Research that shines a spotlight on backstage bullies of the arts world

Bullying at work is more common in the arts than other sectors, according to new research. Sheena Hastings reports.

RIGHT or wrong, the common perception of the arts and the people who work in them is of a touchy-feely world where there are few disagreements that cannot be resolved by a spot of role play or a group hug. Everyone calls each other “darling” and they’re all terribly sensitive, so festering resentments are easily voiced and nipped in the bud. The stereotype may pertain in some places, but taking off the rose-tinted spectacles for a moment, doesn’t it actually stand to reason that the same human problems may rage in an art gallery, dance company or in a theatre as anywhere else?

What may be surprising, though, is that two in five respondents to a survey of theatres and arts centres in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland revealed that they had experienced bullying in the workplace. This means that bullying is more prevalent in the arts than in any other single employment sector, with a higher incidence than found in similar surveys done among staff in the police, prison, army or National Health Service, where the incidence is around 30 per cent.

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The arts sector research was carried out by Halifax-based researcher and arts consultant Anne-Marie Quigg. Her findings are published in the book Bullying in the Arts – Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power, a hefty work carried out with the support of backstage union BECTU. It brings together material gathered in interviews among 249 arts workers across different kinds of theatres and other arts centres, representing around 26,000 employees across the country.

Two-thirds of participants in the survey – thought to be the first of its kind carried out in the arts anywhere in the world – said bullying happened in their workplace “commonly” or “not uncommonly”, and only 6.4 per cent said they had not encountered bullying behaviour at work. Of the 249, 99 (40 per cent), said they had been a target of bullying. Forty-six per cent said they had witnessed bullying.

The research, which began as her PhD thesis, was carried out among those who work off-stage in the so-called “non-creative” roles, says Quigg. She suspects the figures could be even higher among those employed on the other side of the business, an area which requires more research in the future.

“I gave a presentation about my findings to (the performers’ and creatives’ union) Equity recently, and of around 30 people in the room, no-one was surprised by the research and many said they had lived with bullying in the workplace for a long time....In terms of ‘diva’ behaviour among performers and directors, history is littered with great artists whose bullying was tolerated because of their brilliance. People have, for instance, come forward with stories of a director who picks on one younger member of the cast repeatedly, using bullying behaviour to keep everyone else in line.” One member felt she could not complain about bullying she’d witnessed for years by a particular director until she had become a leading actor.

Bullying is defined as offensive, abusive, malicious, insulting and/or intimidating behaviour that occurs on more than one occasion. Companies should address bullying via disciplinary/grievance procedures, and in some cases awareness of bullying is spread via a (non-obligatory) signposted Dignity At Work policy. However many of Quigg’s interviewees said they were unaware of any policy on bullying; others said there was a policy but it was not implemented. The most common form of bullying behaviour identified was carried out by a manager towards someone more junior in the organisation, although reports of ‘upward bullying’ were also reported, as were other kinds of bad behaviour including ‘pair bullying’, where two people act together to victimise a colleague.

Why is it that this kind of misbehaviour is more common in arts organisations than in other employment sectors? There’s a cocktail of contributing factors, says Quigg.

“People in the arts are passionate and committed to what they do, and it’s almost custom and practice for them to put up with whatever the prevailing working conditions are. People also tend to be on short-term contracts which helps to perpetuate a ‘put up and shut up’ culture, because everyone worries about where the next contract is coming from. There’s also a tradition of low pay, long hours and in recent times weakened trades unions, with many people having agreed to a waiver so that they don’t stay inside the EU’s 48-hour working time directive. It’s common for people in the West End, for instance, to work a 90-hour week in the run-up to the opening of a show. All this sets arts organisations apart, yet surely people in the arts are as entitled to good working conditions as anyone else?

“The most prevalent serial bullying is often done by individuals with some personality inadequacy, perhaps a manager coming in from another sector. They identify who they have to please then start to pick on someone they see as weaker, and that person often ends up leaving because of it. Then the perpetrator goes after another person, and another, until eventually there is an outcry... One repeated report was that if a victim tried to report bullying to the management, they would be met with disbelief, because the alleged perpetrator had a Jekyll/Hyde personality and behaved differently to other people in the company.”

Bullying is not gender-specific, says Quigg, yet the rate of complaint was higher among the young women she interviewed than any other group. One unlucky interviewee left a company because of the misery caused to her by persistent bullying, only to suffer the same problem at her next company. Only two interviewees who’d suffered bullying reported an all-round satisfactory conclusion to the issue.

Whether bullying in the arts sector is a growing problem or not is unknown, as there is no previous research with which to compare this study. Quigg, who teaches on the MA course in arts management at City University, London, fears it may become more prevalent as swingeing cuts to arts budgets take hold and job insecurity increases. She hopes the research will be looked upon as a benchmark for future studies, and in the meantime she sees coaching of all staff within arts organisations as the way to raise awareness of bullying and of workers’ rights to protection and proper procedures when they feel they have been abused.

“The arts is a very labour-intensive field, yet in areas like human resources, very little managerial training is given by some companies. Of course there are organisations that are brilliant at looking after their people, but in others they’re good at looking for audiences but don’t treasure their staff. It’s time to recognise that. Bullying leads to unnecessary mental and physical suffering and, in some cases to long-term sick leave, which puts added pressure on everyone else, including management.” In a sense the arts world should blame itself, says the writer. In some places and for too long unacceptable behaviour has been taken as the norm.

Bullying In The Arts – Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power by Anne-Marie Quigg, is published by Gower Applied Research, £65. To order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go to Postage costs £2.75.