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Constant criticism, nit-picking, no empathy, control freak, denial, charm, glib, compulsive liar, devious, manipulative? Read this

Introduction to the Serial Bully

On other pages:

Serial bully attitudes to life and work
Serial Bully character profile

Written by Tim Field Foundation.

"Serial Bully" is a term that Tim Field coined to describe the character he realised was behind the majority of cases that came to his attention when he ran the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line between 1996 and 2004. Callers described similar character traits, patterns of behaviour and events indicating that, in a given workplace, there was usually one person responsible for the bullying, for whom bullying was a modus operandi. Tim observed that when one target left the bully's environment, the bully would then focus their obnoxious behaviour on someone else; the new target would eventually leave and another would unwittingly take their place, hence the term "serial bully".

Tim's ground-breaking insights and their value to society are recognised by the Tim Field Foundation, which is grateful for the privilege of preserving, refining and building upon Tim Field's original work.


A serial bully could be anyone. They are attracted to positions of authority and trust, but that does not mean that everyone in such a position is a serial bully. Also, not every serial bully is in a position of authority or trust. They cannot be identified by their status, but by their conduct.

(This illustration uses the masculine pronoun "he", but a serial bully could be female.) This is a person who mercilessly bullies one person after another, but whose depravity appears to be constrained by the understanding that he has to appear to behave decently, to blend in with civilised people. Rather than using physical violence, he abuses people with methods that are harder for onlookers to notice, such as emotional blackmail and abusing the authority that comes with his job.

He is able to manipulate others' emotions and perceptions, and does so to get what he wants. He has to impress those whom he thinks will help him maintain or advance his status, and these are likely, at least initially, to perceive him as smooth, charming, accomplished, charismatic and authoritative, and worthy of support, respect and deference. He may gain their respect by exaggerating his achievements, favouring cronies and by trying to mimic the behaviour of respectable people. Some onlookers appear to maintain their positive first impression indefinitely, but some only appear to do so because they are frightened of not doing. Others, whom he never thought he had to please, may soon come to regard him as grossly incompetent, deceitful, insensitive, unintelligent, aggressive, ruthless and completely unaware of or indifferent to the effect of his behaviour. These people, the first to see through the charisma, are those he is most likely to pick on, focusing the worst of his aggression on one person at a time.

The serial bully feels threatened by colleagues with competence, integrity and popularity, and sooner or later he picks one out and projects onto them his own inadequacy and incompetence. Using unwarranted criticsm and threats, he controls them and subjugates them, without a thought for the contribution they make to the organisation, or their self esteem, self confidence, loyalty or their health. Sooner or later this person - the bully's "target" - realises that they are not being "managed", "mentored", "developed" or "investigated", but "bullied", and they start to show signs of intolerance. When this becomes apparent to the bully, sensing that the target might complain to a higher authority and expose his misconduct, he neutralises the target by isolating them and destroying their credibility and reputation among decision-makers and peers, and then putting them out of the picture through dismissal, forced resignation or even early retirement. Once the target has gone, within about two weeks, the bully's focus turns to someone else and the cycle starts again.

Serial Bully Traits

Perhaps the most easily recognisable Serial Bully traits are:

Symptoms of a Serial Bully at work

The influence of a serial bully on a working environment should be readily apparent to an employer's senior managers, especially the HR manager. If there's a serial bully in a position of influence, these managers will know of employees who once were valued:

Faced with the above, some businesses would strive to establish the cause and deal with it, to prevent any recurrence. For organisations where this is normal, but thought to be symptomatic of weak, awkward employees rather than dysfunctional management, bullying is likely to be an institutional problem. Such employers are likely to be reluctant to acknowledge even the possibility that bullying is an issue, doing what they can to conceal it, including by attributing responsibility for employees' predicaments to the employees themselves. One reason for not investigating alleged bullying and abuse, especially when it is widespread, could be the fear of corporate and personal liability for its effects.

Business owners and shareholders should note that a culture of bullying is likely to be hiding far more damage to their business than just occasionally destroying the health and careers of competent staff members.

A person who is being bullied might already know or come to discover that they have a string of predecessors who have either:

Any of these things can indicate some form of dysfunction in the workplace. It is not always obvious at first as to why one colleague was fired and another suddenly went off with depression. These things should be confidential to those involved but may be explained away with plausible sounding excuses: "Bill let down a major client and we had to let him go"; "Dorothy had some personal problems and she just couldn't hack it here any more - poor thing". Sometimes the excuses are more damning of the target: "We discovered she had been stealing and abusing clients, so we had no choice but to dismiss her". It is not until the new target scratches the surface of these misfortunes that they realise that the truth is quite different from the rumour. Where the truth is far more appalling than the corporate line, and where one person is a common factor behind all such events, the chances are that this person could be Serial Bully.

"The presence of chaos, change, poor management, and bullying in an organization may not ... be causally linked to each other but rather to the presence of Corporate Psychopaths who, as toxic leaders, cause each of these to exist simultaneously." Clive R Boddy, 2011

NEXT: Read about a Serial Bully's Attitudes to Life and Work

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