Thursday, 3 January 2019

(Reprint) Bullying in Tech - It Has to Stop

(A reprint of an article I wrote for Testing Trapeze Magazine, published in its final issue in Dec 2017. Published on this blog as I still regard it among one of my best pieces of writing and its message remains as important as ever. Thanks to Katrina Clokie and Sarah Burgess for their editing).
From Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons
"I see you're putting on a bit of weight, aren't you Paul!"

"Beg your pardon?" I turned around to face my boss at the time, who was standing behind me.

"You're getting fat aren't you."

I was nervous. How should I react to a senior manager making a statement like that? Do I argue back, remain silent, jokingly agree with him?

"If you say so..." I returned to work.

He said it again a few weeks later. One of many underhand comments about my weight. His power over me at an early stage of my work life, the power to determine if I was employed or not - if I could pay my rent or not - was enough to make me keep my mouth shut.

Some years later, in another team, I was frequently berated by some of the developers. Anger and open ridicule if I made a mistake (especially in front of my two colleagues as test lead), sarcasm in front of colleagues, commenting about and mocking the words I used in conversation. In the workplace I deemed it utterly unprofessional and unacceptable. However it took me several months to approach the project manager about it (who tried valiantly to stop it, however even he wasn't totally successful) and even longer to call it the "B" word.

I am by far not the only person who has had to deal with workplace bullying. The union Unite, based in the UK, reported the following in a ComputerWeekly 2008 article.

"One woman quit after she received e-mails last thing at night with work to be done for the next morning, was given impossible deadlines to meet, and was ridiculed in front of her colleagues."

A 2014 article on the HR website describes the story of another victim, "Alex", as follows...

“It was quite insidious... The odd comment here or there. And he’d work his way through the team. Then he started on me and I stood up to him… and it got really ugly. Really ugly - to the point where I went and got a lawyer.”

Apparently, it took "Alex" five years to start to overcome the mental trauma of her mistreatment.

These are not isolated cases. The scale of bullying and unfair treatment in the tech industry destroys health and careers, costing the industry billions in reduced performance, sick leave and staff turnover. We should be doing better.

The Scale of the Problem

Various surveys, and high profile bullying and staff mistreatment scandals over the past 20 years paint a gloomy picture.

The first survey I could find was written in 2002. 3500 UK staff were surveyed by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. 21% of respondents claimed they had been bullied at least once in the past year, with 7% of those suffering chronic bullying. Of those bullied at least once, 24% were middle managers and 17% were senior managers. Those lower down the management chain were more likely to be bullied. In reference to bullying flowing downhill, Mercer’s Patrick Gilbert states, "The high rate of bullying among managers is a particular area of concern. If managers are the victims of bullying, they are more likely to bully the people they manage."

In the previously mentioned Unite survey of 860 UK IT professionals, 65% believed they had suffered workplace bullying. Examples of the types of behaviours reported in the survey were -

"..unachievable deadlines, excessive monitoring and supervision, and constant criticism on minor matters. More than half said they had been bullied by a more senior member of staff."

"The survey found many victims felt unable to report bullying because of fears that it would get worse, or because they thought their complaints would be dismissed as an inability to cope." A wall of silence had developed with victims feeling unable to speak out.

The Kapor Centre for Social Impact's 2017 Tech Leavers Study surveyed  2006 workers in the US who had left a technology-related job in the past three years. It included questions on bullying, public humiliation, and rude and condescending behaviour, with a focus on minority groups.

Taken from the survey -

"LGBTQ employees were most likely to be bullied (20%) and experience public humiliation or  embarrassment (24%), both at significantly higher rates than non-LGBTQ employees (13%, p<.01).

White and Asian males experienced bullying (16%), public humiliation (16%), and rudeness (25%) more frequently than underrepresented men (9%, 11% and 19%).

Bullying and hostility were most often perpetrated by senior-level employees (53%)"


The culture of bullying and harassment among some Silicon Valley startups, particularly Uber, have been heavily criticised, notably by Margaret Heffernan in the Financial Times . Heffernan described a "frat boy culture of bullying and exclusivity" that limited the prospects and representation of women and minorities. She pointed to the scandals at Uber, which had recently fired 20 of its staff and deposed its CEO Travis Kalanick over 215 claims of discrimination, unfair treatment and sexual harassment. Of these 33 claims related to bullying.

France Telecom

An even more sad and devastating bullying scandal arose at France Telecom (now Orange SA) in 2009, following as many as 35 staff suicides in two years. Whilst France Telecom claimed that the rate of death by suicide was in line with the French average (16 per 100 000 in 2006), many left suicide notes blaming "unbearable work pressure, bullying and 'management by terror'". Alongside this  "scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves." Some suicides were attempted in the office during the workday.

"There was this pressure from the top to slim down operations by destabilising workers, people were undermined to the point that they got ill," his sister claimed. "He told me he was regularly sent messages from managers suggesting he find work elsewhere. Once they suggested he open a rural guesthouse. He accepted a far too heavy workload out of fear of losing his senior job."

According to an official report by the Works Inspectorate the blame was laid on a climate of "management harassment" which "psychologically weakened staff and attacked their physical and mental health". France Telecom was restructuring at the time making 22,000 jobs redundant and moving 14,000 jobs to different locations. The mishandling of the moves was seen as a major factor in some of the attempted suicides, a claim denied by the CEO, Didier Lombard.

Lombard, under heavy criticism for his poor handling of the tragedy - particularly his dismissing of the suicides as a "fashion" at the company - was forced to step down from his post in 2010. In 2012 French media published an internal memo from 2006 where he stated in a high level meeting that he would cut staff " way or another, through the window or through the door". Following these revelations, in 2016 the Paris Prosecutor recommended that he and other senior figures at France Telecom be put on trial for "moral harassment" (the legal term for bullying in France). According to the BBC, "the Paris prosecutor accuses France Telecom of enacting a policy in 2007 that resulted in unsettling workers and creating a "professional climate that provoked anxiety" at the time of a "delicate restructuring" of the company".

Effects of Workplace Bullying

Both the individual and the technology industry suffer when there is bullying in the workplace.

The Australian Human Rights Commission in its factsheet "Workplace bullying: Violence, Harassment and Bullying" states “If you are bullied at work you might:

  • Be less active or successful

  • Be less confident in your work

  • Feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed

  • Have your life outside of work affected, e.g. study, relationships

  • Have physical signs of stress like headaches, back aches, sleep problems”

In extreme cases, such as those arising from the toxic culture at France Telecom, the effects  can lead to severe depression, sickness and suicide.

At industry level, according to the Tech Leavers Study 2017, the cost of workplace unfairness (which combines bullying with other damaging practices such as sexual harassment, racial and sexual discrimination in promotion, skill underutilisation, and stereotyping) is  "astounding", both in terms of turnover and reputational cost. Based on an estimate of the turnover cost of a tech employee being $144,000 USD, and the findings that nearly 40% of employees reported leaving their jobs due to unfairness, an estimate to the US tech industry alone is $16 billion per year!

On top of that, according to the study, former employees who were unfairly treated would be 35% less likely to refer someone to that employer, and 25% less likely to recommend buying or using their products.

Compound that with increased sick leave and the risk of litigation and it makes good financial sense to eliminate workplace bullying from our industry.

Stopping Workplace Bullying

Julia Moriarty from The Network - a company that works with clients to stop workplace bullying - states in this article:

“The key to avoiding a negative and disrespectful work environment is to establish and continually support a strong, consistent corporate culture that stops the inclination to bully before the behavior starts.”

"Management has to take the lead. Many organizations don't want to acknowledge that bullying is happening in their workplace - but it is. Keep in mind that a lot of bullying activity may be covert and may not be visible to company leadership until the damage has been done..."

The risk of victims resigning or losing their job is a source of great worry. The article quotes data from the Workplace Bullying Institute that states "56 percent of reported bullies are the victims' boss; 33 percent report that a coworker is the bully, leading many victims to believe that either they'll be fired for reporting the abuse or that their bully will simply ignore their complaints and escalate the abuse."

Moriarty recommends that a “No Tolerance Policy” be instigated and that an executive level position or independent team be allocated to corporate ethics and compliance - reporting to the CEO or board of directors. The position or team must be able to set behaviour guidelines and make objective decisions such as disciplining or dismissal without fear of reprisal or overrule due to office politics or financial concerns. Management also needs to respond quickly to reports of bullying and conduct a transparent investigation with real consequences for those found guilty of bullying.

Managers should receive training on compassionate, effective management skills and techniques. Moriarty states, "All of the training and communication in the world will have no impact if the culture of the organization does not support what is being taught. Managers need to walk the talk and demonstrate respectful behavior themselves. Performance reviews should take into account management style and ethical behavior to ensure managers take the company's standards seriously. The company needs to provide coaching for managers who demonstrate bullying-type management practices and, if they cannot correct their behavior, remove them..."

Peter Skyte from Unite and Cary Cooper from the University of Lancaster offer various tips for managers including, having a strong anti-bullying mission statement and a clear process to be followed if bullying occurs (including escalation beyond the immediate manager if considered part of the problem). They also prescribe a process of swift and decisive action against the bully along with victim support.

What about if you are the target of workplace bullies? The University of Wollongong's Brian Martin offers advice on how bullies work and how to react. His tips are outlined below -

  • Expose the bullying.

  • Validate the target, by demonstrating good performance, loyalty, honesty and other positive traits.

  • Interpret the bullying as unfair, and explain why contrary explanations are wrong.

  • Refuse to be intimidated or bribed, and expose intimidation and bribery.

Interestingly, he recommends being sceptical of reporting to official channels, instead mobilise support in other ways. In his words,

“It's tempting to seek help by using formal processes, for example reporting the matter to the boss's boss or to the board of management, making a complaint using an internal grievance procedure, or making a submission to a review panel. Unfortunately, this seldom helps and can actually make things worse.

People high up in organisations nearly always support the chain of command. A top manager will almost always support subordinates in the face of challenges from lower-level employees."

The Workplace Bullying Institute offers additional advice in what it calls its “3-Step Target Action Plan”. It recommends naming the behaviour as bullying, taking sick leave to heal and decide on a counterattack, and then exposing the bully. Nevertheless, it makes the grim point that in most cases (77.7% of cases in its own statistics) targets of bullying are likely to either lose their jobs or choose to leave the company. It recommends starting the search for a new position.


Incidents of workplace bullying and harassment are causing reputational damage to the tech industry as a whole, and are a blight on the victims. We must come together as a community to stop bullying and the fight against workplace must be supported at the highest levels of the company.

Compliance teams must be given autonomy and power to remove toxic staff and cultures. Victims must be able to have their grievances heard without hurting their own job and career progression.

Stopping workplace bullying is a thing we must do. To protect the wellbeing of workers in our industry, as a moral imperative, and to reduce costs to companies and the industry as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. A useful and timely reminder.

    Something else to watch out for is a change in senior leadership causing different attitudes to cascade down the organisation. In a previous life, I was a UK Civil Service trade union organiser for a complete Government department and over a period of some twenty years often had to deal with bullying issues. Certainly, senior management always supported middle managers who were implicated in this sort of behaviour, though often those middle managers' behaviour was indeed indicative of their own situation and experiences. (In one case, a notorious bully against whom I'd pursued a number of complaints got a new role outside the organisation, and his attitude to co-workers changed completely for the term of his notice period when the pressures he was being subjected to no longer held any meaning for him.)

    One case I took was from a colleague who was dismissed for what in UK law is called "some other substantial reason", a phrase used by managers to effectively say "their face didn't fit". The senior manager in question left the organisation shortly thereafter, only to return as CEO about six months after I left. Within two months, staff relations fell apart under this new CEO as they began to play favourites and pressure many staff at all levels whose faces no longer fitted or were otherwise seen as too closely aligned with the old regime - in complete contravention of agreements between the employer and trade unions, and probably of UK employment law generally. In a way, I'm sad that I wasn't there to fight this, and I get the impression that my absence may well have encouraged this CEO; but in another way, I'm glad I wasn't.

    So the lesson to be drawn from this is that no matter what measures an organisation takes to combat bullying, there is a need for continual vigilance because things can change in unexpected ways at a moment's notice.