Category Archives: bullying at work

The Freelance culture-putting up with a lot

shutterstock_29072275The recent report on the BBC – the Respect at Work review says freelancers are “excluded from various HR policies”.

We have been helping organisations manage their freelancers, and we know that many HR structures leave non-employees outside the normal remedies for bullying and harassment.

The law doesn’t.  The Equality Act applies to workers, not just employees – so drafting policies that apply only to employees leaves a big gap in your compliance system.

Freelance workers are the backbone of many creative organisations, and it is vital that they are properly contracted and managed.    The BBC is not alone in having more freelancers than employees.  But regardless of numbers, we all need to set up freelance structures in an appropriate way.

There are various individuals campaigning about bullying and harassment in the Arts.  The combination of short term funding, fragile tenure, and a ‘who knows who culture’ is fertile hunting ground for egotistical individuals to exploit young and attractive newcomers.  Temperamental management and tantrums are put down to ‘artistic temperament’, and this sets an example for junior supervisors.

It is chilling to see the report reveal criticism of HR on the grounds they are  “feeding the culture of fear about reporting” – (if true)  But it’s peculiar to see HR criticised by staff as ‘working for the management’ since HR is part of management!  Part of HR’s job would normally be to set up appropriate structures and arrangements for freelance workers and try to protect them from sexual harassment.    HR is not the employees’ voice on the board, nor their representative.

HR needs to make it plain that they are working for the management ― and to make sure they are doing so effectively.

The suggestion that some people accused of sexual harassmentwere protected and promoted is one we have come across in our own work.  Sometimes it is because the allegation (rightly or wrongly) is not believed, and there is no reason not to promote that individual.    We have also seen organisations who feel deeply in the power of their high producers – the million dollar salesperson, or the star.  Even though the organisation may know what is going on, it may feel too difficult to take the financial consequences of removing the individual.

HR should be working for the management and doing their job – creatingcontractual arrangements and structures that mean their organisation is not dependent on individuals in a disproportionate way (succession and contingency planning).

In many organisations HR is already doing this vital work, but in others HR is simply ‘not fit for purpose’ and is relying on a narrow interpretation of ‘best practice’ as a substitute for tackling the real issues in an organisation.

Many organisations are ‘mini-BBCs’ ― and it is truly troubling that some HR people made redundant from these outfits are taking this mindset into a new client base and promoting these policies and ways of working as normal or appropriate for growing entrepreneurial businesses to adopt.

We are working hard to improve the standards for freelance workers ― because that has positive spin-offs across the whole organisation.  We run regular free teleseminars on how to manage freelance workers.  Join the conversation and let’s hear your voice.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050
Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on Twitter

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Filed under bullying at work, employment law, Freelance Workers

Feedback or bullying – can we criticise our way to success?

shutterstock_29072275I am not a sensitive soul or an introvert.  Most of my life I have walked right up to people and told them where I thought they were going wrong.  Not a lot of those people are still speaking to me.  

I was taught to speak truth to power.

Somehow in that process I forgot that people don’t always have a strong sense of personal power, and there are times and places when this loud truth of mine is best left unsaid.   Those who loved me learned to duck, and everyone else walked away.

I am an extrovert, and I learn about things through talking about things.  The world of the introvert –who needs to walk away and think in private – was a closed book to me for most of my adult life.  They couldn’t get a word in edgeways, while I thought if it was important they would say something, interrupt me.

I still take up a lot of the oxygen in the room, but over time some patient souls have gentled me into looking beyond my intention (always good, of course) and into the havoc I occasionally create with my unsolicited and trenchant views.

I host a forum on LinkedIn, on bullying, harassment and discrimination in the UK looking at ways to prevent it, detect it and remedy it.   I have come to realise the connection between bullying and our managerial idea of performance feedback and communication.

This week I’ve been on the sidelines of several groups where conflict has broken out around public feedback and criticism.   Those who were giving the feedback and criticism were all acting from a standpoint of helpfulness and a desire to improve the outcome of a process.   All resulted in the criticism being received in an agitated or hostile way.

Online criticismIf criticism is well intentioned why would the person respond in such a hostile way?

1)    The intention behind the criticism does not affect whether performance itself improves as a result.  I used to think if I meant well, I did well – and the other person was to blame if it all went wrong (they had too much ego, couldn’t handle it, etc.).  It just doesn’t work.

2)    Unsolicited criticism rarely results in any change in performance – the most likely outcome is an argument or hurt feelings (amygdala hijack).   This method may stop someone doing something but is not likely to improve how they do it.  Walk up to the next ten people you meet and tell them how they could look better, eat better, earn more money, and see how many answers you get that don’t include   “…”!

3)    Public criticism is usually viewed by people who receive it as abusive and counter productive.  The public naming and shaming of people is normally regarded as a punishment and not a motivational or feedback tool.

When a group comes together for a common purpose, it is easy to assume that the same purpose is shared . . . and that our own method of achieving that purpose is naturally the right one.    That is rarely the case.

Inside an organisation, public criticism of an individual’s work can amount to bullying – with all the emotional and legal complications arising from that.  Work on the principle of public praise, private criticism (and you will have more colleagues who like you too).

Working in privateWhen we go online, we are in public.  The fact you can post to forums sitting on your sofa in your pyjamas can give a false sense of intimacy and privacy.  Try doing your social media more formally dressed to see if it changes your tone.

Criticism of all kinds abound on the online and offline world:

1)    Tactful – I wonder if you are trying to achieve….is that working?
2)    Direct – That needs improving
3)    Abrasive – That was a load of rubbish
4)    Abusive – You are an incompetent person
5)    Criminal – amounting to harassment and abuse that needs reporting

It is extremely rare anyone asks the question – What was the purpose of your actionWhat was the thinking behind it?    I wouldn’t walk up to you at a party and tell you I hated your outfit – not if I wanted you to talk to me.

You remember that guy at the party/networking event/meeting  you hated – the one who walked across the room and without even being asked told you what was wrong with the country today? (then kept at it for hours).  Remember how he changed your political views?  Your career choice?  The only thing he changed was your mood!

Online presence is not an invitation to be insulted – any more than going to a party is!   The wisdom of crowds does not come from shouting so loudly no one can think, but in sampling opinions and asking questions.   Reserve to yourself by all means the ‘right’ to be critical online but if  want the person to change how they are doing things – you should know – it is not likely to work.

We all need to raise the bar when it comes to our performance as bosses, managers, colleagues, friends, members of communities.   We can’t complain our way to paradise or criticise our way to success.

Our KoffeeKlatch intervention service around performance management is designed to get you moving, and to sort out where your business or your people are getting stuck.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050                  Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on


Filed under bullying at work, performance management, social media

The past is no guide to future performance

Mary is an established member of her team, with good social and professional relationships with her co-workers.  Her boss has managed the unit with a fair degree of success (neither perfect nor imperfect), and everyone knows where the boundaries are and what is expected of them.

Boss moves on with fond farewells.  New boss Sarah arrives, with her own way of doing things.  Mary feels put out by the changes, and wants to carry on working as before.    She complains to colleagues about the changes, and starts to campaign with them that they should not implement them.     She tells her colleagues that many of the changes are pointless and will not work, and she will not participate in them.   When a colleague tells her “Sarah’s the boss, why not just do what she says?”  Mary turns on her heel and laughs.  Although Mary is a valued member of the team, her campaigning is making life very difficult for her new boss.  The team is dividing into ‘pro Sarah’ and ‘pro Mary’ camps.  Mary talks about “I was here first”, and “it worked well before”

Sarah was a very popular boss with her old team, and she is well liked by some of the new team.  She is very approachable, regularly buys drinks for everyone in the pub, and is willing to bend the rules to help her team members, letting them go home early if needed.    Standards are slipping a bit – the old boss was a stickler for detail, whereas Sarah is more of an overview person.   No-one from outside would notice the difference, but old team members shrug their shoulders and pick up the slack.  Sarah doesn’t seem to know.

Why is it we are so bad at change?

Planning for change, or accepting changes that are not planned, is something few us are willing or able to do.

Sarah went into a new team without a clear plan for how she would evaluate whether change was needed, communicate that change, implement it, and monitor it.  She just did what worked well in her old team.

Mary did not expect any change except for the name of her boss.   When faced with change she resisted it all.

If the team is lucky there will be a natural mediator on the team – one of those wonderful people who are the glue that really make the workplace work.    We need someone to say to Mary: “The boss is the boss.  Unless it is dangerous, or illegal, it is her job to say what we do.  If you think it is inefficient or there are better ways, have a quiet word with her and let her know, otherwise you need to do it.”   And we need someone to feedback to Sarah that she is changing how things are done (she may not be aware of it), and that she needs a process for bringing people along with her and for dealing with Mary.

How many HR specialists does it take to change a light bulb?

That depends on whether you want to keep the light bulb.

Sarah could have a useful learning experience that will enhance her skills and make her next promotion easier, or she could struggle with Mary and slowly begin to fail – she could get stuck here.  Mary may even accuse her of bullying, as Sarah repeats the same instructions over and over again and Mary gets progressively more isolated from her team.

Mary can learn how to handle change and difficult situations.  Or she can campaign against her boss, and sooner or later she will find herself with no promotion prospects, and quite possibly no job.   Mary can feel bitter that her lovely job was ‘stolen’ from her by this awful manager – an attitude that may affect her life at home as well as at work.

It’s not a big deal to help new managers put together a system of ‘raising the bar’ so that they can change the way a team works.   It’s not such a big deal to help Mary (at an early stage) to work out the difference between changes she needs to give feedback on, and those that are not really something to worry about.

So where were HR when all this was happening?   They were busy with other important things.  They had not routinely touched base to see how this team functioned.  Of course, when Mary claimed she was being bullied, and Sarah claimed she was totally unsupported by management, HR were all over the investigations like a rash.  The hours of note taking and decision making meant they were then too busy to touch base with any of their other teams.

Is there a happy ending to this tale?  Not really:  Mary spent years resenting Sarah, and then transferred to another team.  She is not regarded as a popular or successful team member, because she has kept up the habit of complaining about the boss and resisting all change.  Sarah never got another promotion in the organisation.  She stayed in post for a few years and then got a job outside.  She started with her new team in the same way, and is now convinced that people are just awkward and you have to push them harder to get what you want.   HR are still doing a lot of paperwork and taking a lot of notes at meetings with unhappy people.  No change there then.

Employment law is where the rubber meets the road – where people problems become legal problems and the law intervenes.  It can’t make Sarah a better manager, or Mary a more realistic employee.  It can’t make an organisation introduce the small interventions that prevent this type of problem  What employment law does do is penalise and sanction those organisations who get to tribunal after they haven’t done their part and a legal issue has arisen.

Of course if there are any ‘equality’ or ‘discrimination’ issues here, this turns into a nightmare scenario.  Sarah picked on me because I am white, transsexual…..  Even in unfair dismissal terms, the process of performance management can be a very long haul if it is started late and from an already-broken situation.

If there were no employment law and the organisation was free to act in any way, would that really solve this problem?  To what extent is the very existence of employment law the problem?

To my thinking, employment law, if incorrectly applied, can be a complicating factor, but it’s never the problem itself.   Giving long serving employees three warnings and an opportunity to change their behaviour doesn’t seem unreasonable.   In this situation would you really want to walk in and just sack Sarah or Mary (or both)?

There is another complicating factor:  in many organisations, both performance management programmes and warnings are often seen as the death knell for individuals – simply the start of an inevitable process of ‘managing someone out of the business’.  We need to do something to change that – but that’s not an employment law issue, it’s a cultural one.

It’s not employment law that gives us difficult problems.  The Sarah/Mary problem is one we get every day, and it has a relatively easy prevention plan, early on.  But allow it to fester to the point when employment law becomes an issue, and then you are in for a more painful remedy.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060
You can follow Annabel on Twitter

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Filed under bullying at work, discrimination, employment law, performance management

Bullies on the dance floor

Some leaders are beautiful to dance with – their lead is clear, direct and yet comfortable and soft.  Other leaders are rigid with tension and move harshly in ways that can damage the follower.

I have seen leaders berate their follower (unbelievable but true) for failing to do what they ‘lead’, and I have watched beautiful leaders bemused as followers blithely ignored their lead and did their own thing.

In the workplace we think of bullying as a personality driven behaviour.    Bullying personalities exist, but  the majority of ‘bullies’ are situational bullies.  They are fine in one context, but demonstrate inappropriate behaviours in another.

This also is true on the dance floor.  Some men are fine and relaxed until the dance floor gets busy, when the

y get overwhelmed with information and choices.  In order not to bump their partner into anyone, they become rigid with tension and start ‘bossing’ their partner around.

  • to the follower this feels like bullying
  • to the leader this feels like ‘getting the job done’

– in this case ‘the job’ being to get round the dance floor without colliding with anyone else.When the leader is overwhelmed, ‘getting the job done’ tends to have a very narrow definition.  Normally in tango the ‘job’ might be something like:  making a good connection with my partner and dancing in harmony with the music, my partner and the other dancers on the floor.  Just focussing on “avoiding a collision” is a very limited part of that experience – though an important one.

On the dance floor we try to teach leaders to relax their muscles, to breathe (yes, they can forget even that when ‘getting the job done’ has narrowed their focus), and to keep it simple when the dance floor is chaotic.

In the workplace, we tend to place escalating demands on the leader under pressure, giving them less time to relax an

d breathe.   For the follower in the workplace, this means an escalation of tension and demands which, even if not directed at them, feel like bullying and indeed can have that effect whatever the intention of the leader.Occasionally on the tango dancefloor you will see a couple ’dance it out’, as they use the explosive energy of anger or passion to dance.  When this is done by two skilled dancers, it can be thrilling and exhilarating if both feel this is the way to go.  If one partner is just marching the other round the dance floor because they are in a bad mood, this is an entirely different thing.

It is extremely hard to have followers in the workplace who can ‘dance it out’ with you.    Bosses often imagine they have such followers at work – mistaking compliance under pressure for consent.  If they had ever danced with a passionate tanguera who knew how to ‘dance it out’, they would never confuse their workplace tantrums with something that is good and clears the air!

Our bosses need to realise that a frantic ‘always on’ kind of life, or kind of tango, creates something monstrous that is unable to respond appropriately to another person.   When things get frantic and chaotic, It is time to relax the shoulders, do a few exercises, breathe, and focus on keeping it simple and keeping our followers safe.  This is no moment for grandiose plans or complex choreography.

“As on the dance floor so in life”.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.   Tel: 08452 303050  Fax: 08452 303060  Website :  You can follow Annabel on twitter –

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It’s not the person – it’s the job

Sometimes under performance is not really about the person, it’s about the job being badly designed.

If you just assume that under performance is the person and you sack them or move them on, you will find the next person fails as well.

If you do a proper performance management process you can find out whether it is the person or the job, and if it is the job you can fix it.

Here’s a tip:  If several people have ‘failed’ in this job, is it the job?

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Where religions collide

Christian teacher claims Tower Hamlets pupils as young as 8 discriminate against other religions. We really need to try to find a way to teach tolerance and mutual respect to our Citizens. How are we going to do this?

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Dignity at Work

In the modern workplace, we seem to have very mixed values in terms of what it is acceptable to say to whom (and when). Organisations often try to play safe by adopting a form of political correctness (PC) that can have bizarre and uncomfortable results.

Recently a school in Dartford barred a traditional Morris Dancing group from blacking their faces (as has been part of the tradition for hundreds of years) on the grounds this might ’cause offence’. This hyper-sensitivity on the part of others is a long way from the concept of ‘dignity’, since the arbitrary nature of the judgement (often by individuals with a hazy grasp of the idea of diversity and respect) can offend one group whilst patronizing another.

There are genuine problems in the workplace with racist and sexist terms and abuse. But banning the use of the word “black”, or banning one tradition in order to avoid some imagined offense, is not the way to go.

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Filed under bullying at work, employment law