How a forthright office manager can prevent being branded a bully

A legal friend dropped in on the UEL offices the other day. He’s a distinguished man with a long career in the law and our catch-up chat turned to the topic of ‘bullies’.In bygone times, this was the tough guy in the playground who beat up the weak guys to grab their packed lunch or their Mars Bars. The whole definition has moved on now to mean something much more cerebral and involves threats and goading. The language has become politically charged in the debate about sovereignty and the constitutional question in Scotland.

But our interest here in bullying relates to the world of work.

The Chambers dictionary definition was once: “A cruel oppressor of the weak. A blustering, noisy, overbearing fellow,” but that has changed more recently to: “A person, often of superior strength and size, who distresses and persecutes others, eg with threats, or cruel teasing.”

Our conversation explored how bullying claims in the workplace often stem from an abrupt change in business practice and direction.

“We’re now doing this – you’d better get your fingers out and do it this way – or else!” says a neanderthal line manager.

The question is: how can you prevent keen and direct managers who are simply doing their job from being perceived as bullying?

This is an increasingly fine line. In many companies, changing the way people work is imperative to remain flexible and productive. But what is the best way for management to encourage the work force to change its ways?

And how can you prevent accusations on bullying when you are purely trying to manage a business through changing market conditions?

So there are some simple things to do:

· Set out a simple strategy for change;

· * Explain to everyone at work the need for change. It is in everyone’s interest for the business to make money;

· * Allow your work colleagues to ask questions about the changes you plan;

· * Be consistent with everyone at work;

· * Be fair and act fairly;

· * Keep cool – don’t let your own emotions overtake your head in any heated exchanges.

· * Never use threatening language.

It only needs one disgruntled employee to start bandying about phrases like: “The boss is a bully” for working life to become unpleasant.

Good management is about bringing along the people who work in any business. Not everyone is employed in a Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work’, but as Kipling said: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” … you might just keep everyone happy at work.