How to reduce serial bullying and harassment in higher education

Although the literature on bullying and harassment is growing rapidly across a wide range of international workplaces, unfortunately attempts to eradicate bullying and harassment are not succeeding at the same speed.

In fact, bullying and harassment in the corporate workplace and in academia continue to thrive in the dark spaces of glocal (local and global) workplaces – and the faces of the perpetrators are etched in the minds of employees who have been traumatised by them.

So who are those perpetrators? It is important to recognise that not all are male. Although Chen Wang and Robyn Doolittle assert that “universities keep women from rising to the top” and that they are “locked out of the ivory tower”, there are women leaders who are fortunate enough to have gained entry to ivory towers and who, unfortunately, have emulated the bullying personae of some of their male counterparts (the so-called Queen Bee phenomenon), although they often remain less visible.

Through various descriptions provided by traumatised employees, the bullying persona and profile can be recreated so that the general public might recognise them when they meet face to face and in online forums.

Although certain personality traits may predispose people to bullying as well as previous experiences – for instance, as early as in the school playground – the organisational environment also plays a part. The workplace may contribute to the success of the bully by supporting the perpetrator/s or by providing fertile ground for bullying and harassment to flourish.

Kate Blackwood and Moira Jenkins identify six types of perpetrators, from the ‘bad egg’ and the ‘abrasive performance manager’ to the ‘cyberbully’.

They also underscore that, although personality traits such as narcissism, self-efficacy and anger predispose an individual to bullying behaviour, work environment factors play a key role in encouraging or allowing workplace bullying. Unfortunately, they note, the perpetrators are often difficult to recognise in the corridors of power as they camouflage their bullying personalities.

Tackling bullying

Morteza Mahmoudi asserts that a collective movement of vigilance and gatekeeping is required to combat bullying and to “create a safer and more civil scientific environment”. He outlines a wide range of avenues for reporting bullying and harassment to curb and eliminate the spread of this malaise within higher education.

Among the reporting channels that Mahmoudi recommends are journal editors, funding agencies, gatekeeping organisations and members of the scientific community.

Organisations also need to recognise bullying for the institutional threat that it is. Experts and researchers contend that bullying and harassment are an occupational health and safety hazard in the ‘glocal’ workplace.

In the prologue to Moira Jenkins’ study on Preventing and Managing Workplace Bullying and Harassment, Karl Luke, a partner at Thomsons Lawyers, says that “like any hazard in the workplace, bullying constitutes a significant threat to the health, safety and welfare of employees”.

“Bullying also has financial and legal implications for employers, including poor productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and staff turnover, all which contribute to increased costs and loss of profits.”

In investigating the phenomenon of bullying and harassment and why it flourishes in the dark spaces of international higher education and corporate organisations, experts advance critical questions. For instance, why are bullying and harassment not recognised as a health hazard according to the occupational health and safety regulations in the workplace?

Why are executive level perpetrators – presidents, vice presidents, chancellors, vice-chancellors, provosts, directors, chief executive officers and chief operating officers – in higher education and corporations allowed to shirk their responsibility and accountability to stakeholder groups? And why do some continue to move clandestinely from position of power to position of power despite corrupt and immoral behaviour?

A call to action

It is time that the international workforce established calls for action to name, shame and charge perpetrators in order to reverse the spiral of workplace bullying and harassment.

It is certainly important that bullying and harassment are recognised as a health hazard and an occupational health and safety matter, but more than that, the organisation and executive leadership should be fully responsible and accountable when it comes to addressing this hazard.

Executive leaders who are perpetrators should be stripped of the protection that allows them to act with impunity. Offenders should be named and shamed. And leaders should be required to produce a statement of integrity with job applications as they aspire to new positions of power.

Recently hired and-or retired executive leaders (interim or permanent) in international higher education and in the corporate workplace should be investigated. If found to be perpetrators of bullying and harassment, bringing disrepute to their organisation, their names should be removed from award certificates, scholarships and other honourable mentions.

They should be reported through the various mechanisms Mahmoudi recommends as part of a collective movement to address ongoing serial bullying and harassment – including sexual harassment.

The investigation period of past behaviours of new and-or retired executive leadership should cover the 24 months prior to hire and post-retirement so that stakeholder groups are assured that they have not hired or retired a Martin Philbert, Peter Rathjen, Wayne John Hankey or a Jonathan Black-Branch who have cumulatively committed decades of bullying and harassment.

Dr Fay Patel is an academic, researcher and international higher education consultant in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Fay is the editor of the 2021 book Power Imbalance, Bullying and Harassment in Academia and the Glocal (Local and Global) Workplace.