:

  1. It's not bullying, it's tough, assertive management.

  2. If he can't stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.

  3. She just can't take a joke. I didn't mean to upset her.

  4. He just can't hack it. Every criticism I've made about him is true.

  5. He's a natural victim. It has got nothing to do with anything I did.

  6. She asked for it.

  7. It simply didn't happen. I don't know where these allegations have come from.

Some of these replies might give you an ideal way into the problem.

The first two can lead straight into a discussion of the management style you expect in your school, how target setting is properly conducted and the difference between assertive and aggressive styles of management.

The third should be covered by the anti-bullying policy you exercise with children and expect staff to observe.

Jokes which are made at someone's expense, which imply disrespect and which the other party doesn't find equally entertaining constitute bullying, not humour.

In reply to the fourth, ask, supported in writing, for substantive and quantifiable evidence to be produced within a specified timeframe.

If there is such evidence you have a staff development or competency case on your hands. If a statement isn't forthcoming, ask for the allegation to be withdrawn.

The fifth opens up a common fallacy, that some people invite bullying in order to substantiate their status as victims.

In fact the targets of bullying often are independent minded and have refused to agree with dubious custom and practice. This may have caused feelings of resentment, jealousy or insecurity in the other person.

The sixth defence gives you the opportunity to probe what the evidence is for the victim's role. Ask: "What gave you the impression that she 'asked for it'?" Eventually you should have enough evidence to exercise your professional judgement on the balance of truth.

In denial

The outright denial is the most problematic. You could explore together the victim's point of view and try to elicit how his or her perceptions came about, almost as a problem-solving exercise.

In conclusion, or faced with continuing denial, try: "Then you will have no problem in agreeing to the following standards of behaviour..."

If you feel you are making progress with constructive resolution, carry on listening actively to understand what actually happened and the motives behind it: possible insecurity, fear about failing to meet targets or professional frustrations.

The person may well appreciate the chance to get things off their chest and feel understood.

End by promising to give a copy of your summary of the meeting and what was agreed.

Such a document will have significant validity, possibly as a verbal warning confirmed in writing, in any further proceedings.

If you feel you have evidence that your suspicions of bullying are justified, you will need to take action.

If you gave assurances that the first meeting was not disciplinary, arrange to reconvene once you have had time to consider everything that has been said, with a warning that it is a disciplinary meeting.

Face-to-face

Once you have an understanding of the issues, it can be very beneficial to bring the alleged bully and victim together. In fact, you may very well want to do this even when no bullying has taken place.

A common technique with children is to let them both tell their side of the story, in turn, in a meeting firmly chaired by the head of year, so that they can understand how the other person felt at each stage and trace the source of the problem.

A similar sort of meeting can be held with adults, if they need to carry on working together.

The process is one of 'surfacing the conflict' in a safe environment, in front of the head or assistant head, and if necessary breaking down the secrecy on which so much bullying depends.

When chairing such a meeting, the victim speaks first, uninterrupted by the other person who has to wait until the victim has finished. That person can then answer the allegations, uninterrupted by the victim, and so on in turn.

The chair, however, can ask questions at any time to clarify events or explore feelings and emotions.

Ideally, such a meeting will establish a mutual understanding. It may even result in a reconciliation - but beware of a false reconciliation by a bully who is an accomplished and charming deceiver.

If you are unsure, it is as well to issue a verbal warning, based on the employer's duty of care to employees and on the need of the children to have effective teachers and departmental teams.

Breakdown

If the meeting broke down due to the behaviour of the alleged bully or if you hit a brick wall of denial, yet you feel there is a genuine case, you should think carefully about disciplinary action, sticking resolutely to procedures.

If you go down this route, you will need to build up a bank of evidence from the victim, from third parties and from your own observations once you get to the formal written warning stage.

Your legal position is a strong one. Employers have a duty to protect staff and failing to do so is a breach of a duty of care. This is a fundamental breach of trust and confidence which is in turn a breach of contract.

The costs of failing to address the problem could be considerable in compensation payouts, constructive dismissal tribunals and staff replacement.

But above all, you need to act if your school is to function effectively and give the best possible education to your children.

More information

Dealing constructively with bullies forms part of SHA's course Managing Challenging Personnel run by Edward Gildea and Richard Fawcett on 29-30 April. For more information visit www.sha.org.uk

Further information on bullying, test cases and the law can be found at www.acas.org.uk and www.eoc.org.uk

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