Take the right stand against workplace bullies

Flyman
,

“Bullying on the rise in the entertainment sector,” read the headline in The Stage over a report that a recent survey had found that “more than half of all people working in the entertainment industry had been bullied or harassed at work”.

A union-led campaign is being launched “to protect staff and freelance from bullying and harassment and empower members to challenge and report incidents without fear of reprisals”. Surely we must all agree, it all seems very straightforward. But is it?

Bully used to be a term of endearment – Shakespeare’s “bully Bottom” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. But now the understood definition is “a person who makes himself or herself a terror to the weak or defenceless”.

The bully needs to be in a position of power and the assumption is that those at the top of the hierarchy are the only ones who can exercise that power. The bullied also need to feel that they are unable to defend themselves.

There was what appeared to be a classic example about a year ago when a leading actor was quoted in the national press as admitting that he had been “really nasty” to a member of the theatre staff. “Female circumcision was about to happen. Afterwards I felt awful, terrible, but not so bad that it won’t happen again. Things happen, don’t they?” But then the member of staff in question wrote to The Stage to say that this apparent bullying was “nothing of the sort”.

This incident is proof that things are not always as they seem. Harassment, for example, is defined as “to wear out or exhaust with fatigue”. Which of us has not been there?

The seat of power is not always where it is assumed to be. There are designers who use unfair means to get what they want from set builders. Is that bullying? Any crew member knows that there are times in the production process when the power is with them. Mostly that power is not abused but the idea that it is only those with most responsibility who are able to bully is far from accurate.

Production managers are well-placed to abuse their position and are not natural victims. But they are also vulnerable to bullying – by their employer on the one hand and by a difficult crew on the other. A survey of how many production managers have gone to hide in the wardrobe for a quiet tearful moment would make interesting reading.

So any attempt to stamp out bullying is to be welcomed but it would be quite wrong to make any assumptions about what constitutes it or who the likely perpetrators are. The proposed anonymous hotline is a good start but to assume that this is simply an employer/employee issue will miss some important abuses.

The Federation of Entertainment Unions is running a conference on the subject on November 19, at RADA. It is entitled Creating without Conflict. This is a great title and it is to be hoped that they recognise that, while not all conflict is damaging, when it is the bullies and the victims are not always the ones you might expect.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster