Serial Bully

"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.

Guidance for readers

The purpose of this website is to help you recognise and predict a bully's behaviour and how it could develop. If it leads you to the conclusion that you are a target of a serial bully, take appropriate steps to protect yourself, because your safety must come before anything else. The primary tasks for you are (a) making the bullying stop or (b) getting out of the situation.

While it is fine to record and analyse and report what the bully is doing / has done to you and possibly others, which will probably involve describing their conduct and patterns of behaviour, keep any theory you might have about underlying brain dysfunction to yourself. Always remember that it would be counter-productive, libelous and downright dangerous to suggest that someone - your boss, for example - "is a psychopath" or "is a sociopath" or "has antisocial personality disorder". Do not come close to doing so. The purpose of publishing these character traits is to help you understand and predict what you may be up against when being bullied at work, and not to provide material with which you could demonise a colleague. Possessing some of these character traits does not make a person into a "bully".

Even if you're certain you're being bullied and you know who is responsible, and what they are doing is completely unreasonable, avoid hurtful personal criticism and provocative language. Do your best to treat them fairly. Stick to dealing with what they have done and try not to concern yourself with what they are like. One practical reason is that you and the bully and the dispute will be observed by others, and their opinion matters if the dispute is to be resolved fairly. It is therefore important that you outshine your bully in the single area that they cannot function: treating an adversary assertively, i.e. with fairness.

Another practical reason is that if your response to being bullied involves conduct that could be directly interpreted or twisted around and interpreted as bullying, you risk losing whatever moral advantage you had over the bully. Do not treat anyone, whatever they have done, in a way that would justify them using material from this website to describe your actions and character.


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.

(These illustrations alternately use masculine and feminine pronouns; A serial bully could equally be male or female.) This is a person who mercilessly mistreats one person after another, but whose depravity appears to be constrained by the understanding that he has to appear to behave decently if he is to blend in with civilised people. Rather than using physical violence, he abuses people with methods that are harder for onlookers to recognise such as abusing the authority that comes with his job, emotional blackmail, malicious gossip and one-on-one confrontations when there are no witnesses.

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 and by trying to mimic the behaviour of respectable people. Some onlookers seem 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 criticism 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.

Recognisable Characteristics

Perhaps the most easily recognisable character traits of a Serial Bully 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 openly explained anyway, 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

Attitudes to Life and Work

The Bully's Underlying Agenda

In a work context, people who trust, rely on and confide in each other have needs, e.g.

Bullies see these needs as vulnerabilities which they seek out and exploit for personal gain and sometimes for gratification. Businesses, stakeholders and colleagues all have similar needs and are all therefore potential targets.

The sort of bullies we are describing are charlatans who use clever words and actions (rather than merit) to get into a position where they are trusted, relied upon, confided in and so on. Bullies find ways of appearing capable of being able to satisfy such desires or needs, but once they have the other person's trust and confidence, they take what they can for as long as they can, ditching people along the way, and then walk away when there is nothing left to take. They can get away with it for years because of yet another common need: The need to trust the bully. People do not want to believe they are being exploited and so they tend to make up excuses for and put up with the bully. Sometimes it is out of genuine ignorance, and sometimes it is denial on the target's part, not wanting to admit that they've been taken for a ride. Bullies exploit this vulnerability, again with convincing explanations and by manipulating people's perceptions, to remain in a position where they are free to continue without any real prospect of being held accountable for their actions. Often, because they come out of disputes as "winners", their chances of getting away with future exploitation is increased.

Lack of Insight into Own Behaviour

The serial bully appears to lack insight into his or her behaviour and seems unaware of how others perceive it. There is also a possibility that, rather than being oblivious, the bully knows exactly what she is doing but is so audacious that she doesn't expect to be challenged, and so behaves in a way that she knows is outside the moral and ethical constraints by which normal people are bound, e.g. openly denying that she said something, to the person she said it to the previous day.

The focus of this section is serial bullying in workplaces, but the character profile fits most types of abusers, including:

The common objective of these offenders is power, control, domination and subjugation, the only difference being the way they express their violence. Offences committed by people in this list are typically regarded as criminal and arrestable.

Virtual Immunity from Correction

Serial Bullying at work is unlikely to lead to an arrest or even disciplinary proceedings because their most common offences don't involve physical violence or are shrouded in doubt: The serial bully can explain away just about anything, and frequently blames others and distracts attention from the real issues. Few would have the patience to investigate as incisively as necessary. Finding someone with the courage and integrity to investigate impartially is even harder. Any investigator, whether an internal employee or director, or an external investigator, may well fear of adverse consequences from upholding a complaint about a serial bully, the potential consequences being personal (e.g. damage to their own career prospects, not being paid etc.) and corporate (e.g. identifying evidence of actions for which the organisation is vicariously liable).

One possible explanation for investigators and fellow managers being so easily manipulated by a serial bully appears in the research paper by Clive R Boddy, entitled "Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace" (2011):

"The cold-heartedness and manipulativeness of the psychopath are reported to be the traits that are the least discernable to others and this allows them to gain other people’s confidence and facilitates their entry into positions where they can gain most benefit for themselves and do harm to others (Mahaffey and Marcus, 2006)."

Consequently, the workplace is enveloped in a climate of fear in which the bully's offences are denied and tolerated, allowing them to get away with:

(Business stakeholders take note.)

Response when Held to Account

Tim Field noted that when called to account for their actions, serial bullies instinctively respond with Denial, Retaliation and by Feigning Victimhood. He described this as a deliberate, learned strategy with a clear purpose:


Bullies instinctively deny any allegation made. Sometimes the denial is direct and robust, and sometimes it involves avoiding discussion of the matter that has been raised, never giving a straight answer, deliberately missing the point and creating distractions and diversions. Variations include trivialization of the concern, and offering the target a "Clean Slate" or "Fresh Start". Where a target has hinted their dissatisfaction with a serial bully's conduct towards them, they can expect to hear:

As well as being a form of denial, this false conciliation is an abdication of responsibility for any damage done.

This approach may be effective in a workplace in the short term but it does not (or should not) work in court, but the problem for the target, and the advantage for the bully, is that reliving the conversation in a courtroom environment is literally years away from this un-moderated discussion at work.

The best a target can do in this situation is to keep accurate notes of the response to their allegation, since a serial bully can probably out-talk anyone who argues with them.

Corporate Denial

Denial is not the sole preserve of the serial bully. There will always be people around who are prepared to share in the denial, either out of pure ignorance, desire for self-preservation or to gain political advantage. Bullies rely on this denial by others and the likelihood that any report of abuse will not be believed. Abuse cycles often last for years and frequently, targets don't report it because they don't think they will be believed. Sadly, they are often right. The Jekyll & Hyde nature, compulsive lying, and plausibility means that no-one can - or wants - to believe the target. Those who report that they are being bullied can expect to hear phrases such as:

Denial features in most cases of sexual assault, as in the case of Paul Hickson, the UK Olympic swimming coach who sexually assaulted and raped teenage girls in his care over a period of 20 years or more. When his victims were asked why they didn't report the abuse, most replied "Because I didn't think anyone would believe me". Abusers arrogantly rely on this phenomenon for self preservation, and often tell their victims "No-one will ever believe you" when they first commit an assault and whenever the need arises thereafter. The degree to which abusers are protected from comeback has been illustrated by events following the death of UK TV personality Jimmy Savile. Hundreds of people came forward claiming to have been sexually abused by Savile; Those who had done so while he was alive were not believed. Since Savile's death, several other UK TV personalities have become the focus of similar allegations dating back 20 years and more, which initially made no progress for the same reasons but which became credible once society accepted that it was possible for celebrities to commit sexual abuse on a grand scale.

Targets of workplace bullying are frequently not believed when they report a bullying colleague and there is always someone who will back up the bully's denial when called to account. Of course, the fact that some do not, cannot or do not want to believe it does not mean it is not true.

If you're questioning someone who is evading the issue, let them finish, and ask them the question again. When they have not answered the question at the second or third attempt, let them know that you're aware of what they are doing and their purpose. Then calmly ask the question again. Denial, and particularly corporate denial, is very difficult to overcome. No matter how powerful the evidence, no matter how well drafted the anti-bullying policy, employers which decide to deny the existence of bullying become entrenched and will not change their view. Grievance and appeal procedures are a completely inadequate means to have complaints dealt with if the employer is unwilling to accept that bullying is occurring. Not being believed is an injustice that many targets understandably find very difficult to accept. It can destroy their trust in their employer, and in some cases, in the world of work, and be more stressful than the abuse they reported. Targets who are victims of denial, who cannot just walk away, need to be patient and preserve their evidence to show to a higher authority (e.g. a court or tribunal or perhaps the shareholders)


Also known as "counter-attack". Denial is followed with firm criticism of the target, including counter-allegations based on distortion or fabrication. Lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy and blame are the hallmarks of this stage. Retaliation is an extension of straight denial, primarily meant to divert attention away from the bully and onto the target. At some point after standing up for themselves, a target can expect the bully personally, or the employer, to:-

An alternative (or supplement) to accusing the target of misconduct is to allege that their job performance is below standard, and to implement a performance management procedure. The bully or someone acting on their behalf will operate the procedure so as to ensure there is a documented list of mistakes made by the target, where the target does not have a say in what is documented. Only the target's mistakes are logged, and so while their performance might be equal to or better than their peers, that information is never considered by the disciplinary panel at the end of the process. Similarly, the disciplinary panel does not get to hear about what the target has done right. The disciplinary panel is presented with a very negative overall picture of the target's performance, and in the hearing, questions are put to the target in such a way that whatever the target says means they are guilty as charged. There will be an allegation that has a grain of truth in it, and the target will be asked: "Do you think this is mistake is acceptable?" If the target says "yes", they are deemed incompetent, and if they say "no" they are deemed to have admitted that their work is below standard.

The target feels the urge to defend themselves, typically with long and detailed explanations to prove the falsehood of the counter-allegation. All the attention goes onto the target and off the bully. Even if the target's defence is successful, by the time they've finished, everyone else has forgotten the original issue.

The serial bully and cohorts may think that Denial and Retaliation are assertive, but they are not: They are acts of aggression. Assertiveness is the ability to express emotions and needs without violating others' rights and without being aggressive. Aggression is behaviour aimed at causing harm or pain, whether psychological or physical. Aggression can be passive and indirect, and this form is typical for a serial bully in a situation where witnesses are present. Notably, throughout the bully's passive-aggressive response to a question, the answer to the original question is conspicuous by its absence.

Retaliation should ideally be dealt with by not responding to the substance (if any) of the counter-allegations, but the fact of them. Respond to the intent, not the content. Targets should ideally endeavour not to engage with, explain, justify or defend counter-allegations, but instead should respond by pointing out that the retaliation is a continuation of the bullying, and insist that the retaliation is added to the target's original complaint.

Feigning victimhood

This is the third stage which may occur even if denial and counter-attack were sufficient on their own. The bully feigns victimhood by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt. Expect to hear phrases like:

Feigned victimhood can include bursting into tears (which is guaranteed to make people uncomfortable and lead to a comfort break or even an end to the discussion), displays of indulgent self-pity, feigning indignation, pretending to be "devastated" or "deeply offended", being histrionic, playing the martyr and generally trying to make others feel sorry for them - a "poor-me" melodrama.

Other tactics include manipulating people's perceptions to portray themselves as the injured party, with their target being the villain. The bully may respond to a difficult challenge by claiming to be suffering stress and go off on long-term sick leave. They may say they have a heart condition and cannot stand any more. A bully may exploit his own ill-health (real or feigned) to gain attention and sympathy. For suggestions on how to counter this see the advice on the FAQ page.

As with denial and retaliation, feigning victimhood allows the bully to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for what they have said or done. This pattern of behaviour was learned at a very early age and while most children grow out of it by the time they start school, some do not, and by the time they become adults, it is a well practised strategy.

Feigned Victimhood should be responded to as with retaliation: i.e. not responding to the substance of the poor-me drama, but the fact of it. Respond to the intent, not the content. Targets should endeavour not to be moved by, feel sorry for, feel guilty about or get angry about the bully's histrionics, but instead should respond by pointing out that it is a predictable continuation of the bullying, and insist that the feigned victimhood is added to the target's original complaint of bullying.

Exploiting Others' Anger

Feigning victimhood has the further effect of engendering an unusual level of anger in the target - the true victim - which the bully uses to his or her advantage. Anger is an emotion that bullies (and all abusers) use to control their targets. The target may have been bullied for months or years, and they might only have challenged the bully out of sheer desperation, and then they see their tormentor getting away with it by blaming them. If the target loses his or her composure at this point, the bully uses that as evidence that the target is to blame for everything. By provoking a release of pent-up anger, the bully plays their master stroke and casts their victim as villain.

The only way to avoid being exploited in this way is to remain calm. Better still, remain calm, polite and 100% reasonable, irrespective of the way you are being treated.

Responsibility for Own Actions

Nobody's behaviour is perfect, and many normal, well intentioned people will at some time unjustifiably upset others. When this is drawn to their attention, they are usually horrified and will do what they can to make sure it isn't repeated.

Serial bullies, on the other hand, do not want to know about the negative effects of their behaviour. Denial, retaliation and feigning victimhood are some of the ways that bullies express their antipathy of anyone who is able to describe their behaviour, see through their mask of normality or help others to do the same.

Serial bullies who have to appear as if they are opposed to bullying - for example if they are responsible for operating an anti-bullying policy - will fail to understand but may make trite expressions of approval if doing that would gain them some advantage. On the other hand, the self-aware serial bully does not approve of this website at all. Over the years, a handful of individuals have challenged the makers of over its content with outright denials, bitter personal attacks, talk of "cyber bullying", massive attempted use of guilt and, at one stage, a libel suit.


Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviours etc on to other people to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies and to avoid facing up to the same. The vehicle for Projection is blame, criticism and allegation. Once a target realises this, they can take comfort from the fact that every time they are blamed, criticised or subject to another specious allegation by the bully, the bully is implicitly admitting or revealing something about themselves. A target's awareness of Projection can help them translate whatever they are being accused of into an awareness of the bully's own misdemeanours.

This is not a precise science but employers, targets and investigators should be open to the possibility that the "substance" in a false allegation might not reflect the bully's imagination, but their lifestyle.

When a target admits to being stressed and becomes unable to remain exposed to the source of the stress, bullies (and their supporters) will very often claim that their target is "mentally ill" or "mentally unstable" or has a "mental health problem". The implied (or expressed) message is that the target has diminished control of their cognition, behaviour and judgment. This allegation may well be another example of projection, with the bully being subconsciously aware that they are not mentally healthy.

A key identifying feature of a person with a personality disorder is that when called to account, they will project blame onto their victims and will typically accuse their accuser of having the personality disorder.

See also:

Psychological Projection

Psychological Manipulation


In at least half of over 10,000 cases of bullying reported to Bully OnLine and the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line by July 2004, the bully was reported to be having an affair with another member of staff. Tim Field concluded that these had little to do with friendship, but were strategic alliances that enabled the bully to advance their pursuit of power, control, domination and subjugation. In a further quarter of cases, there was a suspected affair, and in the remainder of cases there was often a relationship with another member of staff based on a mutual admiration of each others' behaviour.

Where the bully was a female in a junior position, her relationship would be with a weak male in a senior position e.g. President, CEO or any Senior Executive or Director, etc. She then obtained patronage, protection and promotion by traditional methods. Once promoted she would calculate who could give her the next promotion; if the first male could not, he would be ditched and another adopted. This was allowed to happen because, typically, the males were unwilling to admit to what was going on.

If the bully was a male in a senior position, he would be sleeping with a secretary or office administrator, who would be the source of his information, and the recipient of his disinformation. Sometimes the female junior could be identified by petty privileges afforded to her, like being the key holder of the stock cupboard, so others had to grovel to her for stationery, or being in charge of the office in the bully's absence, even when there were more senior and more appropriate people around to deputise.

Tim Field concluded that most serial bullies had unhappy and unsatisfactory private lives, characterised by a string of broken relationships. He suggested that a little digging into the bully's past, including their personal life, would usually unearth some unsavoury facts that the bully would prefer not to have exposed. Some individual researchers discovered criminal convictions for fraud or violence, vexatious (and unsuccessful) legal proceedings against multiple former employers, compulsory counseling to deal with their lying habit, and so on.

If you discover such things about a person, exercise caution and moderation when deciding why, how, when and whom you inform about your discovery. In normal circumstances it would be unethical (unless it is already public knowledge) to introduce such information into a grievance or disciplinary process, or into legal proceedings. If you're sure you're the target of a serial bully, you are not in "normal circumstances", but even then, act with caution and obtain advice from someone you know you can trust.

Validity of Testimony

The Jekyll and Hyde nature, compulsive lying, charm and propensity to give tendentious accounts of events all invalidate the serial bully's words in any grievance, disciplinary or court proceedings. Fear of the consequences of perjury is not enough to prevent some from lying on oath. However, if they are allowed to talk for long enough under cross examination, compulsive liars will contradict themselves because they are prone to making things up spontaneously to suit the moment.

If you have to question a suspected serial bully, prepare your questions well, anticipate the likely answers and highlight any (or at least the main) inconsistencies in your summing up.

Futility of Mediation

Mediation, arbitration and negotiation are always far more desirable than an adversarial approach to resolving disputes, but are completely inappropriate if the dispute is with a serial bully. Serial bullies regard any attempt at a conciliation as appeasement, which they ruthlessly exploit. It gives them the opportunity to appear that they are negotiating and being conciliatory, but they continue the bullying, sometimes more secretively at first. Mediation with a serial bully is a waste of time and energy. What they really need is professional help, and obtaining the cooperation of their victim through mediation only puts professional help further out of the way.

Criminal Mindset

The disordered thinking processes of the criminal / antisocial mind are succinctly described in Stanton E Samenow's book "Straight Talk About Criminals: Understanding and Treating Antisocial Individuals."

"Certain people who I term non-arrestable criminals behave criminally towards others , but they are sufficiently fearful of the law so that they do not commit major crimes. We all know them: individuals who shamelessly use others to gain advantage for themselves. Having little empathy, they single-mindedly pursue their objectives and have little remorse for the injuries they inflict. If others take them to task, they become indignant and self-righteous and blame circumstances. Such people share much in common with the person who makes crime a way of life. Although they may not have broken the law, they nonetheless victimize others."

In Samenow's 1984 book "Inside the Criminal Mind" he uses this description:

"Some criminals are smooth rather than contentious, ingratiating rather than surly, devious rather than intimidating. They pretend to be interested in what others say. Appearing to invite suggestions, they inwardly dismiss each idea without considering its merits. They seem to take criticism in their stride but ignore it and spitefully make mental note of who the critic was. They misuse authority and betray trust but are not blatant about doing so. With the criminal at the helm, employee morale deteriorates. His method of operation sooner or later discourages others from proposing innovative ideas and developing creative solutions."

Tim Field, recognising that these descriptions matched his serial bully observations, recommended both Samenow's books.

Personality Disorders

While Tim was not a clinician or a qualified psychologist, he could not help but notice that bullies coming to his attention exhibited behaviours similar to those in the diagnostic criteria for a number of clinically recognised personality disorders. On learning of Tim's death in 2006, Professor Robert Hare, globally renouned for his work in the field of forensic psychology and particularly the study of psychopathy, praised Tim's work and his legacy.

Tim's belief that psychopathic personalities were behind bullying is corroborated to a significant degree in the research paper by Clive R Boddy, published in 2011 by The Journal of Business Ethics, confirming a direct link between the presence of psychopaths in workplaces and the prevalence of bullying, concluding among other things that: "...around 26% of bullying is accounted for by 1% of the employee population, those who are Corporate Psychopaths". The abstract of the report is produced below.

"This article reports on empirical research that establishes strong, positive, and significant correlations between the ethical issues of bullying and unfair supervision in the workplace and the presence of Corporate Psychopaths. The main measure for bullying is identified as being the witnessing of the unfavorable treatment of others at work. Unfair supervision was measured by perceptions that an employee’s supervisor was unfair and showed little interest in the feelings of subordinates. This article discusses the theoretical links between psychopathy and bullying and notes that little empirical evidence confirms the connection in management research. The sample of 346 Australian senior white collar workers used in the research is described as is the measure of behavior for identifying psychopaths. The findings are then presented and discussed showing that when Corporate Psychopaths are present in a work environment, the level of bullying is significantly greater than when they are not present. Further, that when Corporate Psychopaths are present, supervisors are strongly perceived as being unfair to employees and disinterested in their feelings. This article concludes that around 26% of bullying is accounted for by 1% of the employee population, those who are Corporate Psychopaths. Journal of Business Ethics(2011) ref: 100:367–379 DOI 10.1007/s10551-010-0689-5

Character Traits

Plausible Charisma, Charm and Empathy

Charisma is a personal quality often attributed to leaders who arouse popular devotion and enthusiasm. Sometimes it is achieved through the leader's merit, and sometimes through the followers' fear of the consequences of not being seen to be devoted and enthusiastic. The more respectful people are of the charismatic leader, the less likely they are to experience the consequences of not being seen as respectful. Remember that some charismatic leaders are respected because of their genuine merit and integrity.

Selective Generosity

Bullies are not exclusively mean, but they are selective about it, being mean, officious and inappropriately inflexible some of the time, but generous, relaxed and very accomodating at other times. They motivate some people with the prospect of reward, and others by manipulating their fear, anger and guilt.


Arrogance is having, or displaying, a sense of overbearing self-worth or self-importance.

Contempt for Others

Bullies look out for and exploit others' vulnerabilities for personal gain or gratification. Other people are seen as objects to be exploited. Also:-

Manipulation and Control

Serial bullies survive and bully people by managing others' attitudes and allegiances, by indoctrination to an extent, but mainly by manuipulating emotions, especially (in targets) fear, anger and guilt and (in others) fear, anger and greed. This is achieved by being untruthful and drawing people into believing their fabricated version of reality which, in its most basic form, is achieved by:

Sometimes manipulation of minds requires manipulation of documents and records. A bully may (or may have someone else) alter, delete or create as necessary any document or record, especially if doing so would damage someone else's reputation or protect the bully from being held accountable for his or her actions. Serial Bullies are often perceived as "control freaks", wanting to control not just events, but what others say, do, think and believe. This can emerge if a person raises a controversial topic and is immediately attacked for doing so and restricted or prevented from continuing. They may impose rules, regulations, laws etc and insist on adherence thereto, regardless of their relevance or efficacy.

Manipulating perceptions of intelligent people is not easy and demands constant effort, which can include:-


In trying to be popular, Serial bullies like to be perceived as having a superior intelligence. However, by trying too hard, they can appear intellectually dysfunctional.

Irrespective of their language skills, Serial Bullies typcially have poor interpersonal and social skills, and miss even the most obvious social cues.

In relation to their job performance, Serial Bullies are often economic parasites who should not really be in whatever role they have been given. Consequently, their approach to their job is often unimaginative and lacks the necessary skill, creativity and innovation. Rarely having any ideas of their own they tend to plagiarise and take credit for others' work and regurgitate what others have said, rather than thinking for themselves. Where this is the case, bullies are unable to come up with and evaluate options and alternatives, making them completely inflexible.

They are often unable to assess the relative importance of different events and tasks, especially of tasks that are someone else's responsibility. Important and urgent tasks can be jeopardised while the serial bully fusses - and forces others to fuss - over trivia.

Bullies do seem to focus their intellectual efforts on finding ways to be devious, cunning, scheming, manipulative, evasive, deceptive, quick-witted, crafty etc.

Facile Assertions

This term is used in the sense of acting without due care or effort. It often manifests itself in serial bullies when they make convincing and profound assertions without apparently having to think about what they are saying, where checks reveal that they were making up whatever they said.

When their errors become apparent to others, they are unwilling to apologise, using obfuscation and words like "misunderstanding" and "confusion", to dilute any criticism and pass the blame onto someone else, especially the critic. If that isn't working, they might apologise in a way that is artificial and inappropriate and which still diverts attention from the fact that they were lying.


Serial Bullies may appear to have the language and intellect of an adult, but at the same time have the emotional maturity of an infant. They may have a tendency to act impulsively and randomly, but most of all, recklessly. Also:-

Inappropriate Body Language

Some bullies use inappropriate and hostile body language, such as inappropriate eye contact, either too little (or none at all) or too much (staring or glaring). Some callers reported an "evil stare". Some bullies display ill-advised interpersonal behaviour, especially with a sexual overtone, eg invasion of personal space, gestures or comments including inappropriate sexual references or innuendo, and being inappropriately intimate with clients or new members of staff, being too friendly too soon, etc.

Lack of Conscience

One of the most notable characteristics of a sociopathic serial bully, which sets them apart in society, is that they feel no remorse and appear to have no conscience.

They see nothing wrong with their behaviour and are oblivious to the difference between how they want to be seen and how they really are seen by others. It's like having a musical conductor who doesn't know and can't read the score, but who conducts the orchestra anyway, and expects applause.

Unreliability and Dishonesty

Another trait, that illustrates the lack of conscience, is that serial bullies are often well-practised and convincing liars who will make up anything spontaneously to fit their needs at that moment, especially when asked to account for their actions. Serial Bullies excel at deception and should never be underestimated in their capacity to deceive.


Duplicity is deceiving others by pretending to act with one intention while actually aiming to satisfy another. Bullies at work act with duplicity by pretending to be acting in the interests of the employer and others, when actually they are acting in their own interests. Duplicity manifests itself in many ways:


Hypocrisy is the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold. A hypocritical bully may:


Projection is a defence mechanism whereby a person "projects" their own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. In practice this manifests as the bully denigrating the target (or others) with terms that more fittingly describe the bully, for example, describing someone as:

Projection can occur at any time but especially when the bully is fighting off a grievance about their own conduct.


Self preservation

A serial bully knows that being held accountable for bullying and/or other indiscretions places their reputation and income potential at serious risk. To minimise the risk, the serial bully's self preservation techniques include:-

Links on the web

Please note the Tim Field Foundation accepts no responsibility for the validity or maintenance of externally linked websites.

Robert D Hare is a world-leading authority on psychopathic behaviour and author of The Hare PCL-R Psychopathy Checklist Revised. See his articles: Psychopaths: New Trends in Research and Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder: A Case of Diagnostic Confusion

The B-Scan 360 - identifying dysfunctional behaviour in managers and potential managers:

Treatment for psychopaths is likely to make them worse by Robert Hercz.

Tribal Elders has links to sites on narcissism and psychopathy

How to know when your love is a con.

Discussion forum on psychopaths

Personality Disorders:

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Paranoid Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder


Delusional Disorder

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Psycho bosses on the loose: are you in their line of fire? Hilary Freeman writes about psychopathic bosses in the Rise section for graduate of The Guardian, 10 March 2001.

Snakes in suits and how to spot them, an article on psychopaths in corporations in The Times.

Serotonin and dopamine levels may be important in psychopathic behaviour.

Daily Mail article Is that a psycho sitting next to you at work?

Is your boss a psychopath? Probably, if we are to believe the results of a new scientific study, says the Guardian's Oliver James.

Spot the psychopath near you - Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd:

University of Southern California study: Liar's brains are not the same:


Straight Talk About Criminals: Understanding and Treating Antisocial Individuals, E Samenow

Without conscience, the disturbing world of psychopaths among us, Robert D Hare, And many more by the same author

The Mask of Sanity, An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality, Hervey Cleckley.

Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job: Alan A Cavaiola PhD and Neil J Lavender PhD, New Harbinger Publications;