Workplace Bullying in Higher Education

I know the old saying 'don't judge a book by its cover' but somehow I could not help doing just that with this book. An image of a sticking plaster over a bruised apple left me somewhat bemused. I was left wondering, what did this have to do with workplace bullying in higher education (HE).

I did consider the possibility of it referring to knowledge and the damage that is, potentially, being done by bullying in HE  institutions to future generations. That the developers, repositories and distributors of knowledge in society have issues with workplace bullying is not something that is a recent discovery; stories abound of high value, academics bullying doctoral researchers, junior faculty members and support staff in HE establishments. These academics are seen as untouchables because of the income that they generate and the impact that words from an esteemed professor could have on a future career.

HE is not really that different from other sectors and, like other sectors, this perception is being challenged quite strongly through the development of robust policies and procedures, training and management changes aimed at driving out what have been generationally embedded negative behaviours in some areas.

This book is written to help human resource (HR) professionals working in the HE sector understand what the current issues are surrounding workplace bullying. Although set in a USA context this does not limit the appeal or usefulness of the book; topics range from the current, limited, empirical research literature through to the different sub-cultures and biases that exist within financially restrained, historically bound, institutions.

It also provides well-researched observations on the legal and ethical implications of bullying. Of particular interest to me was the development of a model which links the social ecology of bullying with social reproduction theory. In brief, it suggests that bullying does not exist in a vacuum, it reflects the messages that seem to be prevalent in society (for example, the dominance of a subjective capitalism, the primacy of the victim, the demand for tolerance or intolerance) and suggests that HE institutions can fall into the trap of reproducing these inequalities by merely reporting the statistics on bullying rather than actually engendering change.

The authors set out a challenge to the institutions, almost in the form of an ethical demand, to move away from the current emphasis on statistics, characteristics and psychological profiling to a more systemic-based challenge to the societal embedded causes of, and supports for, bullying. The authors are clear that the book should not be read as an answer to the phenomenon of bullying rat herthat it is the beginning of a conversation; a conversation that needs more empirical evidence for it to progress in a meaningful direction. Maybe this was the point of the image on the cover of the book. The contributors seem to recognise that whatever they are offering is a sticking plaster to cover up a bruise as a temporary solution whilst they begin to explore the reasons as to why the bruise occurred in the first place. If this is their aim then, for me at least, the book is a success.

Damian Stoupe
Counsellor and workplace bullying doctoral researcher