I have been bullied in two jobs during a career that has spanned more than twenty years and through a wide range of different organisations.
Pretty good odds, you might think. But those two episodes, totalling around three years, were devastating for my emotional and mental health, and were the two unhappiest periods of my life.
In 2010 I worked at the European Environment Agency, a brilliant organisation although not without its flaws. I was very grateful for being ‘required’ to undertake anti-bullying and anti-harassment training there. It used to be (maybe still is) a requirement for all staff, repeated every two years.
Initially sceptical, I was increasingly drawn into the training that described that, although bullying can happen to anybody, and in any direction (i.e. bosses bullying more junior staff, and even bosses being bullied by junior staff), in general there are certain characteristics that seem to be identified in people who are bullied.
My memory of the training may not be perfect, but my takeaway was that you are more likely to be bullied if:
- You are a high performer
- You choose unorthodox methods to deliver outputs
- You go way above and beyond your remit
- You break silos
Feedback I’ve received from other people who have also experienced bullying aligns with this recollection of qualities that are targeted.
One of the statistics that I remember being astonished by, was that in the experience of the training providers, on average around 2-3% of any organisation staff cohort is a bully. This was greeted with amazement by those in the training with me; one participant said:
“So you’re telling me that there are more than five bullies in this organisation?”
The trainer responded elegantly:
“I’m saying that if there are no bullies here, it would be the first example in decades of our experience for an organisation of this size.”
The sad truth is that no organisation, be it public, private or third sector, can consider itself immune from this malady. In my own experience, and to add insult to injury, both the people who bullied me were promoted shortly after I left the organisations, even though the institutions were well aware of my complaints about the way I had been treated.
Even more ironic, one of my bullies was an active participant in the #MeToo campaign at the same time as making my professional life miserable. I guess their outrage didn’t extend as far as an introspective.
Sadly it seems that some organisations devote themselves far more to protecting how they are perceived, and the existing power structures within them, than to supporting people who are experiencing intolerable and unjustified maltreatment.
I’m not an expert on this subject; I can only speak from my own personal experience. But if your ‘spider sense’ starts tingling that something’s not right with how you’re being treated; when you deliver outstanding work but it’s always wrong in some way; when people seem to be going out of their way to try to find things you’re doing incorrectly or wrong (laughably they couldn’t in my case, but that didn’t stop them trying, which was its own form of professional impugnation); then you may be being targeted by a bully.
And again, I can only speak from my own experience, but the outcome of a process of complaints, formal or informal processes; these pile on the personal stress and are not guaranteed to result in any significant change in the relationship or the behaviour.
I found the only way to deal with the issue was to leave the organisations in question. This was a positive thing, as it provided me with a focus for my attention rather than ruminating endlessly on ‘why’, and it empowered me in an environment where I had become very disempowered.
All this is why I felt both sad and proud of my twin brother, Gareth, when he spoke out about being bullied when he worked as Chief Executive of Plaid Cymru. Sad because it’s such a destructive thing to experience; and proud that he could speak out about it, because it has given heart to others who may have thought that their own experiences were unique.
The comments on his post from other people demonstrate that it’s a widespread issue that corrodes and degrades people and performance across all sectors of society.
I stand with anybody who has been bullied.