Blog #2 Bullying within a social work environment.

Have you ever thought you might be being bullied at work?

Have you ever thought a colleague might be being bullied?

Workplace Bullying” seems to come up on a regular basis in all sorts of arenas. I’ve talked about the issue with a range of people from managers, lawyers, human resource personnel and social workers across a range of services.

What one person may describe as bullying, another may simply see as strong management – and herein lies the problem for staff who bring a claim of bullying to the attention of their employer.

I have seen bullying behaviour in the workplace – but that tends to be between staff at the same level. What I believe happens more often within the manager – social worker interaction is poor management skills on the part of the manager – and often a greater problem – poor understanding of what social work is on the part of the manager.

Any manager should have the skills to communicate with a wide range of staff – just as a social worker should have the skills to communicate with a wide range of clients. If a manager has concerns about a staff member’s behaviour or actions, the first action should always be to talk with the staff member – and hear what they have to say. It is the manager’s responsibility to continue a conversation until the manager understands the action from the point of view of the social worker (just as social workers build relationships and spend time listening to understand a situation from a client’s perspective). If at that point, the manager disagrees with the action, or the action contravenes organisational policy or procedure, then appropriate action can be taken. Even newly graduated social workers have completed 4 years of university level education. They are capable, intelligent and have good knowledge of themselves.

If you do think a colleague is being bullied or treated unfairly or inappropriately, are you prepared to stand up for social work ethics and speak up? If a client was being treated this way by an external organisation, would you be willing to address this treatment? Are you willing to do the same for your colleagues? If you do not feel that you can speak up for your colleague, at least speak to your colleague. Tell them “I hate the way you are being treated.”; “I don’t like what […..] said to you today.” One of the first steps that happens in workplace bullying is to isolate the victim. The victim has no one to talk with or to provide another perspective – they begin to think that the opinions of the bully are fact. Simply stating what you are feeling or what you are observing can make a difference for the person who is being poorly treated.

This might change poor performance too. If we know our colleagues will support us when we are being bullied and call us out when we are performing poorly, our workplace become more open and overt.

Do you think that over work, too many cases, not being aware of the workload or type of work being undertaken is bullying, or is it poor management? What happens when your caseload is too high, you tell your manager you have too much to do and you get no relief or an increased workload? What happens if you have too much work and this creates stress which you react to? Is any of this bullying, or is it poor management, or is it just the nature of social work and one of the skills that we all need to add to our repertoire is to be able to “suck it up”?

I am very interested in your responses. You do not need to provide your real name in the responses, so you can remain anonymous. I do not want this to become a forum for poor management, non-constructive criticism or bullying. What have you observed? What have you done about it? What have you been subjected to?

15 Comments

  • I’ve just come across this page and information: https://autcollab.org/projects/bullying-alert-system/
    If you are the victim of bullying, please complete the form at the bottom of the page. This is one way of taking action. Let’s get this started.

  • Zircon

    My experience is with Cyber bullying that can be so disempowering especially when working in an acute model of care. I put a lot of energy in to maintain ‘safe practice’ and manage a heavy caseload so when I sit down to my computer and find the emails from my SW Peers stating comments about my practice it becomes quite frustrating that the sender has not taken the time to make a ph call first to get clarification of the situation.
    In addition to this I often discover that the emails have gone to other persons not directly involved in the case.
    I have learnt now not to respond to the emails unless there is a genuine situation with the client that needs to be resolved. I invite the sender to attend a meeting to discuss it ‘face-to-face’ and/or if this is not accepted I ask the sender to stop sending the emails and cc to my line manager.
    In all of the above I discuss this in my Professional supervision in and attempt to work out a strategy to work with situations like this as the emails can be quite personal.
    I adhere to the Bullying Policy but this can be hard especially if the emails are coming from a more senior practitioner and you take the risk of being labelled which is not a nice position to be in.
    I would like to remain anonymous.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Anne,
    I’m currently in a difficult situation with a senior manager who is not a social worker nor do they have a social science/ service background. I work for a charity.

    The organisational structure is becoming ‘more corporate ‘ in response to value placed on outcomes.

    I continue to be surprised that non SW colleagues including allied heath professionals do not know that SW is a degree qualification or understand what social workers do. Evidence based practice and social work is rarely uttered in the same sentence except in universities.

    It seems that we are seen as pseudo-practitioners and within social work itself their is a hierarchy of qualifications and legitimacy. The pervasive idea that the social worker ‘ has made it’ when they become an Oranga Tamarki Manager and moves to Wellington is a form of self-sabotage

    The Govt ‘wellness’ approach offers SW an opportunity to take a lead and introduce initiatives and not merely respond. At times, I believe we are perceived as the problem focused profession, rather than the innovators who shine light on the systemic factors and create sustainable change.

    Until the SW profession (not ANZASw) and individual SW’s in position of influence demonstrate our worth we will continue to be treated with disregard and at times contempt.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Anne,
    I’m currently in a difficult situation with a senior manager who is not a social worker nor do they have a social science/ service background. I work for a charity.

    The organisational structure is becoming ‘more corporate ‘ in response to value placed on outcomes.

    I continue to be surprised that non SW colleagues including allied heath professionals do not know that SW is a degree qualification or understand what social workers do. Evidence based practice and social work rarely are uttered in the same sentence except in universities.

    It seems that we are seen as pseudo- practitioners and within social work itself their is a hierarchy of qualifications and legitimacy. The pervasive idea that the social worker ‘ has made it’ when they become an Oranga Tamarki Manager and move to Wellington is a form of self-sabotage

    The Govt ‘wellness’ approach offers SW an opportunity to take a lead and introduce initiatives and not merely respond. At times I believe we are perceived as the problem focused profession, rather than the innovators who shine light on the systemic factors and create change.

    Until the SW profession and SW in position of influence demonstrate our worth we will continue to be treated with disregard and at times contempt.

    • Ooooh, I agree. I am writing a couple of new blogs which will also cover some of what you present here. I think it is very important that we continue to professionalise social work – and stand up for each other when we do this. Social word started off as a profession of innovators, growth stimulators, drivers of social justice – and so often I see that sort of behaviour driven out of social workers.

  • Anonymous

    I was bullied in 2012 when I returned from a Social Work secondment in another government dept to being managed by a woman who had previously been in a Secretarial role and who, unbeknown to me, had also bullied a close colleague in another location. I had an extremely responsible regional position as a Family Violence Response Coordinator. My background included establishing with my friend a Women’s Refuge at a time when there were only 9 Refuges in Aotearoa. I was part of the group of women in my community who started Rape Crisis, a Whanau Support organisation, worked as a Court Victim Advisor and many other social and community work roles – and yet still I was slow to recognise what was happeing to me. It was the amazing stauchness of another colleague working in prevention of family violence who asked me questions and challenged me gently to discuss and record what was occuring. I took this matter to the PSA who at the time had mounted a Workplace Bullying campaign. The MSD Regional Commissioner suggested as a way forward that my complaint be examined by another Regional Commissioner. I was slow – and so was the PSA organiser – as I agreed to it. Needless to say, after meeting with the other Regional Commissioner my complaint was not upheld. It was then I found out about what had happened previously with my former colleague and how the mediation process she entered into ensured that the perpetrator continued with her bullying unabated but shifted the focus to me. We have such a long way to go – starting with the failed and false notion that “anybody can manage anything”. although even if my Manager had been a social worker we still have a long way to go in social work to discuss these issues and ensure bullying never happens. I’m choosing to remain anonymous at this stage in relation to my experience but would be open to taking part in any research that may be undertaken by anyone. Mauri ora

    • I’ve just finished reading “Taming Toxic People” by David Gillespie. It was an interesting and easy read and provides some good insight. I did not read it for the scientific evidence behind it, but think that some of the ideas and techniques would be very effective to both manage toxic people and to keep ourselves safe when we become their targets.

  • annon

    anonymous

    I was witness to bullying in the workplace where my colleague was so bullied by the manager to the extent that he was unable to do any work and sat at his desk trying to. I had myself been bullied by this person as well, I was not the last and will not be. It takes someone brave to do a PG to make a change but that is a very brave thing to do. I supported someone in the PG process and it was arduous. I was being harassed and threatened by the person who the PG was taken out on and I was the support person imagine how that felt. I was not sacred but that is not really a cool thing to do. I think in some job cultures bullying is everywhere.
    I was in another whole career and bullying was everywhere. I think it is very sad.

    • One of the problems with a PG is that it costs so much!! Large organisations often have their own lawyers and can use them for advise – but we need to pay an employment lawyer, and in the end the pay out is only the same as what we have spent on legal fees.

  • As a Social Work student in my 30s I was badly bullied at the Princess Margaret Hospital by the Senior Social Worker (now long gone). Long story- I didn’t know I was Aspergerian then,but I have always had sensory issues (Noise in particular) and this caused a problem when one of the Rest Home SWs took a couple of us home for lunch… her son was at home and playing music VERY loudly. In the end I had to excuse myself and apparently she was offended enough to complain to the Senior SW who lambasted me and then said I would NEVER get a job there while she was SSW. I didn’t know what I could do about that so did nothing. Funnily enough, many years later, I found myself back there as a locum SW and that woman was not there but there were two others who were bullies, both to staff and patients. Again, not sure who I could complain to…. the patient who was abused was my own mother, who had dementia. I was so shocked at what happened I couldn’t think it through until later. Fortunately she just giggled at him!

    Years further on, I have been severely bullied by a person who works at CCS Disability Action in Christchurch. He refuses to work collegially, and abused me uphill and downdale quite recently…. I agree that many Managers are not worth their salt and the trouble with that is that they employ people who are no better. If one does “slip through” the Manager feels threatened by superior skills and bullies until that person resigns. This bullying culture is so widespread but if you can’t get the bullies at the top to change their spots, I don’t see much hope for the rest of us!

    • I think that each and everyone of us can look out for each other. We may not be able to change the “spots of the managers”, but we can notice what is happening to our colleagues and name it – even if it’s only to them, and not to the manager. . Naming behaviour without judging it can be quite powerful.

  • Anonymous also

    I have experienced both bullying (very overt and persistent attempts to undermine and embarrass) and poor management. Unfortunately with poor management around workloads etc, when raised, it is frequently not heard nor addressed. Often written off to ‘not coping’ or ‘creating a fuss’. The problem is that when that is also persistent and responses come based on these messages it can also feel like bullying. The outcome can feel the same, reduced confidence, effectiveness in role and then worry about the story created as everything seems to reinforce the message of not coping.

    I’m not sure what the answer is but my suggestion would be that how people are left feeling should be the bit being addressed.

    • I agree that we need to address and support the people who are the subjects of bullying or poor management. That’s why I think that we need to pay attention to our colleagues and talk with them, and ensure they aren’t isolated and cut off from support channels.

  • Annoymous

    I was bullied by a manager to the extent that my health was beginning to suffer. Comments such as “You are too old anyway” You deserved it” after I laid a formal written complaint. This all happened in the latter half of 2012. I was “lucky” I turned 65 and was able to resign with long service and retirement leave. Others were not able to do this. In 2013 the manager was the subject of an formal internal review in to which I made written submissions. She was moved to another office. In 2019 she is again subject to a ten page complaint I have been retired six years and do not regret leaving although I had not intended to do so before this woman came along.

    I know it was to cover her own inadequacies but it was a difficult time .

    I have chosen to remain anonymous because I retain my registration and am involved to some extent in SW

    • helen Burnip

      It’s so sad to hear that your choice of when you planned to retire was vitually taken from you. Not a healthy way to leave a workplace.

      In reading Anne’s blog I think that workloads and complexity of work are often overlooked by managers,staff are left with a feeling of loss of compentency due to being unable to keep up. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that managers feel unable to change systems, therefore not acknowledging the reality is easier. Unfortunately I believe this can be a major contributor to a high staff turnover and the loss of good people from the profession.