There’s no place for abuse at work

Bullying and harassment, whether overt or subtle, damages health and careers. Ruth Addicott finds out what can be done


he photographers’ pit can be a brutal place at the best of times but, for one photojournalist covering a demo in Westminster, things took a darker turn. Amid the chaos, a male photographer

standing behind her suddenly started pushing himself against her more aggressively. “I turned around and asked him to stop and he just laughed,” she says. “The next moment he pushed his camera lens between my legs – it was so violent, I was terrified. I told him to stop or I’d report him to security. He leaned into my ear and said, ‘Welcome to the world of photojournalism’.” It was not her first experience of harassment, but it did

make her question her safety. “There are way fewer female photographers than male in London and I think there’s a reason for that,” she says. Natasha Hirst, chair of the NUJ equality council, says

bullying and harassment are more widespread than people realise and often go unchallenged because people fear losing work. In an NUJ survey last year, 78 per cent of members agreed that “abuse and harassment have become normalised and seen as part of the job” and 64 per cent had not reported abuse to their employer. In 2018, the TUC revealed bullying was the second biggest

workplace issue after stress. Although women, black and Asian employees and people with a disability are more at risk, it can affect anyone. While online attacks are a massive problem, bullying can occur in many forms, including constant criticism, having promotion blocked and responsibilities removed, being given trivial tasks, setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work and setting impossible deadlines. An NUJ freelance survey in 2019 showed nearly 27 per cent of members had been subjected to bullying/harassment or ill treatment. One member reported being sacked for being pregnant. Demands for copyright, non-payment and rates being cut are common and people are being made to feel it is their own fault. Pamela Morton, national organiser, freelance and Wales,

says freelances are vulnerable because they are more isolated and do not have employment protection. “It can have a devastating impact,” says Pamela. “We’ve had

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members saying that it has affected their mental and physical health.” One member says her boss encouraged a ‘climate of fear’. “The boss would humiliate colleagues in meetings, badmouth them in their absence – then be lovely to their face,” she says. “He pitted staff against each other. So there was no trust. He talked loudly and casually about firing staff, even naming and shaming. I was constantly spoken over in meetings; projects I’d worked on for weeks were taken away without explanation.” She ended up working 19 hours a day and, when she

complained, was given an informal warning. “My confidence was wrecked,” she says. “No one spoke up –

so, when I did, I was made out to be ‘difficult’.” HR suggested she quit and said the culture would not

change, but she wanted the job. “I was breaking down almost every day on my commute,”

she says. “I was feeling incredible sadness or nothing at all, and began to imagine ending my life. It’s hard for people who’ve not been there to understand the mental damage that sort of culture can inflict.”

Tips on how to deal with bullying

Get another perspective Talk to a trusted colleague or union rep as soon as possible. One of the biggest mistakes people make is ignoring it and thinking they are to blame. Talk to friends and family for support.

Keep a record Keep a detailed record of times, dates and witnesses as well as your feelings and response to situations. If there is a phone call, summarise the conversation and, where possible, get witness statements. Without

a record, cases are hard to stand up. Keep all emails.

Make a complaint Talk to your rep about how you should proceed. If the complaint is serious, use the formal process such as the grievance procedure, or bullying and harassment/ dignity at work procedure. Be objective and try to stay calm. “Time and again, I’ve been told by members that they are astonished at the change in attitude from their boss when there is a union rep in the room,” says Brighton branch secretary Brian Williams.

Stand firm “Don’t doubt yourself,” says one member. “I kept thinking it was all in my head and maybe I was blowing it out of proportion. But bullying isn’t just physical abuse – it’s emotional, manipulative, undermining patterns of behaviour. I doubt the people I worked for would ever see themselves as bullies – but the behaviours were textbook and they propped up that culture.”

Be realistic A settlement may be preferable to a protracted legal battle. “I managed to secure a

partial victory but nothing like what it should have been,” says one member.

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