Bullying is not confined to schooldays

pexels-photo-568017As a kid, I thought I knew what bullying was. A physical thing, like having your head stuffed down a toilet and it being flushed, forced to hand over tuck money for fear of getting thumped, or chased down the street by pupils from a rival school.

I hated what it did to me, and others on the receiving end. I bottled it all in until reaching a point where only physical retaliation ended it. Fire with fire, but it went totally against the way I was brought up by my parents.

What I didn’t realise until after leaving school was that there was another form of bullying, and it was much worse than getting punched.

I had worked on a farm for five years, while still studying, but more for enjoyment than money (I got 10 pence an hour). I saw my time there as more of a hobby, and loved being there. Hard work, but not, in my mind, a job.

In 1984, two years after leaving school, I got my first proper job as a clerk for a credit reference company in Belfast. It was only a temporary position, but at £90 a week, it was reasonably well paid despite the cost of the commute.

There were another five clerks there, all female (I’m only mentioning this for context, not being sexist – you’ll understand why in a minute), under the control of a manager. And I use the word ‘control’ deliberately.

The other clerks were really nice to me, showing me how to conduct credit checks phoned through by local financial institutions. The checks were done by matching names and addresses to records held on microfiche, as this was still a pre-computer time.

The manager had a few basic rules about these checks:

  • we could not ask for any names or addresses to be spelt out when details were phoned through (we somehow just had to know the correct spelling);
  • we had to complete every query within three minutes (20 per hour if there was a steady stream); and
  • absolutely no asking any of the other clerks for help, or any chat at all except during the lunch break.

There were also a few housekeeping instructions:

  • toilet breaks were timed (the manager kept written notes of the frequency and duration of comfort breaks);
  • as the only fella in the team, electricity would not be ‘wasted’ on keeping a supply of hot water in the male toilet (I had to switch on a water heater as I entered the gents and switch off again as I left – the shorter my visit, the less hot water I had. The manager would check that the heater was turned off); and
  • lighting was kept to the minimum to do our jobs (after all, the microfiche reading screens lit up when in use).

We were also subjected to regular quality checks, which basically involved being individually summoned to stand in front of the manager’s desk, in full view of colleagues, to be shouted at if there was an error. Well, a perceived error.

Two personal examples have stayed with me all these years.

“Hack. What sort of name is Willoughby?” (the manager pronounced this Will-OCH-bee). Before I could even explain that the pronunciation was wrong, and the name existed, a copy of the telephone directory was thrown towards me. “Show me one single Will-OCH-bee in there!” Took me all of five seconds to find a page full of Willoughbys. No acknowledgement of being called to account for nothing, or apology as I was simply dismissed and told to get back to work.

A few week later, “Hack. Why have you spelt this address wrong. I know there is a ‘u’ in ‘Mournes’, so it should be in the name of this village.” The village was Magheramorne, which I knew well, and definitely had no ‘u’ in it. Again, a reference book was tossed towards me (I can’t remember if it was a map or that dreaded phone directory). As before, with incontrovertible evidence sourced and shown, the wave of a hand signalled the end of that conversation.

It wasn’t the bawling out that hurt, it was the dismissive attitude. This was a persistent management style, assuming that fear would eliminate errors. It felt like taking a stick to a dog at the time, though I wouldn’t treat my own dog like that.

I came home exhausted every day, physically, mentally and emotionally. I dreaded Sunday evenings, and still can’t bear to watch ‘Songs of Praise’ on BBC1. My late mum loved to watch this, but to me it signalled an imminent return to work. Those emotions swamp over me even now, if I catch the opening tune by accident.

Things came to a head when there was a minor rebellion. A Regional Manager came over to visit the office, something that happened roughly every three months. On previous occasions we had been instructed to keep our heads down, and make sure we were “too busy” to speak with the big boss. This time, however, the more established clerks took the bull by the horns and asked for a few minutes in private with the visitor, despite the visual daggers aimed at them by the branch manager.

I wasn’t part of that delegation, but whatever was said had a significant impact. The following day, as we arrived bright and early as usual, the Regional Manager called us together and sat us down.

It turned out that the local manager was on a bonus scheme. Extra cash for high productivity and any saving of running costs.

Our twenty checks per hour were far and away the highest across the organisation, which had a sites across the UK. The next best performing team was averaging twelve an hour.

Additionally, the manager was allowed to keep a percentage of any running costs below that allocated. In effect, the lower the electricity and heating bills, the bigger the bonus (hence the water heating issues in the gents).

From a HQ perspective, the Belfast office was the best in the business. Output and costs were top of the tree. It was clear, though, that in terms of working practices we were not.

Changes were introduced with immediate effect. Adequate heating and lighting provisions were made, productivity targets were relaxed, and extra clerks were to be recruited to keep up with the workload.

The manager was retained, on the proviso that the Regional Manager was to be informed if old practices returned. We were encouraged to join a Trade Union, and appointed a local rep.

I left a month or so later, as my temporary contract ended. To be honest, even with those changes, I didn’t apply for those new positions – the wounds were too deep.

I learnt some really tough lessons, though. Mainly about how NOT to work with people. It was painful to go through, but I think it made me more determined to be the very opposite of my first manager. Not for one minute suggesting I have been a perfect manager myself as I progressed in my career, but no matter what others may think of me, people came first.

Mental and emotional bullying is far, far worse than a punch, and the scars take substantially longer to heal, if they heal at all. Bullying is not confined to those of school age, who have immaturity as some semblance of an excuse (though there really is no excuse). It can happen to anyone. It is insidious and pays no regard to age, gender, religious belief, race, or anything else that defines who we are.

Bullies are out there, and need outed for what they are.

Oh, and if you think the traits shown by the manager I mentioned earlier are examples of a macho man, think again – this was a middle-aged woman.

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