What is ‘bullying’? We all know that it’s a serious charge, one that carries perhaps career-ending consequences. But what does it actually mean? What behaviour, or pattern of behaviour, does it describe?
Michael Gove stands accused of bullying his civil servants. According to The Sun, he “was said to have been visibly angry with a string of officials” over the abject state of the visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees.
This has led Jeremy Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, to complain to Jeremy Pocklington, his counterpart at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
To be sure, the modern workplace is less accommodating than once it was of flashes of temper (however well-grounded any fury at the Home Office probably is).
But Gove doesn’t stand accused of ‘losing his temper’, but ‘bullying’. Yet there is not, at least in the press reports, any sign of a sustained pattern of behaviour or any persecutorial intent; just a meeting that ‘boiled over’. Does that really count?
Given the seriousness of the charge, we might expect those responsible for policing such complaints to have a clear definition of what constitutes the offence. But this doesn’t appear to be the case.
As our editor noted when Priti Patel was accused of the same, the report into the incident concluded that: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals”.
This rather strange wording suggests that the truth of the charge lies not in any objective assessment of an individual’s conduct, nor even speculation about their intentions, but simply the feelings of the person on the receiving end. If they feel bullied, it’s bullying; if they don’t, it’s not.
Such a charge affords no defence, for the proof of it is the making of it. But for that reason, it is useless as a standard of behaviour to be upheld or enforced in a workplace or anywhere else.
Accepting this doesn’t mean that Rycroft can’t complain about Gove. Either a clear and precise Whitehall definition of bullying could compass the latter’s behaviour or, probably more usefully, he could choose other language for his charges (‘unprofessional conduct’ springs to mind) which may more accurately cover what, according to press reports at least, actually happened.