There are few things which can affect your mental health and wellbeing more than bullying in the workplace. Yet it is still so rarely discussed and tackled. As communicators we can play a role…
by Jude Tipper
I have an infuriating habit.
Well, ok, I have several. One of them is this: I never quite finish a notebook before I start a new one. The lure of unsullied fresh stationery is too great and leads me to abandoning a notebook before I’m quite all the way through it.
And then I can’t throw them away; too wasteful. They languish in drawers and cupboards, pulled out for shopping lists or to scribble greedy takeaway orders.
This is why a recent drawer rummage unearthed a tatty pocket-size notebook with a scrawled piece of creative. Something I’d entirely forgotten about. Something I wrote in early 2019.
I wrote it on the plane from Leeds to Lanzarote. Yes, some people like to kick back with a book, a magazine or a movie when they jet off to sunnier climes. Oh no, not me and my stupid brain. I decided to use the high-altitude headspace to nail something that had been evading my creative muscle for weeks. I promised my boss I would return from holiday with it.
It was a 4hr 20min flight. Taking time out to fettle The Child, plug her back into the iPad and peruse the duty free, it means I probably spent 3 hours or so on this. I’d massively underestimated how hard it would be to pull off.
And it turned out it was 3 hours wasted.
I was writing a creative piece for an internal wellbeing campaign in my previous job, where I headed up comms at an NHS Trust. In the two weeks it took for me to return from Lanzarote bronzed (well, freckled), the organisation had changed direction and this campaign creative was no longer required. Grumpily, I tossed the notebook aside. Until I found it again.
It’s good to share
Why not leave this in 2019, in the near-back of my tatty notebook? Well, I’m sharing it now with my comms community for three reasons:
1) I’m kind of proud of it, it was a bugger to write but I’m glad I eventually nailed it. I’m convinced that long-form creative has a place when used properly in a campaign.
2) I can’t bear wasted effort; this never saw the corporate light of day. If anyone would ever want to take this, use it, improve it; I’d be delighted.
3) It’s a call for your action.
More on that third reason below. For now, here’s what I wrote about workplace bullying at 35,000 feet with a G&T on the go.
It’s a simple ask.
Pay attention to what’s happening around you
Things are not always as they seem.
What’s your role in stopping bullying?
Picture yourself in this scene –
Can you hear crying in the toilets again?
Where no one else can see the anguish.
He’d called me
in front of everyone
Tried to trip me up on what I’d asked him to do –
You’ll never catch me in tears.
I’m strong and I know
It’s a good job
Another day in
I stand upright, firm, for
I am the leader of the team.
I’m in control. I’m in control,
I am in control.
Back straight, head high.
Up goes the middle finger:
Anger flashing behind eyes.
Desks once more between us.
I get away
Taking my chance
The team carry on with their day
I’m waiting for someone to interrupt now
Is this the time he’ll tip over the edge?
Can anyone see his anger?
What should I do?
I smiled a fake smile –
In a tight space
He backed me
In front of everyone
He followed me.
The whole team followed me, I was their leader.
I only ever asked him to do his job. I only ever wanted respect.
There’s two sides to every story, two sides to what you see
How would you react here, if you found that you were me?
Now re-read each line from the bottom up.
I’d always wanted to write a backwards poem, having long admired the technique. It’s definitely harder than it looks but also very satisfying.
Did you read it as though the manager was the bully? Did it surprise you to see as you went backwards that, in fact, they were the victim? This was all based on a true story told by someone I know very well.
I had been planning for this to be one of several long-form creatives. Centrepieces of an anti-bullying campaign in my NHS Trust – the next step in our award-winning #allofus campaign, hence the first line (read about the campaign on Rachel Miller’s blog).
As it was, the organisation (quite rightly) decided to do more work on policy and process before launching a campaign. And when the campaign element did come – when I’d already left my job and the Trust – the focus was different.
I said I wanted to share this work as an offer to any comms folk who might want to use or improve on it. I’m not at all precious if it’s cut, altered and bettered. Help yourselves. (But do let me know if you do – I’d love to hear this.)
I also wanted to share it as a call to action. Your action.
When I knew I had to produce a creative for workplace bullying I knew it would be tough. Bullying is such an emotive, destructive, difficult topic to address. In fact, is it the hardest internal comms campaign to crack?
Yet there was one area of this horrid, sad, agenda that I knew instantly I wanted to address. I wanted to write on an oft-overlooked area: upwards bullying. When someone bullies their manager or another colleague in a more senior position.
Read any article on workplace bullying, visit websites dedicated to the topic, browse the case studies. You’ll be hard pushed to find many that explicitly talk about upwards bullying. Corporate copy always frames bullying as something that happens by someone senior to you, or by a peer.
Perhaps it’s over-looked because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. It’s harder to spot and harder to stop. And it’s damned difficult to investigate malicious claims that a manager has bullied someone who reports to them…when it’s actually the other way around.
But it happens. Oh, it happens a lot. Over the years that I’ve been involved in corporate wellbeing initiatives I’ve heard countless stories about managers who have found themselves in this position. Found themselves trying to defend their reputation, being told it’s an inevitable part of management, feeling abandoned by organisations they’ve given their careers to.
The tales I’ve heard, the emotional batterings described, are tragic. And common – ask your senior managers and see what stories they have of this untold toxicity.
Good managers gradually build their professional reputation on the foundation of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Their values are their cornerstone. They cement their professionalism with consistent performance, commitment, dedication and integrity.
And then, suddenly, they find themselves trying to manage a difficult individual who bullies upwards.
Yet that individual claims that they are in fact the victim. And colleagues see it unfolding and don’t intervene. They’re not quite sure how. They’re scared. And anyway, there’s nothing on the intranet about this type of bullying.
The manager then finds themselves thrown into an investigation where the effects can be far-reaching and devasting. A crisis of confidence and spiralling self-doubt when they simply performed their management duties appropriately and in line with guidance. Imagine having your very values, beliefs and professionalism dragged through a drawn-out investigation, led by your peers.
Take a moment to consider how that would feel. How would that affect your relationships and confidence at work? How would it affect your life outside? Would you be getting much sleep if everything you’d worked for was being eroded by false claims?
Call to action
Here are my asks. My call for your action, please.
Firstly – always pay attention to what’s happening around you. Always remember there are two sides to every story, two sides to what you see. Seek advice, read policies, speak up in confidence. Just do something. (This, of course, goes for bullying in any form. Research has shown that the sooner someone intervenes in workplace bullying, the sooner it is prevented from escalating. Prevented from destroying careers and lives. Let us be each other’s keepers.)
Secondly – if you’re in an internal comms role (or any comms role) take a look at your corporate info about bullying. I bet it describes, numerous times, how bullying can take place by a manager or by a peer. Does it articulate that it can also go upwards? Is this explicit in the copy? If it isn’t, get it rewritten. That’s in your gift as a comms professional.
Why does it matter that upwards bullying is explicitly cited as an example? Well, it will help keep everyone mindful of the possibility. To look out for the signs and the opportunities to intervene. To call it out.
And for a manager? The very fact that their organisation acknowledges that upwards bullying occurs will give them greater confidence to seek help. It could be the vital difference to behaviours being called out and tackled early. Simple tweaks to your comms could stop careers and lives from being destroyed.
If anything in this piece has touched a nerve, re-awakened painful experiences or made you wonder about a situation in your workplace, seek support. Use your HR team, employee wellbeing, your freedom to speak up guardians, your union support. Speak to each other. Speak to me, if you want. Just don’t let it fester.
Don’t write campaign creatives on holiday flights. Unplug. Switch off. Read a book, watch a movie, gaze out the window, drink more gin.
And always, always finish your notebooks, eh?
Jude Tipper is assistant head of communications network at NHS Digital and vice chair of the CIPR health group. You can say hello to her on Twitter at @JudeTipper
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Image via Design Demon/Diablo