Breaking the silence: a personal account of bullying in the workplace

Teacher looking distressed due to workplace bullying

When I was a new primary school teacher in England in the early 1990s, I worked in a junior school (Y3-6) under a principal who was a workplace bully. 

In this large school there were five male staff members, all in positions of authority, and fifteen women. The working atmosphere was toxic for both the students and the female staff. Discipline was sometimes roughly enforced, especially for the boys with Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, whose families wouldn’t question the authority of the principal. In my first week I witnessed a child being dragged out of assembly and flung into the hallway for talking. He was only 7, new to the school, and heart-broken. That set the tone for the next nine years.

Anyone who challenged the boss’s behaviour was marked out. Because I stood up to him in staff meetings, I was told I would never be promoted – apparently I was too abrasive and aggressive. Often, other women would come up to me afterwards and thank me for standing up to him, but they would never openly back me during the meeting. 

As time went on, the bullying behaviour of the boss affected my mental well-being. I was never promoted or given extra responsibilities, and every time I stood up for myself or challenged him, I was subjected to passive-aggressive workplace bullying behaviour for days afterwards. Worst of all, every time I stood by while he abused one of the students, I felt complicit.

Comforting a child that has been treated unfairly due to bullying
Comforting a child that has been treated unfairly due to bullying

In the end, I applied for a job elsewhere. While I was working my notice, I witnessed a particularly savage attack on one of the boys in my Year 6 class. I told the principal I thought his behaviour was unacceptable and that if the family complained, I would be a witness in their favour. I knew they wouldn’t complain however, as the boy’s father was dead and his mother had little English, so I took matters into my own hands. 

Borrowing someone’s mobile phone – the first time I had ever used one! – I rang the teachers’ union and asked for advice. I was told I could report him to the local education authority, but I would have to inform him of what I was going to do, which was a big ask. I managed it however, and you can imagine how well he took it!

It was an incredibly hard thing for a young woman to do. If I hadn’t known I was leaving, I may not have found the courage.

The female staff members, although they agreed with me in private, were not prepared to stand up and side with me in public and the male staff members thought I was a trouble-maker. 

In those pre-internet days, I didn’t know what rights I had or where to go for support, and so just endured the remaining weeks till the end of term. The principal left the school at the same time I did, with no formal disciplinary action being taken. He was in his late fifties so was given early retirement and I heard a while later that he became a part-time tutor for trainee teachers. Irony doesn’t cover it! 

Nowadays, the internet has transformed the landscape for employees and other adults who experience bullying in the workplace or in places such as sports clubs or volunteer organisations. Information and support is readily accessible and communication channels more varied. Helplines, websites, support groups, legal advice, counselling – it’s all there at our fingertips. 

In this climate, workplace bullying is easier to identify and easier to challenge, plus it is being increasingly recognised as unacceptable and a problem we all need to address. We may think things are getting worse because we hear so much about it, but believe me, they are not. They are just becoming more visible, and that’s a good thing. I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken me so long to stand up to my boss if I’d had access to all the resources that are available now.

Do you work in a toxic environment where bullying is the norm? Stand up for a safe and respectful work environment and zero tolerance for workplace bullying. Learn how to identify, address and prevent unacceptable behaviour.

Enrol in our course today and make a difference for yourself and your colleagues.

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