On the Naughty Step, Mr Brown…

This week’s political headlines in the UK have been dominated by the emergence on Sunday of reports that a number of staff working at No.10 Downing Street in the office of the Prime Minister had contacted the National Bullying Helpline in response to treatment by their employer. Alongside these reports, the media has widely covered stories recounted in the book of political commentator Andrew Rawnsley, who describes a number of incidents involving Mr Brown, his staff, and apparently toys being thrown out of prams.

Despite Gordon Brown’s temper already being well-known, political debate has, quite predictably in an election year, focussed on the potential for character assassination of the PM. (The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson notes that, curiously, both friends and enemies of the PM claimed on Monday determination to show the voters ‘the real Gordon Brown’.) However, a more abstract and philosophically-interesting question also presents itself; when does firm-handed management become ‘bullying’? What determines the line beyond which acceptable behaviour becomes unacceptable? Further, the question arises as to whether the distinction is an absolute one , or one that is susceptible to variation in context: might not behaviour judged normal in a busy restaurant kitchen, or on the touchline at Wembley, seem rather out of place in the offices of a Slough paper-merchant, for instance? And what, dare one ask, of a university seminar or conference presentation?

In an interesting discussion, Rajini Vaidyanathan (writing for BBC online) suggests that the line is crossed when “the behaviour humiliates and offends the victim, is a personal attack, and is an abuse of power”. As definitions go, this isn’t bad, but seems to add a possibly-unwelcome element of subjectivity: whether or not the actions of my boss count as ‘bullying’ will depend upon how thick-skinned or otherwise I am.

You can read Vaidyanathan’s discussion here.

Related article:

Business Ethics: An Overview
By Jeffrey Moriarty, Bowling Green State University
(Vol 3, August 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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