Anti-Bullying Week: A View from the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces

15 Nov 2019

This year, the Ministry of Defence invited the Ombudsman to write a piece for anti-bullying week. The Ombudsman has decided also to share that piece on our blog.

woman smiling at the camera

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

Whoever said that had never been bullied.

I know a number of people from across the MOD will be writing about the issue of bullying for Anti-Bullying week. Some people might be tempted to say: “Oh no, not another blog about a special interest category or group of people!” But it’s a rare person who hasn’t either experienced bullying personally or witnessed it up close. I know I have.

Sadly, bullying is no respecter of persons – not surprisingly, because it is rooted in a fundamental disrespect for the person being bullied.

We criticise bullying at school – which of course is now not just on the school premises but, because of social media, can be a horrible 24/7 experience from which there is no respite. However, we forget it can happen to adults too. No university or workplace is free from it. Sometimes it manifests itself in very obvious ways. However, many times it shows up in ways so subtle that the person being bullied thinks they are losing their mind, or they are imagining it – particularly if no one else is experiencing it. This creates a toxic environment in which everyone suffers. So what is important is to try and create an environment where this is much less likely to occur; encourage people to come forward to report it when it does; and, if proven, to have  a clear and swift zero-tolerance attitude towards bullies, up to and including removing the bully, not the person being bullied,  from that environment.

It is heartbreaking to watch a normally confident cheerful person become a shadow of their former self, becoming more and more isolated and withdrawn, shrinking in the hope that the bully will leave them alone. The psychological damage is real and, sadly, can be lifelong.

As the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, I see a lot of complaints about bullying. In fact, in 2018 25% of all Service Complaints made were about issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination* and they are just the complaints that have been made.  Many personnel who have experienced bullying choose not to make a formal complaint as we see from AFCAS each year.

There is still a lot of work to be done to eradicate bullying and it starts with each and every one of us being aware of the issue and more aware of our behaviour towards others.

In the Armed Forces, banter can help to form tight bonds, build cohesiveness and esprit de corps. I would never want to undermine that. However, too often bullying is allowed to take hold because it is dismissed as banter. It’s not banter if it hurts. You might find it funny, the other person might not.

Wolves prey on sheep – particularly a lone, isolated one who finds itself cut off from the flock. The opposite of the wolf is not the sheep on which it preys, but the sheepdog who protects the sheep. If the wolf is the bully, we should all be like sheepdogs. In that way, every week will become Anti-Bullying Week.

Edited 29th November 2019:

*Of the 37 bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints ruled admissible in 2018 and which received a final decision in 2018, 9 Service Complaints (or 24%) received a final decision of upheld (fully or partially).