A culture of bullying is common in IT, leading to poor productivity and high staff turnover, IT professionals have told Computer Weekly.
IT professionals wrote into Computer Weekly about their experiences, following research from trade union Unite which showed that nearly two-thirds had been bullied during their careers.
The problem is a pressing one for IT managers, with some staff concluding that leaving the company is often the only solution. Finding good staff to replace leavers is difficult in a job market experiencing skills shortages.
A bullying culture can also affect the productivity, morale and performance of a department. Staff who are bullied, or affected by bullying, also take more sick leave, usually because of stress-related illness.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Lancaster, said the targets of bullying were not the only victims.
"It damages the whole department," said Cooper. "Bullying affects the performance and health of anyone who witnesses it."
And Peter Skyte, national officer at Unite, said bullying could cause problems for the business as a whole.
"Companies can get a bad reputation," he said. "This can make it harder to get good staff, and can even affect getting contracts for projects. It really puts the whole organisation at risk."
IT professionals who contacted Computer Weekly criticised a lack of openness and accountability at the top, micro-management and over-scrutiny, and a lack of appropriate training.
Some victims said their situation only got worse when they confronted the bully. Some said that senior managers, who were supposed to help find a solution, were part of the problem, leaving the victim with little option but to move to another company.
"Reporting bullying to a line manager will, if they are part of the problem, probably result in even worse treatment," one professional said. "To be effective, you need to take your case directly to the person at the top. Good leaders will be surprised and disgusted at your treatment."
Another target of bullying advised workers not to stay loyal to a firm that refuses to help. He said, "With hindsight, I should have listened to my intuition and changed firm sooner. My mistake was to remain loyal to the firm I was working for. My problem was led by a director of the company, and HR was useless.
"I strongly believe there is a need for fundamental change to the way managers are selected and trained."
One woman said that a face-to-face meeting would usually stop unintentional bullying and recommended mediation as the next step if the bullying was intentional.
But she warned, "The mediation needs to be done by a fully trained external mediator with a good track record. Internal grievances are open to the abuses of power."
Bullying can often stem from bosses not knowing enough about technology, she said.
"A lot of bullying in IT is down to some senior managers being 'hands-off' from a technical point of view and feeling threatened by the knowledge of subordinates," she said. "To cover their incompetence they would purposefully deceive.
"And in senior management positions a high percentage possess very poor people skills."
One IT contractor said he was pushed out of his permanent job by institutionalised bullying. He said, "I was given meaningless tasks, unsolvable problems, put at a desk in the farthest corner of the office facing a wall, excluded from meetings, and had development plans removed. The HR performance measurement process was used to 'prove' the point that I was a failure."
He added, "There is a culture of cronyism, protectionism and jobs for the boys that is institutionalised. It is so deep-rooted I doubt it can be resolved."
What managers should do to prevent and deal with bullying
Advice from professionals: Professor Cooper and Peter Skyte from Unite
- Have a mission statement that fiercely opposes bullying, and makes it clear it is not tolerated
- Have a clear process that is followed when bullying occurs, including how to go beyond the immediate manager if he or she is part of the problem
- Make sure all staff know about the mission statement, and the process that should be followed
- Take swift action if bullying occurs: don't let it persist
- If bullying is becoming a problem, check to see if it is endemic in the organisation
- Make support available for victims of bullying - for example, through the union
Advice from victims
- Deal with unintentional bullying through face-to-face meetings
- Use external mediators, as a case can become politicised if it is handled internally
- Provide a system for victims to report bullying anonymously, so they don't have to talk to the bully directly and risk making the problem worse
- Give managers better people-skills training, and take interpersonal skills into account for managerial positions
- Provide a system for employees to contact top managers if their immediate bosses are not helping
Ann had a successful career in IT for 29 years, with her employer telling her she was an "excellent project manager". But she began to experience bullying after a female colleague lied to senior management about Ann's character, personal life, abilities and knowledge of the job. The bullying didn't stop until she was admitted to hospital suffering from severe depression.
She returned to work two years later, but her employer did not adhere to return to work polices or the grievance procedures.
The bullying intensified. Ann was isolated from other employees, made to work in a building alone and excluded from meetings and events. Her e-mails and calls were ignored, and she was given demeaning, repetitive work. Work was also taken off her without warning or explanation.
Senior management lied and exaggerated to cover their backs, said Ann, before eventually asking her to leave after she suffered a breakdown. She left the IT profession and is now completing a psychology degree.
This was first published in April 2008