Published: 17/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5943 Page 36

When does strong management become bullying?

Not unreasonably, people responsible for other people's performance have some concerns about the increase in talk about bullying and the rise in formal complaints and perhaps even legislation round the corner.

Those who remember when sexual harassment suddenly became a serious offence may well have a sense of déjà vu , accompanied by similar questions of definition and fears of finding yourself on the wrong side of what is acceptable.

So what should a manager do when somebody reports that they are being bullied? What questions should you ask? And how do you make sense of the information once you have it, and decide whether or not it is bullying?

First, keep it informal. When somebody complains of bullying the manager should aim to resolve it informally. Do not tell the victim nothing can be done unless they make a formal complaint: formal proceedings are traumatic for the accused and the target, time-consuming disruptive and expensive.

What you should ask the complainant:

Get the full story. Who is involved? What has happened, specifically, to trigger the complaint? What is the context (history of the relationship, disagreements, performance issues, etc)?

How long has it been going on?

Find out how the person is affected.

Look for signs and symptoms of distress:

anxiety, dreading work, demotivation, loss of confidence, irritability, insomnia, illness, depression, vomiting, skin complaints, problems at home.

Check for witnesses and other targets.

If you are concerned about what you have heard, you will then want to get the perpetrator's side of the story.

Many cases of bullying involve behaviours that are common for that particular environment. Some consultants are known for shouting, swearing, and publicly criticising their juniors.

In one such case a trainee was so distressed he resigned and was unable to work for several months. But another trainee stated about the same surgeon:

'He's always like that. You just have to let it roll off you.' Some people know that it is not personal. The problem arises when somebody is unable to cope.

There are three aspects of an alleged bullying situation that have to be considered in diagnosis:

Are there any inappropriate behaviours going on? These include: shouting, swearing, public criticism, name-calling, explosions of anger, threats, actual or threatened physical violence.

Have these behaviours occurred repeatedly over a period of time?

Has the complainant been adversely affected?

If the answer to all these is 'yes', then you probably have a case of bullying.

If the behaviour is personally directed rather than a general style that everybody in the vicinity is subjected to, and designed to inflict harm, then it is serious. It is helpful to remember that bullying is a matter of health and safety.

If somebody's mental or physical health is being affected, you have a responsibility as a manager to intervene, and quickly.

Anita Houghton is a doctor and personal development and executive coach.