This page tries to define what bullying really is, and what forms it can take. The aim is to make bullying easier to detect, more difficult to obscure and also more difficult to allege without evidence. This then helps define the appropriate remedy for behaviour which is perceived as inappropriate, unpleasant, unwanted and potentially harmful.

Adding to the potential for confusion, we must also remember that accusations of bullying — if unevidenced, unsubstantiated and untrue — may themselves constitute a form of bullying.

Bullying is a form of aggression with intent to harm, hurt or disable another person. The essential component present in bullying, but not necessarily in all forms of inappropriate behaviour, is the intent of harm.

  • Intent may be difficult to evidence robustly,
  • Evidencing intent may not be the same as attributing motive,
  • Where there is or was intent to harm, there cannot be a resolution through communications training or mediation,
  • Where behaviour deemed inappropriate, unwanted or hurtful was unintended, the matter can be resolved with better communication and/or mediation.

Often these subtleties are exploited in grievance processes, where it might be found that the behaviour was “unbecoming” or “ill-advised” or “ill-befitting” – or perhaps even just a matter of “miscommunication”. The mis-described behaviour, lacking intent or focus, is then insufficient to convict the bully of bullying. Entire departments might be sent on communications courses to detract from the intentionally harmful behaviour of one person.

There is a direct relationship between bullying and health and safety:

  • Bullying which harms another person’s wellbeing and leads to deteriorating mental health, sometimes to critical levels, becomes a matter of health and safety in the workplace.
  • Bullying behaviour which is harmful to the health of others, where known and tolerated by an institution or organisation amounts to failure to provide a healthy and safe environment for work and/or study.

There are examples of departments in which the cycle of bullying proceeds over many years. A bullying head of department is succeeded by another, who — having observed his predecessor’s actions were unchecked — repeats the cycle. Universities that routinely fail to take the health and safety of staff seriously over many years can face prosecution from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

HSE will consider investigating work-related stress due to bullying and harassment:

  • Where there is evidence of a wider organisational failing,
  • Where there is evidence that a number of staff are currently experiencing work-related stress or related ill health (i.e. that it is not an individual case).

This Youtube video by Prof Lucy Bowes from the Department of Experimental Psychology of Oxford University illustrates the variety of behaviour that constitutes bullying in academia.

Bullying is a very effective method of advancement for mediocre academics. There are structural reasons why bullying personalities thrive in the hyper-competitive and hierarchical world of universities

Bullies are often charismatic, persuasive and charming to those above them. They know how to sweet-talk those in power. This can create enough doubt about their conduct so any accusers won’t later be believed. They know how to get their students and postdocs to write their papers for them, yet ensure they take their credit. They know how to denigrate rivals and manipulate the grant systems. They know to inflate their own importance in the subject and promote themselves and their work relentlessly. They know how to exploit the power of patronage through job reference letters and promotion recommendations. That is why universities have an endemic problem with bullying

This Youtube video by Prof Susanne Täuber of Groningen University discusses bullying as a career tool. Susanne Täuber was sacked by Groningen for speaking out about bullying.