'I Was Sent to Coventry' and Other Social Bullying Techniques

When we think of bullying, the clichés of schoolyard taunts might spring to mind. Yet as we learn more about the wide-ranging techniques of bullying, it is clear that this deeply complex phenomenon can be hard to pin down. 

For example, being ignored, or made an outcast in any situation - 'sent to Coventry' - can be highly distressing. This insidious brand of social bullying unfortunately arises in many workplaces, causing pain and anxiety for victims.

WHAT IS BULLYING? 

Bullying can be physical (including hitting or even destroying property), verbal, cyber (such as bullying on social media), and social. 

A person being 'Sent to Coventry' is a form of social bullying. 

So what do we mean by a person being 'Sent to Coventry'? Historically the phrase appears during the English Civil War when prisoners would be sent to the eponymous North-Western City for punishment, and experienced isolating treatment by locals. But how does this tend to manifest as workplace bullying? 

Picture this: on the surface, the workplace looks pleasant. There is occasional chatter and people seem content. But look closer - on Friday lunch excursions, one person appears to be ignored by the others as they leave. In meetings this person's colleagues seem to ignore their ideas, or quietly mock them when they have the courage to speak. They have also mysteriously been kept off the roster except for a few skeleton shifts... and so on. 

These are classic moves of ostracism as a weapon for workplace bullying. Left unmonitored, such behaviour can lead to severe stress and mental health problems for the outcast employee. 

The worker might originally have committed a 'sin' in the eyes of co-workers - perhaps told management about colleagues misconduct, or appears to be given special treatment. On some level, one or more workers have judged this as being unforgivable, leading to a long and toxic period of unrelenting silence, mockery and isolation.

BULLYING WOMEN, BULLYING MEN

What are the gender differences when it comes to social bullying? Unfortunately, this more covert behaviour seems to be a particular feature of female-to-female bullying

The phrase 'deafening silence' sums up the effect of this form of workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately placed on the outside of a work group dynamic by one or more of their colleagues. 

The mechanisms are often subtle, and certainly challenging for management and workplace investigators to detect or prove. Yet by their very nature, stealthy and outwardly ambiguous bullying tactics in the form of ostracism and freezing-out can be painful and injurious for the victims of such attacks.

Men can also engage in subtle forms of social bullying, but are more likely to add overt actions as they bully a fellow worker. Particularly where rank or divisions enable such bullying, male offenders might sabotage the atmosphere and opportunities for targeted colleagues, later escalating to overt physical and verbal abuse. 

PULLING RANK - THE HIERARCHICAL WORKPLACE

In the armed forces, emergency services and police, there is an opportunity for those in particular positions to 'close ranks' as a form of workplace bullying. For the victims of such behaviour, equipment can mysteriously go missing and vital operational information can 'somehow' bypass the bullied person. Aggressive taunts are also more likely in rank-based organisations.

QUESTIONING WHAT IS TRUE

Most 'quiet' forms of workplace bullying seem to evaporate when management or a workplace investigator shows up. Also, consummate 'Coventry' bullies will sometimes alternate their attacks with neutral or even pleasant exchanges with the bullied worker. 

The victim is left on the back foot, unsure of what is real or imagined and often quickly becoming susceptible to both functional and mental decline as a result. Such 'gas lighting' attacks often cause the most long-term harm to a worker. 

Investigators must be vigilant in exploring alleged workplace bullying of this type. Common mistakes in the field can be when those investigating warm to often-extroverted perpetrators; bullies are masters of manipulation and can at times seem charming.

Conversely, the worker claiming bullying might appear nervy and unclear in their communication - perhaps even a little 'odd' compared to other workers. Rather than using this as a basis for dismissing the allegations, the history and behaviours behind all interviews must be carefully collated and compared with utmost objectivity. Indeed, the unusual presentation of a worker might in fact indicate a reaction to the effects of a covert system of workplace bullying.

Gathering evidence from multiple witnesses will often assist in identifying if there have been any patterns of behaviour from the perpetrators. 

When it comes to claims that a worker has been 'Sent to Coventry' and subjected to social workplace bullying, it is important to approach the ensuing workplace investigation with care. 

WISE Workplace is happy to assist you with any queries you might have regarding the right way to investigate any alleged workplace bullying incident. We offer unbiased, professional investigation services, carried out by a qualified and experienced team.

View in its original format on the WISE Website

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Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on October 27, 2017 at 8:42

This is a very good reminder that not all bullying involves yelling and shouting. In my experience, giving people the silent treatment, failing to acknowledge their point of view; blaming them for not being able to undertake a task/activity without first checking to see if they have been trained/shown; and even failing to investigate concerns or issues raised have become increasingly prevalent in some workplaces.

In all the years that I was been providing advice on the prevention, detection, resolution and reporting of counterproductive workplace behaviours, I will make the following comments based on my experience as an author, as a former Harassment Referral Officer and Peer Support Officer providing advice, support and guidance to targets, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors from the public and private sectors. These are the key issues I have encountered since 1992:

  • Alleged bullies rely on targets to remain silent

  • Policies and procedures do little to support targets

  • Resolution options make it difficult for a target to handle the matter themselves i.e. they are not able to address the imbalance of power

  • Codes of Conduct are seldom relied upon to address adverse behaviour and conduct

  • Performance management processes are not used to effectively manage adverse behaviours

  • Bullies are cowards who hide behind their own insecurities and shortcomings

  • Bullies lack emotional intelligence

  • Bullies are shrewd, calculating and dangerous manipulators who when called to account, end up in senior positions

  • Face to face training has been replaced by other training methods e.g. self paced training, online training, webinars, where individuals may not have the opportunity to test or check their knowledge and understanding of the various policies and procedures that relate to acceptable behaviour and conduct

  • Targets are often in the situation whereby they have not been documenting bullying behaviours because of the 'isolated' and/or 'singular' occurrence e.g. behaviours are conducted in such a way that they appear unrelated

  • Organisations may not be conducting bullying risk assessments

  • Some organisations are busy trying to manage a diverse range of risk exposures without actually understanding the short, medium and long term impact of workplace bullying

  • Inconsistent approaches to measuring health and safety and depending on which country an organisation is based in, workplace bullying may not be included as a health and safety issue

  • Expecting work colleagues to back up a target may be a mistake even though they might be present when an incident occurs, or even if they too have been subjected to bullying by the same person

  • Placing too much trust in 'HR' i.e. HR may be the organisational 'owners' of the corporate policy but in reality, they should be on the side of the organisation.  (I was made aware of a number of targets who approached the HR Manager; only to later find that that that person was actually the partner of the alleged bully).

  • Relying on the support person to maintain confidentiality (some organisation may place a mandatory reporting requirement on a support person if issues of official misconduct or misconduct are raised by the target)

  • Overwhelming belief that by reporting the behaviours that the alleged bully will be held to account

  • Some targets (particularly senior) will seek external support from medical professionals because to raise the matter internally is a career limiting move

"They don't go to work to be kept in the dark, to be driven to breaking point, to be subjected to ridicule and derision about their work capabilities, to be ignored, to be devalued or treated differently because of who they are, they don't expect to be labelled as whingers, malcontents or bludgers when they lodge a WorkCover claim, and certainly don't expect to be victimised, threatened or harassed because they have lodged a claim". (Althofer:2014) (talking about targets)

There are many good people in organisations who may from time be under extreme pressure and from time to time, their behaviours may appear as bullying.  These people may welcome some feedback as they do not normally perform this way. If the behaviours are repeated and designed in such a way to create health and safety issues, then it becomes a bigger issue.

I have spoken to many targets about the serious physical, psychological and financial issues involved and when I have suggested that they should move on from their job, they have invariably told me that they have mortgages, families to feed, etc. They would rather stay in a bad job and bide their time hoping that the alleged bully would focus on someone else.

It is not all doom and gloom as it appears that some decisions being handed down through various Courts, Commissions and Tribunals are applying penalties and compensation appropriate to the allegation.

Targets are starting to speak up and I would suggest that on an international level, there a number of professionals, educators and even consultants who are providing a wealth of information that allows targets to make an informed decision about the range of choices and options available.

It does seem that the majority of workplace bullying issues stem from the behaviour and conduct of some individuals whom seem intent in making life miserable for others.  Whilst it is important to provide everyone with a safe work environment, it seems that some attention should be given to ensuring the bullies either change their behaviours, or are 'managed' out of an organisation. I suspect that because some bullies are seen as high achievers, get great outcomes for their organisations, have created strong networks with key people of influence, were promoted by a senior person, and have apparently put them into positions of power, some decisions will not be made to terminate their employment. In the end, organisations end up being stuck with the alleged bully. Targets warm up their resume and leave, or find the appropriate level of professional and legal support and then take action.

I would suggest that my experience indicates that a large number of allegations are actually preventable.  I found invariably that management practices and communication were the two issues constantly raised when inquiries were instigated about bullying.  In addition, some organisations fail to implement controls to address workplace hazards and contributing factors that include:

  • Negative leadership styles

  • Organisational change

  • Workplace relationships

  • Organisational/ workplace culture

  • Human resources systems

  • Inappropriate systems of work

  • Workforce characteristics

    At the same time, some organisations have a fertile ground:

  • Poor people management practices and skills

  • Inappropriate management style or lack of supervision

  • Overwork

  • Role ambiguity

  • Poor consultation processes

  • Inconsistent work flows reporting procedures

  • Level and nature of training in inadequate

  • Unreasonable performance expectations

  • High levels of job dissatisfaction

    At the same time, some managers and workers are confused about managerial actions e.g.

  • Performance management processes /Transfer or retrench a worker/ Decision not to promote a worker/ Fairly rostering and allocating work hours/ Disciplinary actions / Allocated work in compliance with systems and processes/ Injury and illness processes / Business processes e.g. workplace change or restructuring/ implementing organisational changes or restructuring

    Some organisations fail to conduct a bullying risk assessment and as a result, workplaces become a breeding ground for adverse conflict where individuals would rather litigate than communicate.  Unfortunately it does appear that some organisations prefer to operate in a reactive mode as it may appear that being proactive is an additional cost, rather than an investment in the future.

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