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Press and Specialist Publications



Trouble at Work on BBC Radio Four's 'Thinking Allowed'

Ralph Fevre and Amanda Robinson’s appearance on the BBC Radio Four show, Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor (24th October 2012). They discuss the key findings of Trouble at Work and particularly the benefits of bringing sociological and criminological approaches to a problem that has, up to now, tended to be dominated by psychologists. They also comment on the controversy at the BBC surrounding the Jimmy Saville sexual abuse scandal.


Trouble at Work BBC radio: Wales@Work

Ralph Fevre’s interview with BBC radio for Wales@Work (27th September 2012) discusses the research reported in Trouble at Work including regional differences in the experience of workplace ill-treatment. Of particular interest in this programme is the way workers in Wales, along with those in Yorkshire and Humberside, appear to be more prone to ill-treatment than workers in other regions, especially London.


Equal Opportunities Review Issue 176

‘Bullying research casts doubt on earlier surveys’

Researchers at the Universities of Cardiff and Glamorgan, who are currently engaged on a major study of behaviour in British workplaces1, have found that earlier surveys may have an exaggerated view of the level of bullying in the workplace. The research team is carrying out the biggest piece of research on unreasonable or illegitimate aspects of workplace social relations, including those labelled as bullying and harassment, so far undertaken in the UK.

With substantial funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, and the support of Equality and Human Rights Commission, Acas and the Runnymede Trust, the team have just completed a nationally-representative sample survey of 3,494 current or recent employees including an ethnic minority boost of 779.

First results will be available in September and will reveal what workplace relations are like for each of the equality strands, but the benefits of the project are already becoming apparent. Some of the conclusions reached during the development of the research raise issues that may be relevant to employers in conducting their own employee opinion surveys.

Developing the Research

Before launching their survey, the team conducted a six-month development phase which has thrown up some challenges to conventional wisdom. It included a pilot study using one of the most widely-used instruments in the field, the negative acts questionnaire (NAQ), which includes more than 20 questions about unwelcome workplace behaviour and a separate question on experience of bullying. The questionnaire was used in a representative sample of 1,024 face-to-face interviews. When compared to the results of previous UK studies using the same or similar instruments, the pilot study suggested that mainstream opinion may be mistaken about how often people perceive behaviour as bullying.

For example, the Cardiff-Glamorgan results are considerably lower than those in the largest UK study to use the NAQ without a representative sample.  In that previous study 10.8% said that they had been bullied in the last six months and 25.7% had some experience of bullying in the previous five years2. In the Cardiff-Glamorgan pilot, only 4.6% had been bullied in the last six months, 5.6% had been bullied in the last year and 7.0% had been bullied at all in the last two years. These figures are closer to those recorded in other UK surveys which asked questions about bullying of representative samples (the European Working Conditions Survey3 and the Department of Trade and Industry’s Fair Treatment at Work Survey (EOR 157)).  

In fact the methodological development work the team conducted after their pilot study raised doubts about the value of some of the standard questions used by researchers in the field, including questions in which researchers define what bullying means.

‘Cognitive testing’ was used to find out if these questions actually measure what researchers claim they do and if other researchers can use the same questions with a reasonable expectation of achieving the same results.

The NAQ questions are meant to help researchers circumvent the problems caused by a direct bullying question by breaking down workplace behaviour into specific, easily understood experiences which the researchers can choose to classify as bullying according to criteria of their own. But cognitive testing also raised questions about the validity and the reliability of the NAQ items that have featured in previous research.

For example, some of the items were over-long and included words that a number of respondents did not understand. Even when people said they understood, their responses suggested they did not. In addition, some questions overlapped and respondents appeared to have difficulty distinguishing between them. On the other hand, some single questions combined one or more very different kinds of behaviour. Finally, a substantial proportion of respondents reported that they had experienced particular forms of behaviour, but viewed these as unambiguously positive experiences.  As a result of cognitive testing, individual items were revised, dropped, merged, separated, or confirmed and the NAQ was shortened to 21 items. Only four questions survived this process intact.


Personnel Management

Link to article

Despite more than 20 years of HR involvement in tackling bullying and harassment at work, British workplaces continue to be troubled by patterns of behaviour that appear stubbornly resistant to intervention. Layer upon layer of policy, training, EAP support and employee engagement strategies have failed to deliver anything more than mediocre results.

The problem, according to a four-year specialist research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and supported by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is that conventional solutions do not work because they fail to address the organisational culture that dictates how policies and procedures are put into practice.

In 2007 we undertook a pilot survey of over 1,000 British employees, and 60 in-depth cognitive interviews with members of the public, which showed that some groups of employees found if far easier to apply the bullying label to their work experiences than others. British employees understood bullying in different ways and, despite a plethora of attempts by policy makers to define it, the concept remains elusive. As a result, we decided not to measure bullying but, instead, to explore the ill-treatment that people are trying to understand when they give it labels like bullying and harassment.

The move away from these concepts has made it possible for us to develop new explanations and solutions - instead of being forced to look for ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’, and to construct individualized explanations, we were able to focus on the workplace characteristics that cause trouble at work. This change in terminology has also enabled us to get a more accurate picture of the level of ill-treatment in British workplaces. A variety of studies have shown that people are much more likely to admit to being ill-treated than to being the victims of bullying and our study - carried out through a face-to-face survey of 4,000 British employees backed up with four organisational case studies - suggests that employee engagement surveys could be seriously underestimating the experience of ill-treatment.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, six per cent of the survey respondents had experienced violence in the workplace over the previous two years. This is not something that should be ignored, but for the purposes of this article, we take a look at two far more common types of ill-treatment - unreasonable treatment and incivility and disrespect.

Unreasonable treatment

Just under half of the 4,000 employees we surveyed had experiences such as coping with unmanageable workloads, unfair treatment, continual monitoring of work and having their views and opinions ignored and, as our data was nationally representative, we can reasonably assume that this translates to seven to eight million working adults. Just over two-thirds of incidents were blamed on managers, supervisors or employers.

Unreasonable treatment was more common among full-time, well-paid associate professional, professional and technical jobs in organisations of between 250-500 employees that were part of larger organisations. This is exactly the sort of workplace where one would expect to see the existence of professional HR, good policies, potentially well-trained management with trade union representation.

Wherever they worked, employees with disabilities or long-term health conditions were at greater risk of unreasonable treatment and were put at risk because of the manner in which employers dealt with sick leave, returning to work after sickness absence, the management of ongoing conditions and ‘reasonable adjustments’. Younger workers and higher earners were also at (slightly) greater risk of unreasonable treatment, but the most common reason for ill-treatment lay not in individual characteristics but in the characteristics of the workplace.

Employees who felt they had less control over their work had an increased risk of seven out of the eight types of unreasonable treatment we measured. Employees who said the nature of their work had changed, and/or the pace of their work had increased, also had an elevated risk level. The biggest risk factor, however, was working in a place where staff felt the needs of the organisation always came before the needs of people, where they had to compromise their principles and where people were not treated as individuals. We call this group of questions the FARE score (as they measure fairness and respect).

Incivility and disrespect

Around 40 per cent of our respondents had experienced incivility and disrespect. They had been shouted at or had someone losing their temper with them, been humiliated or ridiculed in connection with their work or treated in rude or disrespectful ways, for example. Managers and supervisors accounted for four out of ten of these incidents with co-workers accounting for one in five and clients and customers most of the remainder.

This type of ill-treatment was more common among employees with higher than average incomes, managerial responsibilities and full-time contracts. They were also more likely to be trade union members, and work in associate professional and technical occupations. As with unreasonable treatment, this problem was rooted in the mainstream. It was more common in workplaces with 50-250 employees and in highly visible organisations with HR functions, union recognition and highly-skilled, well paid workforces.

Again, no matter where they worked, those with disabilities and long-term health conditions were more at risk of incivility and disrespect. Some minorities groups were also more likely to be on the receiving end, with the risk for LGB employees being almost as great as the risk for employees with disabilities.

As before, the workplace characteristics which explained ill-treatment were reduced control over work, and finding the pace of work too intense. And the FARE questions were important again - for every type of incivility and disrespect at least two of the three measures cropped up.

Why were fairness and respect so important?

The FARE questions were a strong indicator of the type of workplace culture the respondents to our survey were experiencing and provide a more reliable indicator of particularly troubled workplaces than any of the conventional questions about job satisfaction, bullying or even stress. They also provide vital pieces of the jigsaw when we are trying to understand just what it is about particular workplaces that lead to ill-treatment.

Apart from the particular risks of providing a service to the public, the other workplace characteristics that lay behind ill-treatment concerned patterns of organisational change, including loss of job control and increased pace of work. It is well-known that organisations put a lot at stake when they fail to manage change in an intelligent way – and by neglecting fairness and respect they show that they lack the necessary organisational intelligence to manage change effectively.

The results for the FARE questions strongly suggest that where ill-treatment occurs employers are failing to deliver on the managerial side of the bargain that is implicit in individualised employment relations, as our case studies show:

Case study one: a logistics company

If one was appraising this company for good HR practices they could be classed as a model employer. Significant resources had been put into policy, training and interventions to tackle bullying and harassment yet we were told consistently about employees not being treated as individuals, for example in relation to training or sick leave. A central feature of the problems was the company’s attempt at tackling a perceived high-level of sickness absence (often itself a consequence of ill-treatment). The adoption of standardised processes saw what some might call a “no-nonsense” approach to absence management. In practice it made space for managers to be inconsistent, with some front-line managers following policy so zealously that staff on legitimate sick-leave felt harassed and victimised.

The company also provided examples of the ill-treatment (particularly incivility and disrespect) of minorities and male workers and managers appeared to either directly engage in sexualised behaviour or turn a blind eye to it. Women were subjected to comments about their bodies or had to endure inappropriate touching and sexual gossip and rumours were also commonplace.

Underlying these problems was a culture in which employees no longer believed they would be treated with fairness and respect. In particular, employees felt the needs of the organisation would always come first and that the needs and contributions of individuals would go unrecognised. The employees we talked to believed their employer might well dismiss them without good reason, or make them redundant, or demand more work of them than was humanly possible. Nor could they count on fellow employees to treat them fairly and respectfully. The employer’s attempts to deal with these latter problems might be well-meaning, but our interviewees did not seem to have much faith in their efficacy.

Case study two: An NHS organisation

A culture of putting the organisation’s needs before those of the individual was clearly present in this second case study and here it was even more evident that employees felt that their employer could not be relied on to allow them to act on their moral principles. These were undermined when, for example, non-clinical managers failed to recognise the individual needs of patients and prioritised organisational goals (sometimes dictated by external, political drivers).

The target culture driving this organisation lay behind many of the examples of ill-treatment, such as the two senior consultants going toe-to-toe in a public corridor with raised voices and abusive language largely brought on because of a tense, target driven culture.

As in the first case study, there was plenty of evidence that what senior management understood to be the modernisation necessary to bring about efficiency gains was neither properly funded or resourced. For example, staff given crucial managerial responsibilities seemed to be poorly selected, trained and resourced. And in one particular example a community-based manager had no PC and a once-per-week three hour window on a Friday afternoon to access IT facilities using a hot-desk that required a 20-30 mile trip to the main hospital. Since all HR processes were on-line and sickness absence, job applicants and budgetary returns had to be completed on-line it was no surprise he breached the agreed protocols and was disciplined.

Why conventional solutions do not work

All four of our case study employers had policies for bullying, harassment or dignity at work. The biggest challenge relating to policy, therefore, is not having one, but making it work at the front line. Workplace ill-treatment is hugely complex and many managers do not engage with policies designed to address it until it is too late. Often they are under-pressure to deliver and ill-treatment issues are often seen as secondary in importance.

Organisational procedures are often slavishly followed when the very managers who follow them, and some trade unionists we spoke to, bemoaned the absence of common sense as well as the skills necessary to spot issues early and intervene in ways that do not result in lengthy and protracted disputes.

But these are not the most important, and fundamental, lessons of our research. Failing to deliver on impressive-sounding policies on bullying is only a small part of the story when things go wrong. They barely register in comparison with the management of sickness absence and the selection, training, resourcing and supervision of managers.

Even a brief foray into our extensive case study material has begun to show why it is that managers themselves are so often blamed for ill-treatment. Conventional solutions do not work because they do not address the problems at source: the culture that produces policies and procedures and dictates how they are put into operation. Putting your faith in managers to make things right after problems occur is like asking them to bale out the ship with a teaspoon while water pours in through gaping holes they themselves have made.

What now for HR and organisational leaders?

What our research shows about the fundamental importance of a workplace culture of fairness and respect has implications for the conduct of HR and the division of responsibilities with line managers. For example, much ill-treatment might be avoided by HR reclaiming the management of sickness absence or providing proper support for managers to take into account the circumstances of individual employees. In the same spirit, organisations might like to consider whether the use of a third-party supplier to provide support to employees is helping to shape workplace culture in a positive way.

We believe that managing the managers is THE fundamental challenge and this has very little to do with addressing managers’ personality defects or behaviour problems. It is all about the positions that they occupy and the objectives they are given. Organisational leaders must do more to mandate specific expectations for the management role which will stem the flow of toxins which produce troubled workplaces. Fairness and respect can be embedded in management roles through inclusion in job descriptions and role specifications as well as being formalised in annual appraisals.

Of course problems will occur now and then even in the least troubled workplaces and organisations must also do more to assure employees that investigations will be taken seriously. After all, employees in our study said they were scared to speak out and the current economic climate is making this problem much worse.