It can be unseen, virulent, contagious, and extremely painful, and can manifest itself through a varied number of physical and emotional symptoms. In some organisations, it is endemic, and on most occasions, the perpertrators would be motified at being implicated.
Yes, I’m talking about work place bullying. And surprisingly it is particularly prevalent in libraries. Why surprising? Because this is a profession that largely embraces and celebrates difference among our customers, that is proud of its non-judgemental ethos, and is a profession that fights to the death to promote equal access to information and to bridging the digital divide. And yet we can be brutal to each other – our own professional colleagues.
In our own staff interactions and interpersonal relationships, we are actually quite good at bullying, and this bad. It’s so prevalent that our own magazine Library Life recently devoted an issue to it, and some of the stories within were, well… horrible.
These were extreme stories, but bullying can be much more subtle. As adults, we can be ever so polite in our attacks or criticism (sometimes nauseatingly so), and this can leave the victim really starting to doubt themselves and their reactions, as well as their own abilities.
With libraries being largely dominated by women, I would hate to see this as a correlation between gender and bullying. Women certainly seem to have different techniques from men. Their bullying is more subtle – clever, even. And the victim really does start to feel stupid and inadequate. Years ago this was done to me by a library colleague, and her method was mico-management. Every move I made, and every task I performed was scrutinised, analysed until fault could be found and commented on, usually unfavourably. Perhaps she had a point. Perhaps I was incompetent. This is when your own insecurities take over and you believe you are substandard.
I’ve seen this occur more recently too, but this time I’ve been watching it unfold and have tried to offer support and advice. It starts with one person, and of course, it spreads to others who seem to have an innate sense of weakness and in they all wade. And yes, they are all women.
Men are more direct. They shoot from their mouths. But bullying should not be mistaken for banter, and in my earlier life as a musician, a largely male dominated profession in my field of music, there was a lot of banter, often of a slightly grubby nature. But the bullying was obvious when it came because it was invariably quite blunt – for example, who did I sleep with in order to get the gig? Clearly it was not possible that I was there on merit. How many men have had to endure such suggestions?
Then there is institutional bullying, where an organisation or group is just so large that it can simply push things through and remain far removed from the personal impact on individuals many hierarchical levels below the policy makers. Sometimes the organisations are so big that those making global decisions don’t see first hand the impact that is being felt on the shop floor. Every now and then a figurehead pops up and talks from afar about “concern” or”robust” or some other fatuous term. Or if they do step out and mingle with the proletariat, then the masses don’t feel able to be honest for fear of personal repercussions. Sometimes the spokeperson gets things dreadfully wrong and makes some hideously arrogant speech or comment that leaves colleagues open mouthed and disbelieving. And it takes a very brave or stupid person with very limited career aspirations or someone on the downward slope to retirement to speak out. But this is just the way of big corporations, so that makes it ok, right?
No, it’s never OK. And there are decent and compassionate ways of handling all of these situations that shouldn’t leave vulnerable people feeling disenfranchised and inadequate.
So in terms of solutions to work place bullying, the key is to stand up in support when you see others being bullied. Don’t listen to or engage in gossip with others. If it’s more institutional or widespread, stick together and support each other. In fact, sticking together and supporting each other are the most powerful tools at your disposal. And if you are an individual victim of bullying, seek out supportive colleagues and talk to others. Above all, don’t feel like you are alone. The chances are, if you’re being bullied, others will be too. And to the bullies, remember, you will never look good by trying to make somebody else look bad.