Combating workplace bullying in social work

Social workers often face threats and intimidating behaviour in the course of their work. But many staff have experienced occasions when the intimidation has come from work colleagues.

Under constant pressure from target-driven managers but bound by confidentiality not to discuss their work on the outside, social workers may find themselves working in just the sort of environment where bullies thrive.

Social services staff were the third largest group of callers to a national advice line for workplace bullying, accounting for more than 800 cases over the eight years it ran. Only teachers and healthcare professionals reported more cases.

Accusations of bullying have also featured in several inquiries into social services failings in recent years. In 2000, some Cambridgeshire social workers complained that a bullying management style lay behind failures that led to the death of six-year-old Rikki Neave at the hands of his mother. Two years later, the Welsh Assembly’s social services inspectorate found that cases of children at risk of abuse were being mishandled because of a “macho”, “arrogant” and “secretive” management culture at Cardiff Council.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer with the British Association of Social Workers, says bullying in social services is endemic. Drawing comparisons with other abuses of power, she says: “I’m trained to look at issues of child abuse, and see some of the same things replicated in some of the institutions that people work for.

“If someone keeps undermining children and taking away their self-esteem, they will not be able to function properly. The same thing happens to social workers: if you are mistreated on a day-to-day basis you will start to question your own abilities. This kind of harassment is endemic in social work.”

Bullying can be difficult to prove. It is often one person’s word against another’s and potential witnesses may be scared of becoming the next target. Moreover, being an abuse of power, bullying is frequently – though not always – at the hands of those higher up the ladder. Managers typically control the levers of power and can instigate disciplinary or capability procedures or deny their victim promotion.

BASW advice and representations officer Martin Weinbren says the association’s advice line receives at least one call every day relating to bullying. “If a manager doesn’t like someone, one of the best ways to bully them is to use formal management tools like putting them in for capability proceedings,” he says.

As well as great stress and distress, bullying causes a gradual erosion of people’s spirit and self-confidence. Targets may be selected because they are envied or seen as a threat, or because they are a whistleblower.

The National Workplace Bullying Survey in 2006 found that only a third of those who had been bullied lodged a formal complaint. Most just talked it over with family and colleagues just over half sought a new job. Most of the 3,325 respondents found that their actions had either made no difference or actually made their situation worse.

Unhelpfully, bullying and harassment are not sufficient grounds to fight an industrial tribunal. But the legal route to resolution is now a little easier: a 2006 ruling in the House of Lords means that a victim of bullying no longer has to prove that their employer was negligent in failing to prevent it taking place.

However, Weinbren advises staff who feel they have been bullied to try other avenues before lodging a formal grievance. “I tend to suggest that people ask for a three-way meeting with the manager’s manager first,” he explains. “Often it’s about perceptions, or a clash of personalities, or cultural misunderstandings.

“If you put in a grievance, be as diplomatic as possible,” Weinbren adds. “As soon as people put in a grievance they can feel as if they are being disciplined.

“Never use tape recorders – it is seen as conspiratorial. Keep a diary – whatever is written down and presented to an employer can retrospectively be seen as a grievance.”

The Andrea Adams Trust, an anti-bullying charity, agrees that keeping a dairy of all distressing incidents is essential for anyone being bullied. It also recommends keeping all correspondence relating to performance getting witnesses and avoiding being alone with the bully replying to any disparaging claims by the bully by e-mail taking evidence to their trade union or professional representative early on and keeping them informed and not confronting the bully.

Once employers become aware of a case of bullying or conflict, the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) advises them to use mediation services where possible to reduce the number of disputes that become dragged out into costly industrial tribunals.

“Employers must provide the relevant training for line managers and invest in mediation if they are serious about reducing the damage caused by conflict at work,” says CIPD employee relations adviser Mike Emmott. “While most organisations train managers to use disciplinary and grievance procedures, too many are failing to recognise the value of mediation and training in dealing with conflict more generally.”

Surprisingly, the General Social Care Council has done no specific work on bullying. “There is a code of practice that fits into the practices and policies of the workplace,” a spokesperson says. “We expect employers to have good systems in place to support social workers,” he adds.

Sadly, the evidence available suggests the GSCC’s expectations may be a little optimistic.

Related article
Case Study – ‘My workload was out of control but they ignored me’
Case Study – ‘We were treated like naughty schoolchildren’

Further information
Bully online
Andrea Adams Trust
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

This article appeared in the 23 August issue under the headline “Practise what we preach”


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