Sunday, 3 July 2011

Do bad manners constitute bullying?

There’s an amusing story circulating the UK this week about a woman who has written a scathing email to her stepson’s fiancé criticising the girl’s manners.

The irony which escapes the writer of the diatribe is that she has been guilty herself in displaying exceptionally bad manners with her cutting remarks about the girl’s breeding and upbringing. Had this criticism been verbal, it may have been passed off as a misunderstanding, but in hard print this insulting and rude email has gone viral, discussed on TV news and widely distributed on the web.

Apart from the obvious mother-in-law jokes that are circulating, (A policeman was asked what he would do if he had to arrest his mother-in-law – ‘call for back up’ was the reply) the word that is used in many of the headlines is ‘bully’.  I would love to add a few personal recollections about my own mother-in-law but my good manners and excellent breeding prevent me!

In the workplace, co-workers and bosses often pass off snide remarks and blunt put-downs as harmless banter or constructive criticism, but it often constitutes bullying.

A definition of bullying is Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.’ (ACAS)

Bad manners can be offensive, malicious and intimidating. A friend of mine  used to work with particularly unpleasant woman who, although they were both part of the senior management team, talked to my friend and her peers as though they were all something that had crawled out from under a stone. She was insulting and intimidating to her staff and wasted no time on the pleasantries and consideration that good manners demand. Her emails were all in bold capitals so it was like being shouted at. One of her staff received 33 such emails one Sunday night prior to the start of another tricky week. When challenged on this behaviour, the perpetrator insisted that she wasn’t bullying – it was just her way. She saw no reason to defend her behaviour stating that she wouldn’t waste time on niceties – and she ‘says it like it is’ and people should ‘stop being so sensitive.’

The organisation in question allowed this behaviour to continue, hiding behind a bullying policy that didn’t appear to allow for consistent bad manners. The net result was that in the space of six months, 15 of the 30 employees exposed to this assault voted with their feet and found jobs with competitors. Those were the good old days when you could say – ‘stuff this’ (or equivalent) and walk into another job.

With the current economic climate, it is less easy to avoid such bad manners. Presenteeism, staying at work when you are unwell or emotionally compromised, is more common as employees fear for their jobs. This has the effect of reduced productivity and a culture of fear growing in organisations that do not address these issues.

There is an old saying – ‘manners maketh man’ – I think the workplace version should be ‘good manners is good business’. A little courtesy and consideration goes a long way in cementing workplace relationships and creating a cordial working environment.

So as we chuckle at the public spectacle of a mother-in-law from hell trying to intimidate her future daughter-in-law, we should consider manners when implementing a workplace bullying policy or assessing a colleague’s behaviour.

And my favourite mother-in-law joke from the late great Les Dawson? ‘I took my mother in law to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors the other day – the attendant said – keep her moving sir, we’re stocktaking…’


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