Photographs of Scottish civil servant DeeAnn Fitzpatrick tied to a chair, apparently in an act of revenge for whistleblowing, reveal a shocking weakness in UK laws: bullying barely exists as a crime.
This must change. In Sweden they call such demeaning acts ‘mobbing’ and have legislated against them. So has China. In France, bullying is outlawed by ‘moral harassment’ laws, which cover any behaviour that takes away from the dignity, physical or psychological, of the victim.
In the UK? Nothing. Discrimination and harassment are both offences. But ‘bullying’ is largely ignored by legislators, who only recently acknowledged cyberbullying in the face of shocking abuse. So DeeAnn and countless others suffer alone, ignored by a legal system that refuses to take the abuse they suffer seriously; and all whilst tormentors claim amnesia, or worse, think an acceptable defence is to blame victims for sense of humour failures.
Perhaps people associate ‘bullying’ with childhood, the unimportant excesses of immature minds that development removes? Yet in that arena there is a grudging acknowledgement of its damage. The Education and Inspections Act of 2006, one of the few bits of legislation to mention ‘bullying’, whilst making no particular powers available to teachers, at least uses the word.
Australia is also a country that takes bullying seriously, particularly in the workplace. Incidents can be reported to a Fair Work Commission; and the police will weigh in, too. We should have something similar in the UK if we want to show real resolve.
Instead, UK law dances around the bullying issue, stepping in only when ‘harassment’ is involved concerning specific discrimination or electronic communications.
This is plainly not enough. Bullying may be hard to for politicians and lawyers to define precisely, but it is very easy to spot. Bullies are weak, insecure people hiding a basket of neuroses, but they leave carnage in their wake and victims who feel weakened and threatened. The perpetrators act badly because they feel they can.
People in positions of authority are often the worst. And white collar bullies infest the professions, escaping with impunity as they make the lives of usually junior colleagues unbearable, often through brazen intimidation.
My own experience is that workplace bullies get a pass. They are variously described as ‘strong characters’ and ‘not suffering fools’. In fact, there is a whole lexicon of excusing language, and almost none to address the effect bullies have on those around them.
The Swedes are right, bullying is a mob activity, even when it’s a ‘mob’ of one. Anyone who has experienced their space invaded by an intimidating, often male, colleague trying to press home an argument has endured that experience. We need to stop pretending bullying is confined to the playground. It is everywhere, destroying lives and careers.