Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, looks at the difficult subject of bullying and harassment in legal workplaces.

Last year this trigger warning for a US college course went viral. In it, a copywriting professor warns his future class that he is ‘’not the only jackass you will encounter in your adult working life. Use this semester to polish your coping skills".

There’s something in that. Joining the working world means you have to work with lots of different sorts of people: workaholics, deadline junkies, the jargon pedlars,  procrastinators, people who dial it in, and people with entirely different outlooks on life. Learning to deal with this is part of working life and that means sometimes you have to deal with jackasses.

There is a difference though between learning to cope with a colleague who approaches work differently and one who veers beyond the unwritten rules of conduct that most people just instinctively understand and adhere to. We have to cope with the deadline junkie or the workaholic. They will have to learn to deal with our foibles. Surely though we don’t have to cope with the boor or – worse – the bully?

In those fractious few weeks before the American election many were taken with Michelle Obama’s mantra of ‘’when they go low, we go high". This call appealed to the better angels of our natures. We would all like to think that when they indulge in sharp practice or chicanery, we would opt to pitch our tents on the sunny uplands of the moral high ground.

This is ok so far as it goes. If it works, you win and know you’ve won by doing the right thing. The thing is, sometimes the people who go low, win. This is bad enough. Worse though is that if we do not challenge their behaviour then they are never going to change. They think it is ok.

In a previous blog I noted "the legal system and profession work best when an atmosphere of mutual respect amongst lawyers prevails". I truly believe that and happily it holds true most of the time. I’m aware though, that sometimes that atmosphere breaks down and bullying and harassment does occur.

It may not be particularly widespread, but just because it is not widespread does not mean we shouldn’t act.This week we’ve published guidance to help prevent bullying and harassment in the profession and there’s guidance too, on what to do if prevention doesn’t work. Please do take a look.

But what can the profession as a whole do to stamp out bullying? "When they go low, we go high" is part of the solution but it is only part of it. As well as raising our own game, sometimes we need to confront issues. Let’s look to the late, great Joost van der Westhuizen who – when confronted with a rampaging Jonah Lomu – just tackled him head on.

Tackling the orcs and ogres in our lives head on, is the road less travelled. It is easy to turn our heads the other way when we see someone being bullied. It is easy to write it off with bizarre euphemisms such as ‘’character building’’, ‘’a rite of passage’ or ‘’all part of office banter’’. While taking on bullies is tough, it is necessary.

I understand the difficulties in calling out behaviour when the bully is someone senior to you. You may be concerned that it will have a negative impact on your career. I’d retort that putting up with bullying is just as likely to be bad for your peace of mind and potentially your career too. The problem with not intervening doesn’t mean that nothing happens. It just means something else happens.

That is a judgment call and I understand why junior solicitors may choose to opt for the quiet life. This is a plea then to senior members of  the profession – in-house directors, partners and so forth. When you see bullying, harassment or abuse, call it out. Tell the culprits that they are out of order. More than that, follow the Obama doctrine: go high! Model better behaviour! Show the world – and the junior profession – there is a way of succeeding in law that is based around collegiality and respect.

I recently met a partner of a firm who had discovered a case of bullying in one of her firm’s offices. After due process had concluded, the bully left the business. Staff morale skyrocketed. They couldn’t believe that the firm had taken on a senior figure and done so on their behalf. Those staff would now walk over broken glass for the firm. The difficult conversation – and aftermath – has brought a happier office, happier staff and unbelievable loyalty. It isn’t rocket science.

Preventing bullying and harassment guidance

Workplace bullying and the consequences of that for individuals and businesses can be severe. This guidance provides practical and relevant advice, and sources of support to individual and employers.