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Is bullying cutting short careers in many academic institutions?

11 Nov 2019 | Jenny Garrett Ahead of our Women in HE Conference 2020, Jenny Garrett, career coach and member of the panel discussion on sexual misconduct, harassment and violence in the workplace, argues that bullying could be cutting short women’s careers in academia.

We’ve been talking about harassment lately, thanks to campaigns like #MeToo and #MosqueToo, but bullying is just as common, particularly for women and ethnic minorities

Dr Nicola Rollocks’ recent research highlighted that Black female academics face racism and bullying as they progress their careers towards a professorship in UK universities

For both genders, recent studies in the US show that 38% of workers witness or experience bullying during their careers, and research from Stonewall found that one in eight lesbian, gay and bi people (12 per cent) wouldn’t feel confident reporting any homophobic or biphobic bullying to their employer – yet few workplaces have effective policies to deal with bullies.

For every bully who is caught, an incredible 10 times as many victims lose their jobs through transfers, layoffs, termination, or handed in their notice.

According to a recent article in the Guardian newspaper UK universities have spent nearly £90m on payoffs to staff that come with “gagging orders” in two years, raising fears that victims of misconduct at higher education institutions are being silenced.

As many as 4,000 settlements, some of which are thought to relate to allegations of bullying, discrimination and sexual misconduct, have been made with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) attached since 2017.

The figures, uncovered by the BBC, have prompted allegations that universities are deliberately using gagging orders to stop grievances becoming public. Dozens of academics told the corporation they were made to sign NDAs after being “harassed” out of their jobs following the raising of complaints.

Through my coaching clients in HE and various sectors, I have heard many stories of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace and how it cripples careers and has a cataclysmic impact on confidence.

I’ve personally experienced workplace bullying a couple of times in my career and it was soul destroying. In one organisation staff would gossip just loud enough for me to overhear; and in another, colleagues felt I was working too hard and showing them up, so decided to obstruct and then ostracise me.

Over the 13 years that I have been providing leadership coaching, I have found that the problem with bullying is that while you are experiencing it, you often question yourself, ‘is it me?’, ‘am I imagining it?’, or ‘am I overreacting?’ and during this time, your confidence is being eaten away. Unfortunately, many people only realise that they are being bullied in hindsight.

I recently undertook some research on confidence. I wanted to understand what positively and negatively impacts our confidence levels to assist, in order to assist my clients better.

One of the findings that surprised me was that bullying by colleagues or the boss came up top as something that has negatively impacted our confidence. The effects of bullying seem to cause long term damage. ‘In my last position, a new senior manager was generally aggressive and bullying towards their staff and highly critical of everything I was doing.’ said one research respondent.

In 2018, Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, called for an overhaul of workplace practices, saying bullying had become ingrained in the culture of too many academic institutions. One organisation that has been working in this area for some time is the 1752 Group, a UK-based research and lobby organisation working to end sexual misconduct in higher education, although its current strategic objective is stop staff to student sexual harassment. There appears still to be much to do.

Wouldn’t it be better not to have to regain our confidence after bullying, but instead not experience it at all, or have the skills and strategies to challenge it?

Perhaps you are not sure if you are being bullied, and you’ve dismissed those niggling thoughts that you might be. Some potential signs are constant criticism, threats, aggression, and shouting. Or more subtly it could look like being excluded and ignored or being refused reasonable requests. It might be unwelcome sexual advances and the misuse of power to belittle, demean, or intimidate. Bullying can also be employee to line manager, it works both ways!

If any of these ring alarm bells for you, then here are six steps that you can take to try and resolve the issue:

1. Keep outwardly calm

Bullies like to emotionally manipulate people, so showing that their manipulation is working will just encourage their behaviour. Being outwardly calm can help dissolve the issue.

2. Record everything

Write bullying that you experience down immediately so that you don’t forget it, and you have evidence and specific examples. It will also help you recover your sense of control. 

3. Get some external support

Bullying can take its toll on your mental and physical health. Some people experience anxiety, helplessness and depression as a result. Seek out support from your family, friends, or professionals like a counsellor, coach, or doctor. It is important to know that there are others in your corner.

4. Stand up for yourself

One client I worked with found that her colleague raised his hand and turned his face away when she spoke, which she found very difficult to deal with. Set your limits and boundaries while still being professional, for example, say ‘It's not OK for someone to stop me contributing with this type of gesture’.

Practice how you would respond the next time the bully does something to you so that you respond quickly and calmly.

Be simple and straightforward; do not get into verbal slanging match, instead look them in the eyes and remain strong.

5. Make a bottom-line case

Sadly, many managers are generally hesitant and unwilling to intervene in a situation of bullying among colleagues, especially if the perpetrator has significant external credibility or is responsible for attracting income. However, to address the issue it is essential to persuade them.

You can describe to the manager or HR how the bullying affects work and stops it from getting done, reduces the quality of work, or productivity. Explain that this is the reason you ask for something to be done so that the bullying stops to not just help you but for the institution’s sake too.

6. Prepare for potential retaliation

Unfortunately, a bully may find a way to retaliate even in subtle ways, making it difficult for anyone to identify the tactics of the bully and impossible for the human resource manager to take action against them.

Persevere, keep addressing the issue in related meetings and ask for the company’s policies to guard you against retaliation. In cases where the bullying continues and intensifies, you can seek to take legal actions.

Lastly, it’s not easy to stand up to bullies, sometimes the best thing for your own wellbeing is to walk away from a toxic situation.

If you have experienced workplace bullying, what were your strategies for tackling it?


Jenny Garrett is an award-winning career coach, speaker and trainer. She works with individuals and organisations, using her unique combination of skills around gender balance, leadership and self-improvement to inspire and empower. Jenny is best known for her work empowering working women, particularly female breadwinners, through her book Rocking Your Role. Find out more about Jenny

Women in HE Conference: Conditions for Change - how can we accelerate change that tackles the treatment and inclusion of women? takes place on 23 January 2020 in London. Find out more and book your place now.

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