What does it mean, ‘bullying at work’?

28087249An activist who wants to be known as TP writes about ‘bullying’ at MMU, and the background to Ian Parker’s resignation.

An automated reply from Ian Parker in December following the success of the campaign against his suspension from Manchester Metropolitan University read ‘My apologies for not answering emails. I am now off work with anxiety / work related stress. I have already requested transfer out of the department against which I have a grievance for bullying and harassment. I very much hope that this situation will be resolved soon, and I will be able to continue my work at MMU. Ian’. (The automated reply has been removed from the system by Human Remains (as Human Resources are known locally) on the grounds that it is ‘inappropriate’, further evidence that management has been monitoring and accessing staff email accounts.) But colleagues are asking why a trade union dispute and victory over a question of secrecy and control in a university department is now being turned into a question of ‘bullying and harassment’. Doesn’t this reduce collective struggle to the impact on one individual and play into the idea that interests be replaced with emotions?

Bullying was actually already on the agenda before the arrival of the new head of department of psychology in September 2011 when the dean of faculty was wheeled in to a special staff meeting to put the frighteners on. Low National Student Survey (NSS) scores, he said, could mean that courses, even whole departments could close. So-called ‘red-lighting’ of badly-performing courses was designed to pit department against department and lecturers were forced to do more to increase consumer satisfaction. This neatly sidestepped the key question – cuts in support staff and material resources. The human infrastructure of MMU campuses has been stripped away, and the Gaskell campus housing psychology has been allowed to decay (to the point where some first year students arriving last September wondered aloud if the water gushing from the ceiling was part of an art installation).

At that special staff meeting Ian, UCU campus representative, pointed out that these were the issues that needed to be addressed if the NSS was to be taken seriously, not failings of lecturers. When Ian reminded the Dean of stories circulating about bullying at senior management level, the Dean with a wistful smile replied that he recognised that account (with implicit acknowledgement that he had himself suffered from this). Then Ian pointed out that this culture of bullying ran all the way down through the university. Cleaners, for example, have been instructed to use one instead of two squirts of disinfectant in the toilets, and some of them now even buy their own materials (while keeping them hidden for fear of being disciplined for this breach of regulations).

Force and humiliation

The problem of ‘bullying’ ranges from brute force to more subtle techniques of humiliation. In the case of the race discrimination case taken against MMU by chemistry lecturer Claudius D’Silva, for example, his victory in the Manchester Employment Tribunal was short-lived. John Brooks (who took over as Vice-Chancellor in the midst of the case) later boasted to union representatives that he had spent over a million pounds on legal fees to overturn the tribunal ruling, and UCU nationally backed down in the face of this sheer financial muscle. In the course of the campaign against Ian’s suspension from work, the ‘fear and demoralisation’ that he had complained of during the questioning of workload arrangements back in May became more evident to the students. But what was more worrying was that this fear and demoralisation was not made more visible by the protests against it. Secrecy was the order of the day.

In fact, staff had good reason to be afraid, subjected in the past year to increased workload as a mode of bullying. The first rule of bullying is to show preference to some, to recruit them to your little circle to bully the others. Quite apart from the concerns Ian expressed about secrecy and control of appointment procedures, staff are now anxious that those appointed are indebted to the head of department and willing to do her dirty work. The second rule of bullying is to pick on the weak cases that can be divided off from the rest as an example. One of the first disciplinary cases under the new regime (while Ian was away from the department) was against a colleague who made an offensively sexist video (posted on YouTube) rehearsing some particularly stupid pop-Freudian ideas about why men love red Ducati monster 796 motorbikes. No one would have rallied round to support that colleague, and that was the point. Even though the case eventually collapsed and the misconduct charge wasn’t upheld (and, after all, a lot of psychological research is offensive), this test case did the trick. It shut him up and sent a message to the rest of the staff. Another colleague arrived to teach (as usual, late, so it goes) and found lights and cameras in the room. They were there, he was told, to record a DVD of the lecture for a potential student applicant in Australia – the DVD was, it turned out, for evidence in a disciplinary case against him. He has now left. Across MMU in the last year there have been twenty cases of ‘gross professional misconduct’ taken out by management (with most victims obeying the instruction not to discuss the case with anyone else).

Student activists reported that some lecturers in the psychology department angrily tore down the newspaper reports about Ian’s case that they were posting up on the notice-boards in Gaskell campus (three times they posted them up and each time they were torn down), that some staff nervously looked away as this was happening or hid in their offices (the department corridor was, according to one member of staff who spoke to Ian on condition that their identity remained secret, like a ghost-ship), and some staff privately came to the students and said they too felt they were ‘bullied’ but that there was nothing they could do. The students described how weird this felt, that the rationale for the secrecy was part of them being infantilised by MMU, treated like children, but now in these new conditions it was the staff who spoke to them as if they were the frightened children.

The union is clear that it we must use the policies that have been fought for and that, to some small extent, do protect workers’ rights. The university’s ‘bullying and harassment policy’, for example, forces it to implement procedures in line with the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which, it says in its own documents, ‘gives employees the right to a healthy and safe working environment and to be protected from undue stress due to harassment’. There is plenty in the policy that is progressive and humane, gains that need to be defended and deepened. It would be foolish in a case like this not to use (as feminist writers have put it) the tools of the master to dismantle his house, but we need to take care not to wall ourselves up in that house, and so this also requires a little distance from what the terms of the discourse of bullying might lock us into. If it turns collective workers’ rights to open democratic debate free of the secrecy and control into a world of bad bullies and poor victims, then anyone will be able to claim that they are suffering from the actions of others; even managers could then claim this. The question would simply turn into a vicious spiral of claims and counter-claims as to who is more of a victim.


The discourse of ‘bullying’ does enable us to take seriously stress and harassment at work as aspects of the exploitation and alienation endemic to capitalist society. A worker’s creative activity is systematically distorted when the products of their labour are designed to be for profit. Bit by bit the class privilege of academics in universities is being eroded, and the illusion that lecturers once had that they were free agents creating exactly what they liked is being dissolved into the acid reality of competition for student fees. Exploitation and alienation in a business enterprise does often lead to stress, to physical health symptoms and mental health problems that drive those who cannot cope out the workplace and leave those that remain in a more desperate (and sometimes vicious) frame of mind.

The socialist feminist argument that the personal is political is realised in, among other places, the deep felt vulnerability of workers who we now refer to as ‘bullied’. Ian has spoken about how he felt frightened while in the disciplinary hearing but could not understand why, and how he felt distressed, and surprised at how upset he was, when he eventually went to the doctor; social relations do work their way through the body. A woman colleague had gone to the doctor much earlier and got some space away from department, and she had to insist that Ian let go of his tough guy ‘I’m not ill, just protesting’ role for a bit and get some medical support. Personal distress (always gendered), like health generally, is a political question.

This new name for a problem as old as capitalism itself is a kind of game with its own strategies. Ian has said that he realised how big the gulf was between the head of department as a manager and the lecturing staff when he said to her that he could see that the ‘change agenda’ (as she now calls it) put all of us in a quite different game that we had to work out the rules for. ‘No’, she shouted, ‘it is not a game’. Now this game – bullying and harassment – carries with it a set of assumptions about management that treats the workplace as some kind of school-place, as if the university were a school playground around which roam bullies.


Outside the UK the term ‘mobbing’ is often used as an alternative to ‘bullying’, and the connotations of childish behaviour are replaced with a quite different description of the way that managers at work (or other colleagues) coerce and humiliate those who are weak or those who will not obey. The term ‘mobbing’ is not a solution to the problem, and it has its origins in some of the most reactionary early research on ‘aggression’ as a natural biological assertion of the power of some animals over others. To refer to a group as a ‘mob’ also, of course, tends to turn collective activity into something suspect, irrational and dangerous, and this has been a long strategy of psychologists and sociologists to pathologise what they call ‘crowd behaviour’. It was more that sense of the term that was evoked in the disciplinary hearing against Ian when the head of department attacked the petition, letters and emails of support for him as part of the campaign against his suspension.

Ian described how she complained in her evidence to the disciplinary hearing with a rise in tone of indignation at each beat that in the many letters she received she had been compared to the Nazis (ok, one email did suggest that this was the kind of thing that happened in Germany and the Soviet Union and she should be ashamed of herself) and to the Taliban (well, an email from Iran did pointed out that this was the kind of thing that was happening in universities there), that she had been the victim of a campaign of intimidation, that ‘it was a mob!’. It sounded then like it was not just a game for her, it was a good performance (and the disciplinary panel later described her as a ‘credible witness’), but at other moments it has been clearer that she is willing to play this as a game with high stakes, and will slavishly obey the very management that have also put her in a difficult situation to prevent anything like this happening on her watch again.

Managing the union

Now MMU have announced that the bullying and harassment policy is to be replaced, after a two-week ‘consultation’ period, with a ‘fair treatment at work framework’ which on page 3 states that ‘where a manager is legitimately discharging his/her management responsibility, this does not constitute harassment or bullying’, and warns that ‘complaints submitted which are unfounded, represent totally unacceptable behaviour. Any complaints determined by the University to have been deemed as such, may result in disciplinary action taken against the complainant.’ Ian’s case was referred by MMU for assessment to an outfit called ‘Health Management Limited’ which has glowing reviews of its services on its website by heads of HR and personnel departments. You can see where this is going. Ian has now resigned, and looking for other work. As promised, he has released the documents about the case, with links to them in his resignation statement (where he can finally speak in his own voice) at: www.parkerian.com/mmu.rtf

In another twist to this pattern of intimidation and closing up of spaces of resistance in the university, the new psychology head of department has now (after a nine-month delay) decided to transfer her union membership from her previous university to the MMU branch, and UCU locally has had no choice but to agree. UCU knows that some members who are (or want to be) managers pass information directly to HR, but it also knows that to start expelling such members would lead to an atmosphere of paranoia and mutual suspicion that would undermine the union altogether.

Nevertheless, this head has – since her transfer to the branch in December – already circulated UCU communications to the whole of the department, sending a clear message about how she will use her membership in the service of her managerial position. She too, she says, has been victimised, but by the union, and she has already demanded protection from UCU region against this militant local branch. This cynical attempt to turn around the discourse of ‘bullying’ and claim victim status has once again posed the question of the relationship between the bullies and the mob. And once we are trapped in those terms of the debate about individual behaviour and collective mobilisation the union will be lost. The struggle to reclaim space to organise and debate now has to begin again.

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11 Comments on What does it mean, ‘bullying at work’?

  1. This article is spot on. The incidence of bullying by management in education and surely in all workplaces has definitely increased in the last few years. It would be interesting to know from union representatives how many cases were being dealt with nationally. I know of one school in an outer London borough where the head has managed to get away with bullying a number of teachers in just a couple of years. The decisive factor in whether you can fight back in these cases is the strength of the union in the workplace itself – as exemplified by the activists in Manchester. I am sure heads in some London boroughs can get rid of staff much easier than in a well organised borough with a strong union such as Tower Hamlets. Of course the managements can do all this much more easily because of the way the labour laws now work, the encouragement from people like Head of Ofsted,Wilshaw, the destruction of local accountabilty of schools through the academy/free school system and the economic crisis which means teacher shortage is a thing of the past. The heads have all the cards since they don’t actually have to go to tribunal or follow through the whole process it enough to get you in a disciplinary and then encourage you to strike a compromise deal. The problem is that this makes it very hard to get a job again since heads have become very clever at spotting compromise agreement references. Often they know they may not win at a tribunal but know the staff member cannot take that risk and if they do and win it does not mean they have to be reinstated. Any political alternative we build must put policy on labour laws/rights at the centre of its programme.

  2. I was solidly on the side of IP throughout this whole mess (and I still am), but I’m starting to feel ever so sorry for the Head of Department. The actions of the HoD were regrettable and not cool-headed, for sure – having read IP’s documentation of the situation, the triggering moment seemed to be a bad reaction to an (admittedly snide) procedural email. But now, in addition to the pressure from above exerted by higher management (in turn themselves under pressure from the reprehensible marketisation of higher education), the HoD is the subject of a vicious letter-writing campaign and demonisation by the Union that she has every right to be part of. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Please, let’s save our venom for the government that is ruining Higher Education and not worsen the unenviable positions of the people that had to tarnish MMU’s reputation by beating out the world-renowned genius from their midst.

  3. It is not right to refer to the campaign of protest as ‘vicious’. I was given a dossier of the emails, and apart from one or two which did accuse the HoD of being the cause of all this, the emails were reasoned appeals. Not nice to get so many emails, but the HoD called in HR to do their dirty work right from the beginning, and did nothing to distance herself from the management apparatus. Yes, she was put in a difficult position, and has good grounds for complaint about what MMU asked of her. And, yes, she should now ask for the union to support her in a grievance against management. Some colleagues who have been bullied during the time of her obedience to the apparatus will be reluctant to support her, but if she does this I think we should. A little act of courage to resist the ‘presure from above’ at some point would really have helped everyone in the department, and it still could now. At every level in the organisation there were little acts of resistance and humanity, even from inside HR at MMU there were subtle but amazing messages of understanding and solidarity. What the article does not mention, for example, is that even in the ‘Health Management Limited’ company, the doctor who carried out the assessment was professional and sympathetic. So, yes, of course, we should feel sorry for everyone who has been drawn into this situation as agent of the apparatus and has felt that they could not do otherwise, and, yes, we should support those who then break from it and speak out. Ian

  4. Its interesting to note that the HoD seems to have appointed at least two ex-Phd students, in her previous role. Simply cross-reference said’s list of Phd Students on said’s publicly available website with appointed staff in previous. This seems to vindicate Ian’s questioning. Nothing necessarily wrong of course with prior connection.

  5. Is it just me or is there a gendered aspect to all of this? A female manager feeling vulnerable against a world-renowned male professor overcompensates by brandishing authority she feels she does not have only to no doubt regret it later. Perhaps this comment is in itself sexist – apologies if so.

  6. The first appointments at the HoD’s previous institution were 2 Phd students and 2 research collaborators. From a small psychology department 3 members of staff left in one year.

  7. Walter Cairns // 7th February 2013 at 4:58 pm // Reply

    I acted as trade union adviser to, and representative for, the member of staff identified in your article, more particularly in the fifth paragraph thereof, in the following terms:

    “One of the first disciplinary cases under the new regime (while Ian was away from the department) was against a colleague who made an offensively sexist video (posted on YouTube) rehearsing some particularly stupid pop-Freudian ideas about why men love red Ducati monster 796 motorbikes. No one would have rallied round to support that colleague, and that was the point. Even though the case eventually collapsed and the misconduct charge wasn’t upheld (and, after all, a lot of psychological research is offensive), this test case did the trick. It shut him up and sent a message to the rest of the staff.”

    Although fully supportive of Professor Parker’s case against the MMU authorities – indeed, I was one of the first to offer him my trade union services – I must stress that this account of the case is inaccurate and highly misleading. My “client” did not “make” the video in question. He was invited by a long-standing friend to be featured making a number of comments on the sexual symbolism of certain types of motor vehicle, which he did in a spirit of dispassionate academic inquiry. He had no notion that the video into which these comments were eventually incorporated would feature scenes and imagery which arguably had sexist overtones (although it should be noted that the majority of viewers did not consider it offensive). The fact that this video appeared on YouTube came to the attention of his head of department, who instructed him to have the video removed from this network. My “client” did his utmost in persuading his friend to comply with this injunction, but the latter refused. The head of department in question attempted to bring disciplinary proceedings against my “client” on the basis that the efforts he had made in this endeavour had been inadequate. The case was dropped as the sheer impossibilist nature of this requirement became all too evident, even for MMU’s disciplinary apparatchiks.
    I trust that this clarifies the matter


    Walter Cairns
    Chair, UCU (MMU Branch)

  8. Celia Simpson // 16th April 2013 at 2:30 pm // Reply

    when i worked in HE, my sense was that some managers got promoted for being effective bullies. Yes, the effects on one’s health can be profound. I recommend Tim Field’s ‘Bully At Work’ for a very comprehensive coverage on bullying and how to recognise it and challenge it.

  9. The above site shows the attitude of MMU to complaints of bullying and harassment and the mobbing culture under Dame Sandra Burslem. Her successor Professor Brook’s who requested he be judged by his actions has shown his management style is no different than those before him in denying dissent and free speech.

  10. Staying Anon // 18th June 2020 at 2:44 pm // Reply

    I’m late to this comments section, and although this seems a few years ago, the current culture is no different. There has been a change of guard in terms of VC and senior leadership, but the culture of bullying prevails. I was brutally punished for raising a formal grievance on discrimination and forced out. Have publically disclosed details and I’m still being brutally harassed almost two years down the line – now through third party agents. The change of leadership changes nothing when the endemic culture is one whereby bullying is accepted and complainants shut down and destroyed. This is a curiously run university and I see its culture as determined by the wider Manchester issue of cronyism and whack-a-doodle freemasons. Would never advise this as a place of employment for anyone, no matter how desperate they were.

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