(a guest post by Gower author Anne-Marie Quigg)
The fallout between the BBC and the erstwhile presenter of one of its flagship programmes, Top Gear, has been an unedifying spectacle except for one thing. On this occasion Jeremy Clarkson was sacked by his employer despite a large groundswell of support from those who either didn’t know what had happened between Clarkson and a producer on the show or simply didn’t care.
It appears that finally a bully, despite being a so-called “talent”, a goose that laid a golden financial egg for the BBC thanks to a global audience, has found that the consequences of bullying can have serious personal repercussions.
It was not ever thus. Clarkson’s 30-minute tirade of invective followed by him punching his colleague could easily have led to yet another ticking off and no really significant sanction. The fact that the BBC declined to renew his contract speaks volumes for the gradually changing culture in organisations where bullying in the workplace has been, and still frequently is, a major problem.
Managers in human resources need to be clear about what constitutes bullying behaviour, as do other employees and, especially, senior management boards. Although there are various definitions of bullying used in different parts of the world, there is a consensus of opinion amongst research experts in the field that bullying is:
… offensive, abusive, malicious, insulting and/or intimidating behaviour that occurs on more than one occasion (Quigg 2011).
Arguably one could suggest that as this appeared to be a one-off incident that the charge of bullying, as defined above, is inaccurate. Clarkson, by all accounts, was actually sacked for a common assault, hitting his colleague. However anecdotal evidence suggests that Clarkson had a track record of inappropriate comments, including allegations of racism as well as comments dismissive of and insulting to various people.
Certainly, 30 minutes of persistent, unchallenged verbal abuse does give rise to the consideration that he has indulged in this type of behaviour before, without, as far as we know, actually hitting anyone at the end of it.
Respect in the workplace
What the BBC has done is stand up and be counted. It, perhaps more than any organisation in the public eye, with the possible exception of the NHS, has been under a cloud following the work done by Dinah Rose QC and Change Associates. They undertook the Respect at Work Review, working alongside the HR department of the BBC, which was set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
The review, published in May 2013, looked at current policies in the BBC and processes that related to sexual harassment. Interestingly the review found that it was now uncommon for employees to experience sexual advances (though incidents did occur), but that there was evidence of inappropriate behaviour/bullying in the organisation.
The third paragraph of the executive summary states:
Concerns raised about bullying and other forms of inappropriate behaviour were much more prominent in contributions to the review than concerns raised about sexual harassment. Often this behaviour appears to go unchallenged by senior managers. Some people are seen as being “untouchable” due to their perceived value to the BBC. There is confusion as to what constitutes robust management of performance and what is bullying. Inappropriate behaviour is felt to exist between managers and their teams and vice versa and between BBC staff and our third party suppliers (BBC 2013).
The interesting part here that relates to Jeremy Clarkson is the third sentence: Some people are seen as being “untouchable” due to their perceived value to the BBC. When one considers the case of Jimmy Savile and now many other highly prominent entertainers and public figures such as Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, it appears that signs of inappropriate and criminal behaviour being carried out were ignored for many years.
Clarkson has nothing to do with the sexual predation of the three just mentioned; sexual harassment is an aspect of bullying but Clarkson was sacked because of his vituperative behaviour and assault.
Targets and perpetrators
It’s important to remember here that Clarkson is not the victim. In fact, it is the people who are targeted and who suffer from personal attacks, whether verbal or physical or from manipulative bullying behaviour that is cleverly concealed by the perpetrator, who usually experience significant damage to their welfare.
There is an impact on physical health and/or mental welfare, and it is clear that there is sometimes permanent damage that affects the professional and personal development of some individuals. Bullying also has an economic impact on organizations – it mars organizational effectiveness, morale, attraction and retention of employees, and reputation (Quigg 2011).
While the BBC should be commended for taking responsible action in this case, it should not be necessary for physical abuse to occur before bullies are called to account. Employers have a responsibility to their employees, a duty of care for their mental as well as physical welfare, that can often be forgotten or ignored. In this case the BBC has taken an important first step in what can only be the right direction.
BBC 2013. Report [Online] Available at: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/insidethebbc/howwework/reports/bbcreport_dinahrose_respectatwork.pdf
Quigg, A-M. 2011. Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power. Gower Publishing: Farnham. Chapter 1, 4.