• Performance Anxiety
  • December 12, 2014
  • Law Firm: Withers Bergman LLP - New Haven Office
  • Last week was Anti-Bullying Week. I confess that this annual event, co-ordinated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, passed me by this year, despite the fact that earlier in the month I had been discussing the problem of bullying with a group of managers involved in arts organisations.

    Arts managers’ experience of bullying is interesting and illustrative of how subtle and difficult to spot bullying behaviour can be. The paradigm workplace bully is the overbearing manager making harassed subordinates fearful and anxious and setting them up to fail with unreachable targets. Bullying can be far less visible than this - yet just as devastating for the recipient. For those who earn their living on the stage, a particular glance, the shifting of a chair to a particular angle, an audible ‘tut’ from a colleague, the placing of the pages of a shared script or musical score so that it is not quite possible to read it easily, can be enough to ruin a working day, and if done persistently, to make the whole of working life a misery.

    What the nature of bullying amongst performers underlines is that in understanding what might constitute bullying context is vital. What might go unnoticed in an office or retail environment might unbearable for someone working at the pitch demanded of a stage performer. Performers work at extremes of skill and concentration that may make them more than usually sensitive to slights. They also lack escape routes. There is no taking refuge at the coffee machine in the middle of a symphony or a performance of Hamlet - this is also true of some other stressful jobs such as teaching.

    People in demanding jobs may suffer anxiety about the adequacy of their performance and be easily undermined as a result. That said some of the most stressful occupations attract resilient people who are less vulnerable to bullying than average. The Courts have observed that there are no inherently stressful occupations. It is in the interaction of context and individual personality that determines how easily a person might be bullied into chronic underperformance, ill health or substance abuse.

    Each workplace will make its own particular demands of its workers, placing high value on certain attributes and making underperformance in those areas a particular source of stress which easily be exploited by managers and co-workers. Their motives may range from the benign attempt at genuine performance management to the downright mischievous, but the effect of their conduct may be the same.

    Here lies another important truth about bullying and harassment - that it is the perception and experiences of the victim that determine how serious the issue is, not what the perpetrator intended. That some people are more sensitive than others or are working in more stressful environments are truisms. What is less trite is the ease with which this insight is lost by those handling bullying complaints. The Equality Act, which applies to bullying related to the characteristics protected by the Act (sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, race, disability being the main ones), recognises the primary importance of the effect of conduct on those on the receiving end.

    Managers handling grievances about bullying that are not to do with a protected characteristic could do worse than start where the Equality Act starts - with the perception of the victim. This avoids the sometimes tempting conclusion that the complainant has over-reacted, particularly if the behaviour being complained about seems minor. This is occasionally true, but what is more likely is that the employee has waited a long time and put up with a lot before deciding to complain at all.