What Is Bullying?
"...A major barrier to organizational efficiency and productivity and a major cost to organizations and to economies as a whole." - Clive R Boddy
On this page:
Definitions of bullying:
What's the difference between bullying, harassment and assault?
Where are people bullied?
What is Workplace Bullying?
How does it happen in a civilised environment?
Who is behind workplace bullying?
What triggers bullying?
What does bullying do to health?
What happens when someone complains about bullying?
What a bully might say when held to account
Am I Being Bullied?
What can I do if I'm being bullied?
What can you do if one of your employees is accused of bullying?
On other pages:
Bulling is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform. Tim Field Foundation 2015
From the many definitions that have been created, and considering our understanding of what bullying is, we coined this definition in 2015, and we believe it is unambiguous and that it cannot be used by a rational person to define innocent or legitimate behaviour as bullying.
Pre-existing definitions, some of which helped us formulate the above, are here:
Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, abuse of power, or unfair punishment which upsets, threatens and/or humiliates the recipient(s), undermining their self-confidence, reputation and ability to perform. Derived from "Bullying at work: how to tackle it. A guide for MSF representatives and members: MSF 1995
When considering the reasonableness of the conduct in question, the perpetrator can be expected to give an innocent reason for their actions. However, their claimed intention does not define the reasonableness of their conduct: The prime consideration must be the effect of the conduct on the recipient.
Context is everything. The persistence, the pattern and the effect of incidents which are, in isolation, trivial, creates the context in which those incidents can be regarded as bullying. Examples of the sort of incidents and the patterns are given below. Accusing someone of wrongdoing whilst knowing there are no grounds to do so is not fair and cannot be done in good faith, undermines a person's reputation and self confidence and is therefore bullying. Conversely, making a complaint, holding someone to account for substandard work or conduct, reporting malpractice etc, done with honest justification, fairly and in good faith, is not "bullying".
Others have given differently worded definitions, which essentially mean the same thing:
Rayner and Hoel provide five categories of bullying behaviour. These are threat to professional status (for example, belittling opinion, public professional humiliation, accusation of lack of effort); threat to personal standing (for example, name calling, insults, teasing); isolation (for example, preventing access to opportunities such as training, withholding information); overwork (for example, undue pressure to produce work, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions); and destabilisation (for example, failure to give credit when due, meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, shifting of goal posts). Source: Workplace bullying in NHS community trust: staff questionnaire survey, Lyn Quine, reader in health psychology
Workplace bullying is defined as the repeated unethical and unfavorable treatment of one person by another in the workplace. This includes behavior designed to belittle others via humiliation, sarcasm, rudeness, overworking an employee, threats, and violence. Constance Dierickx, Ph.D
Bullying differs from harassment and assault in that the latter can result from a small number of fairly serious incidents - which everybody recognises as harassment or assault - whereas bullying tends to be an accumulation of many small incidents over a long period of time. Each incident tends to be trivial, and on its own and out of context does not constitute an offence or grounds for disciplinary or grievance action.
- in long term jobs, by managers, co-workers or subordinates, or by clients (bullying, workplace bullying, mobbing, work abuse, harassment, discrimination)
- in short term jobs such as the performing arts, agriculture or construction, where the engager, gangmaster or supervisor has complete power over workers.(bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault)
- in the armed forces, religious organisations and the media by "untouchable" characters (bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, rape)
- at home by partner, parent, uncle, sibling (bullying, assault, domestic violence, abuse, verbal abuse, rape)
- at home by landlords, their agents, debt collectors (bullying, harassment)
- at home by neighbours (bullying, harassment)
- at school (bullying, harassment, assault)
- in hospitals, convalescent homes, care homes, residential homes (bullying, harassment, assault)
- in public by strangers (harassment, stalking, assault, sexual assault, rape, grievous bodily harm, murder)
This is not an exhaustive list and does not include activities readily identifiable as criminal.
The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. It has nothing to do with managing: Management is managing; bullying is not managing. Anyone who chooses to bully implicitly admits their inadequacy.
Some people project their inadequacy onto others:
- to avoid facing up to and doing something about it;
- to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and the effect it has; and
- to dilute their fear of being seen as weak, inadequate and possibly incompetent; and
- to divert attention away from the same: In badly run workplaces, bullying is the way that inadequate, incompetent and aggressive employees keep their jobs and obtain promotion.
Bullying destroys teams, causing disenchantment, demoralisation, demotivation, disaffection, and alienation. Bullies run dysfunctional and inefficient organisations; staff turnover and sickness absence are high whilst morale, productivity and profitability are low. Any perceived efficiency gains from bullying are a short term illusion: Long term prospects are always at serious risk.
Bullying behaviours are behind all forms of harassment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse, persecution, terrorism, conflict and violence. Understanding bullying gives a person the opportunity to understand that which underpins almost all forms of reprehensible behavior. Because of that, bullying remains the single most important social issue of today.
Workplace Bullying tends to happen in phases that can be called (1) Isolation, (2) Control and Subjugation and (3) Elimination. The terminology in the examples applies to workplaces but has parallels in other situations. Examples are loosely categorised under the "Phase" headings but in reality any of the example behaviours can occur in any phase.
- constant nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism of a trivial nature - the triviality, regularity and frequency betray bullying; often there is a grain of truth (but only a grain) in the criticism to fool the people (including the target) into believing the criticism has validity, which it does not; often, the criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or fabrication.
- simultaneous with the criticism, a persistent refusal to acknowledge the target and his or her contributions and achievements or to recognise their existence and value;
- constant attempts to undermine the target and his or her position, status, worth, value and potential where the target is in a group (eg at work),
- being isolated and separated from colleagues, excluded from what's going on, marginalized, overruled, ignored, sidelined, frozen out, "sent to Coventry"
- The above can be done with or without the cover of a formal disciplinary or capability procedure.
Control and Subjugation
- being singled out and treated differently; for instance, everyone else can get away with murder but the moment the target puts a foot wrong - however trivial - action is taken against them;
- being belittled, demeaned and patronised, especially in front of others;
- being humiliated, shouted at and threatened, often in front of others being overloaded with work, or having all their work taken away and replaced with either menial tasks (filing, photocopying, minute taking) or with no work at all finding that their work, and the credit for it, is stolen and plagiarised;
- having responsibility increased but authority removed;
- having annual leave, sickness leave, and (especially) compassionate leave refused
- being denied training necessary to fulfill duties
- having unrealistic goals set, which change as they approach, also deadlines change at short notice, or no notice, and the target only finds out when its too late to do anything about it.
- being the subject of gossip which has the effect of damaging one's reputation.
- the target finds that everything they say and do is twisted, distorted and misrepresented;
- is subjected to disciplinary procedures with verbal or written warnings imposed for trivial or fabricated reasons and without proper investigation, or with a sham investigation;
- is coerced into leaving through no fault of their own, constructive dismissal, early or ill-health retirement, etc
- is dismissed following specious allegations of misconduct or incapability which have just a grain of truth, to give superficial legitimacy to the dismissal.
One way to conceal bullying is to have regular or even continuous "reorganisations", where:-
- targets can be "organized out" - this applies to anyone whose face doesn't fit, i.e. anyone who has identified, complained about or challenged problems with the status quo;
- they can have their roles "regraded" or "redefined", if not being organised out.
- The bully's allies and political pawns can be promoted to positions of influence.
Where a re-organisation seems pointless or counter-productive, or if it involves a disproportionate amount of disruption in relation to the perceived benefit of the change, it could be a smokescreen to conceal (and be a vehicle of) bullying. People are so busy coping with the chaos that bullying goes unnoticed. At the same time, the person responsible can claim to be reorganising in the name of efficiency, thus earning him or her the respect of superiors.
Business stakeholders should note that bullying, and these forms of concealment, may be distracting attention from financial fraud, corruption, misappropriation of funds and so on.
Workplace bullying is commonly sustained by denial, ignorance and indifference, often in a climate of fear, with a common result being the premature departure of the target and reward for the perpetrator. Tim Field
Bullying happens under the noses of those who should care enough to stop it but who don't, either because they simply cannot believe it could happen, or because they fear of the consequences (for them) of doing something about it. Thus, targets of bullying and abuse are often not believed when they do report it.
People who bully in adult life tend to be drawn to positions offering them ostensibly legitimate power of some sort, such as jobs that come with administrative or organisational authority over others. It is possible for a sufficiently dishonest person to abuse a position of trust to conceal negligence, incompetence, fraud and more, without ever being held accountable. Subjugation and control by guilt and by threats of worse to come allows abusers to take what they want, and to minimise the risk of being reported, or of such reports being believed by, appropriate authorities.
It helps if the bully's superiors and peers are also bullies, or if they are so naive that bullying by this person is literally unthinkable, or they're scared of the consequences of crossing the bully. Whatever the underlying reasons, the legitimate authority that comes with a job works to protect bullies from comeback, because their peers and subordinates, HR & legal departments and other bystanders, more often than not, blindly respect the legitimacy of the "master-servant" relationship. Where there are two contrasting accounts of a situation, the default position is to respect the "master's" opinion. Thus, the perpetrator is often given support while the target is shut out and eventually forced to leave, usually under a cloud, freeing the perpetrator to attend to their next target.
There is little to differentiate this cycle of abuse from the situation of child-abusing priests, where children were too frightened to complain, or were not believed, and where the priests were allowed to continue to destroy the lives of children in their "care". The worst that happened to those who were identified as abusers was a move to a different location.
Following the death in 2011 of UK TV and radio presenter Jimmy Savile, stories of abuse by started to emerge from hundreds of adults, claiming to have been abused by Savile as children. Much of Savile's career involved working with children and young people, including visiting schools and hospital wards. He spent 20 years presenting BBC's Top of the Pops before a teenage audience, and another 20 years presenting "Jim'll Fix It", in which he helped the wishes of viewers, mainly children, come true. He was renowned for his charitable work. In October 2012, when the police were pursuing 400 separate lines of inquiry relating to Savile, John Cameron of the NSPCC said Savile was "a well-organised prolific sex offender, who's used his power, his authority, his influence to procure children and offend against them." The Savile situation demonstrated the propensity among victims of abuse by a popular figure to remain silent, probably because, among other things, of a fear of not being believed. That fear may well be justified: There were police inquiries while Savile was alive, but none led to any charges being brought, because there was "insufficient evidence".
Subordinates bully their bosses too. The power or "advantage" which a bully uses is not restricted to that which comes with position. Power can exist in many forms, including the potential to destroy the boss's reputation with false or unfair accusations, or a threat that someone could make an excessive fuss if they don't get their way, or it could take on the form of spreading malicious rumours, saying things that would never be said to the target's face. In summary, a bully needs to have some form of advantage over the target, and that advantage can take on many forms.
Tim Field wrote that in environments where bullying prevails, most people will eventually either become bullies or targets. There are few bystanders, as most people will eventually be sucked in. It's about survival: people either adopt bullying tactics themselves and thus survive by not becoming a target, or they stand up against bullying and refuse to join in, in which case they are at risk of being bullied, harassed, victimized and scapegoated until they have to resign, and/or their health is so severely impaired that they have a stress breakdown, take ill-health retirement or are dismissed on capability grounds, or otherwise find themselves unexpectedly selected for redundancy, or being dismissed on grounds of misconduct.
Most workplace bullying is traceable to a person with several of these traits, some of which might only be evident to those who are being or have been bullied themselves:
- May occupy a role that is important in some way;
- Very self-assured;
- May be believed to be doing or to have done something selfless or of great value, eg charitable work or turning a failing department or business around;
- May give off an impression of trustworthiness and reliability.
- Has an air of untouchability: questioning this person's actions or decisions is taboo especially among peers and superiors.
- compulsive liar: spontaneously makes things up to fit the needs of the moment; routinely embellishes stories for effect;
- convinces superiors and peers by seeming plausible and convincing, sometimes by copying others' behaviour, words or work;
- portrays him or herself as kind, caring and compassionate but only behaves this way where it leads to personal gain;
- doesn't listen, can't sustain a meaningful conversation;
- hollow, superficial and glib;
- seems to have an overbearing belief in his or her qualities (especially as a leader or manager);
- apparently cannot distinguish between leadership, management and bullying;
- i.e. cannot distinguish between maturity and immaturity, decisiveness and impulsiveness, assertiveness and aggression, personal objectives and corporate objectives, eloquence and crassness; honesty and deceitfulness;
- is oblivious to the difference between how he or she would like to be seen, and how he or she is seen.
- is drawn to positions of power;
- wants to control everything;
- has a subjective sense of right and wrong.
- "Right" is whatever he or she can get away with, such as falsifying time sheets to inflate income;
- "Wrong" could be anything done by others, justifying the bully's punishment, threats, control etc, such as refusing to falsify time sheets for the bully or, indeed, falsifying them under duress;
- projects his or her own shortcomings onto others;
- distorts peoples' perceptions of reality through falsehood and gossip;
- rewrites history to paint a better picture of him or herself and/or a worse picture of someone else;
- Tells different people different things, causing confusion, disruption, division and conflict;
- is selectively (un)friendly and (un)cooperative:-
- is mean, officious and inappropriately inflexible with some people; but is generous, relaxed and very accommodating with others;
- may motivate allies with the prospect of reward; but motivates most people with fear and guilt.
- threatens dire consequences for people under his or her influence, who think or act for themselves. Threats could be made directly in private, or indirectly in front of witnesses;
- warns targets that no-one will believe them if they report the bullying;
- once called to account:-
- aggressively denies and refutes any criticism, counter-attacking the critic with fabricated or distorted counter-criticism;
- claims to have been bullied by the complainant, feigns victimhood, ("poor me"), uses amateur dramatics (bursting into tears etc), to avoid the question and evade accountability,
- makes others feel guilty for daring to suggest that he or she might have done the slightest thing wrong;
Jekyll & Hyde nature
- can be innocent and charming some of the time (typically in the presence of witnesses), but vicious and vindictive at other times (typically where there are no witnesses).
Ruthless and unpleasant
- lacks a conscience, shows no remorse;
- has a compulsive need to criticise;
- is often devious, manipulative, spiteful, vengeful;
- becomes impatient, irritable and aggressive if asked to address the needs and concerns of others;
- may be emotionally cold, humourless, joyless;
- may exhibit inappropriate or unusual attitudes to sex, gender, race, disability and other personal characteristics.
Tim Field estimated that one person in thirty has several of these traits, describing them as aggressive but intelligent individuals who express their aggression psychologically (constant criticism etc) rather than physically (assault).
Where a person displays some of the above traits, bullying can start simply because the target is there, and does nothing at all to provoke it. Bullying may be unwittingly provoked because the target is competent, popular, successful, has integrity or otherwise characteristics that the bully perceives as a threat to their own status, fearing that the target will - inadvertently or deliberately - expose some negative aspect of their activity. Bullying is a common response to raising concerns about malpractice (eg fraud, health and safety breaches and bullying), sometimes called "whistle-blowing". Where a bully wants an employee dismissed, but there is no legally fair reason, a bully-tolerant employer will apply conduct and capability procedures, inappropriately and unfairly, to superficially justify the employee's elimination from the organisation and thus reduce the prospect of being sued for unfair dismissal. Used in that way, such procedures are themselves vehicles of bullying by the person(s) conducting them.
Bullying can cause injury to health and make people ill, with some or all of the symptoms below. Many, if not all of these symptoms are consequences of the high levels of stress and anxiety that bullying creates:
- shattered self-confidence, low self-worth, low self-esteem, loss of self-love, etc
- reactive depression, a feeling of woebegoneness, lethargy, hopelessness, anger, futility and more
- hypersensitivity, fragility, isolation, withdrawal
- obsession, not being able to stop thinking about the experience in all its detail
- hypervigilance (feels like but is not paranoia), being constantly on edge
- uncharacteristic irritability and angry outbursts
- tearfulness, bursting into tears regularly and over trivial things
- sweating, trembling, shaking, palpitations, panic attacks
- bad or intermittently-functioning memory, forgetfulness, especially with trivial day-to-day things
- poor concentration, can't concentrate on anything for long
- skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, athlete's foot, ulcers, shingles, urticaria
- irritable bowel syndrome
- flashbacks and replays, obsessiveness, can't get the bullying out of your mind
- tiredness, exhaustion, constant fatigue sleeplessness, nightmares, waking early, waking up more tired than when you went to bed
- headaches and migraines
- aches and pains in the joints and muscles with no obvious cause; also
- back pain with no obvious cause and which won't go away or respond to treatment
- frequent illness such as viral infections especially flu and glandular fever, colds, coughs, chest, ear, nose and throat infections (stress plays havoc with the immune system.)
For the full set of symptoms of injury to health caused by prolonged negative stress (such as that caused by bullying, harassment, abuse etc) click here. For details of the trauma that can result, click here.
Given the character traits of a typical workplace bully, they can give very plausible accounts of what has happened so, when the target makes a formal complaint, and if the employer takes any notice, they are often convinced by the bully, dismissing the target's account of things.
As mentioned above, if the bully is further up the hierarchy than the target, the bully's peers, HR & legal departments and other bystanders will often believe the bully by default, just because of the office they hold. (The actions they take next also constitute bullying).
For the target, the experience of being "swept under the carpet" in such circumstances can be equally or more traumatic than the original bullying, and where the employer is determined not to acknowledge the problem, it can lead to prolonged absence that ends with resignation, ill-health retirement or dismissal of the target on specious grounds of conduct or capability, as well as legal proceedings.
Where there have been previous similar complaints about a person's conduct, and where those complaints have been followed by illness and/or untimely departures of the persons making the complaint, one might imagine that any HR officer it would spot the similarities, think "enough is enough", and do something about it. However, the HR officer might be beguiled by or terrified of or dependent upon or be the bully, and find it easier to dispose of new complaints in the same way as before.
Where a business opts to protect a bully, the business takes on the task, costs and liabilities associated with resisting and eliminating the target, freeing the bully to focus attention on the next target.
This is a real-life text book example of a bully's response to accusations of bullying, when his game was almost up. In May 2013, former TV presenter Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to 14 charges of indecent assault involving 13 victims, over a period of 18 years. Four months earlier, however, Hall spoke to reporters after his initial appearance in court. Hall's words are in italics, with our understanding of what he meant in brackets:
- "May I just say these allegations are pernicious, callous, cruel and above all spurious.
- (TFF inference: "I project the key qualities of my sexual deviancy - perniciousness, callousness, cruelty and spuriousness - onto my victims' allegations.")
- "And may I just say I am not guilty and will be defending these accusations.
- ("I am prepared to waste taxpayers' resources and commit perjury")
- "Like a lot of other people in this country today I am wondering why it has taken 30 or 40 years for these allegations to surface.
- ("I want you to doubt the credibility of my victims")
- NOTE that Hall inadvertently gave a bit of the game away by using the word "surface", implying that he knew there was substance to the allegations and that it had thus far been hidden beneath the proverbial surface.
- "The last two months of my life have been a living nightmare. I have never gone through so much stress in my life and I am finding it difficult to sustain.
- ("Poor me. Please share the contempt I have for my victims, by focusing on the terrible harm they have done to me")
- "Fortunately I have a very loving family and they are very supportive and I think but for their love I might have been constrained to take my own life.
- ("I need you to associate me with the image of a loving family, which has also been harmed by my victims. Poor family, poor me. What a close shave I am having.")
- "They have encouraged me to fight on, to fight the charges and regain my reputation and good name and whatever I have represented to this country down the years.
- ("I have lied to everyone - those closest to me and the general public - for years. Even my family think I am innocent. Most people have always thought I was wonderful and I need that to continue. Who gives a damn about the children and young women I assaulted.")
- "With that I would like to thank everybody who has supported me for their good will which has sustained me through this absolutely horrific ordeal.
- ("In case I have not already made the point, my victims are audacious and horrible for coming forward. I genuinely hope that you feel sorry for me.")
- "As I say I shall be defending myself. I am 83 years old. I was a healthy 83 year old, but I am now incubating a heart complaint and I'll be very lucky to survive another couple of years.
- (In case you don't already feel sorry for me, feel sorry for me because I am frail and I've got a heart condition, and it's all my victims' fault. To help me get away with this, I need you to feel really, really sorry for me, and I need you and the general public to share the disdain and contempt I have for my victims.")
- "But I hope to survive those two years and regain my honour and reputation and more than ever, my life."
- ("My reputation and being untouchable are what let me get away with these crimes for so long. If I can just sustain those things I might reach the end of my life without being punished, like Jimmy Savile. To that end, I intend to continue fooling my family, my lawyers and the courts, you reporters and the whole world, into thinking that I must be innocent.")
Stuart Hall's comments to news reporters after his initial court appearance were just what you should expect a bully to say when they are being held to account. Their words are meant to make the listener feel sorry for the accused and contempt for the accuser. In Hall's case, they were intended to manipulate public opinion in his favour because, in his case, having a jovial reputation and the public on his side had been enough to deter his victims from reporting his crimes.
If you question an alleged bully, and the response is a "poor me" melodrama, punctuated with expressions of contempt and disdain for the accuser, it could well be an implicit admission of guilt.
You might think that the answer to this question should be obvious and it sometimes is, but there are people who are bullied for years without actually realising it. Many people come to recognise that they are being treated unfairly but not all can put the nature of the unfairness into words. When someone is first coming to terms with the possibility that they might be being bullied, they might wonder if they are to blame for their situation. A common feature of psychological bullying is to make the target feel useless, guilty and to blame for their predicament, when they are not. How can you tell whether you're a genuine target or a useless idiot who's to blame for everything?
To work out if you're being bullied, its a good idea to collect together information about your experience, including notes about the way it made you feel. As soon as you think you might be being bullied, start documenting the experience, recording who said or did what to whom, why and when. If you have not been doing that up to now, it's time to write down everything you can remember, using emails, messages, calendar entries and what have you, to build a time frame and supporting evidence.
Get a definition of bullying you can understand. We say that Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.
Consider how your experience fits with the definition. If there are many incidents, what happened? Could it be justified by a reasonable code of conduct? In other words, if you were accused of misconduct, do you think that your accuser had genuine grounds to believe that you had done whatever it was? Was there clear evidence that you were innocent? Was the evidence overlooked? If there was more than one incident, where each was tolerable in isolation, were they collectively more serious? How did the conduct affect you? Was it threatening, explicitly or implicitly? Did it, or could it, affect your reputation or your ability to perform? How did it make you feel, and so on.
Accusing someone of bullying is a serious matter that should not be done without very good reason. If your experience seems aligned with the descriptions on this website, it makes sense to spend some time checking your account and considering other possible explanations of what has happened. This can be difficult: If you're being being psychologically manipulated and feeling guilty about things that are not your fault, or if you're worried about the futility or danger of taking action against a known abuser, then you might jump to some other conclusion. On the other hand, even if you're initially sure that you're being treated unfairly, its important to take some time considering the possibility that you might be mistaken. If someone has treated you badly, have you made allowances for the way they behaved? Were they having an uncharacteristically bad day? Has this happened before? Is there a worrying pattern to their behaviour?
Many who are bullied at work eventually find themselves forced to take part in disciplinary or performance management procedures that are being used as a means to control, subjugate or humiliate them, or to terminate their employment. Having said that, disciplinary and performance management procedures are the legitimate means for employers to encourage improvements or, in some cases, to dismiss employees whose conduct or performance is below the required standard. If you're being "disciplined" or "performance managed", here are some signs to help you understand whether the procedure is being used legitimately or not:
People who work for properly run organisations who find themselves undergoing such procedures, typically:-
- Know from the beginning of the procedure that their performance or conduct is under investigation;
- Are aware of something they have done or failed to do or, if not, can readily understand why the employer might believe that they have done or failed to do something to warrant invoking the procedure;
- Are provided with copies of the relevant procedure at the outset, advised of their rights within the procedure, and given adequate opportunities to prepare and present their case;
- Are treated with civility throughout;
- Are listened to and questioned where the point of the questioning is to better understand their case;
- Are afforded their rights under the procedure, including the right to appeal to an independent person within the organisation;
- Are not given any reasons to think that the procedure is designed to “stitch them up”;
- Understand the logic of the employer’s decisions, even if the outcome is not in the employee’s favour.
Conversely, people who work for bully-tolerant organisations who find themselves undergoing such procedures, often:-
- Do not know that their performance or conduct is under investigation until they are told it has been, perhaps for some time;
- Are unaware of anything they have done or failed to do and cannot believe that the employer genuinely thinks they have done anything to warrant invoking the procedure. (The charges or allegations may be obviously contrived or trumped up, but with a grain of truth to create a hint of superficial plausibility.)
- Are suspended without a good business reason;
- Are not told about the relevant procedure at the outset, with minimal information given about rights and the importance of preparing their case;
- Are treated like an adversary from the outset, rather than an asset.
- Feel that they have been ignored when presenting their case, and subsequently discover that any evidence that contradicted the employer’s case was overlooked, without any reason being given.
- Are afforded their basic legal minimum rights under the procedure.
- The outcome is a decision which constrains, warns, demotes or dismisses them, leaving them feeling bewildered and stitched up, and sure that the procedure was a sham whose outcome must have been premeditated before the procedure began.
It's fair to say that isolated or one-off indiscretions that don't have a lasting effect are not "bullying", and neither are reasonable responses to actual or perceived misconduct. However, where someone's bad behaviour is focused on you, repeatedly or even persistently and is threatening, undermining, humiliating etc you, or where an employer is using conduct or performance management procedures without good reason, then it may well be bullying.
People who are bullied find that they are:
- isolated and excluded from what's happening;
- denied information or knowledge necessary for undertaking work and achieving objectives
- starved of resources, sometimes whilst others often receive more than they need
- denied support by their manager and thus find themselves working in a management vacuum
- either overloaded with work (this keeps people busy [with no time to tackle bullying] and makes it harder to achieve targets) or have all their work taken away (which is sometimes replaced with inappropriate menial jobs, eg photocopying, filing, making coffee)
- have their responsibility increased but their authority removed
- overruled, ignored, sidelined, marginalised, ostracised
- given "the silent treatment": the bully refuses to communicate and avoids eye contact (always an indicator of an abusive relationship); often instructions are received only via email, memos, or a succession of yellow stickies or post-it notes
- Controlled and Subjugated
- do not have a clear job description, or have one that is exceedingly long;
- set unrealistic goals and deadlines which are unachievable or which are changed without notice or reason or whenever they get near achieving them
- frequently or constantly criticised and subjected to unwarranted, destructive criticism;
- encouraged to feel guilty, and to believe they're always the one at fault
- when they defend themselves, their explanations and proof of achievements are ridiculed, overruled, dismissed or ignored;
- frequently subject to nit-picking and trivial fault-finding. The triviality reveals an absence of any serious concern
- subject to excessive monitoring, supervision, micro-management, recording, snooping etc
- undermined, especially in front of others. Concerns are raised, or doubts expressed about a person's performance or standard of work, but the concerns lack substance and cannot be quantified, or are simply false;
- threatened, shouted at and humiliated, especially in front of others
- taunted and teased where the intention is to embarrass and humiliate
- singled out and treated differently, e.g. being disciplined for arriving one minute late, when others stroll in late without penalty;
- belittled, degraded, demeaned, ridiculed, patronised, subject to disparaging remarks
- regularly the target of offensive language, personal remarks, or inappropriate bad language
- have their work plagiarised, stolen and copied - the bully then presents their target's work (eg to senior management) as their own
- the subject of written complaints by other members of staff (who have been coerced into fabricating allegations - the complaints are trivial, often bizarre ["He looked at me in a funny way"] and often bear striking similarity to each other, suggesting a common origin)
- forced to work long hours, often without remuneration and under threat of dismissal
- refused requests for leave, or unacceptable and unnecessary conditions are attached
- denied annual leave, sickness leave, or - especially - compassionate leave
- when on leave, are harassed by calls at home or on holiday, often at unsocial hours
- receive unpleasant or threatening calls or are harassed with intimidating memos, notes or emails with no verbal communication, immediately prior to weekends and holidays (eg 4pm Friday or Christmas Eve - often these are hand-delivered)
- are invited to "informal" meetings which turn out to be disciplinary hearings
- facing unjustified disciplinary action on trivial or specious or false charges
- subjected to unwarranted and unjustified verbal or written warnings
- are denied representation at meetings, often under threat of further disciplinary action; sometimes the bully abuses their position of power to exclude any representative who is competent to deal with bullying
- dismissed on fabricated charges or flimsy excuses, often using a trivial incident from months or years previously
- coerced into reluctant resignation, enforced redundancy, early or ill-health retirement
- denied the right to earn their livelihood including being prevented from getting another job, usually with a bad or misleading reference
If you're reading this because you think someone you know is being treated this way, send them a link to the page or print it and give it to them - it might be the best thing you ever do for them. If you're reading this because you're worried about the way you are being treated by someone, Read more of this website to find out what courses of action are open to you.
- Put your health before anything else
- However strong your personality, no one is immune from mental health problems. Unexpressed anger and fear can lead to depression in "normal" people. If you're reading this in time, take evasive action before it gets that bad.
- Be aware of and monitor your stress levels. Try not to allow your stress to get so serious that you become bogged down with it, mindful that it is difficult to recognise the extent of the problem yourself. Ask family, friends and doctor to help as appropriate
- Avoid having one-to-one meetings with the bully if you have already complained about the bullying
- Document everything
- Maintain contemporaneous notes of what you said and did, and what others said and did
- Keep memos, emails and other documents that are evidential of bullying
- Especially if you get bullied in private, consider using a pocket voice recorder (smartphone) to obtain a verbatim transcript.
- Think and operate strategically
- Remember there are things in life you can control, things you can influence, and things you cannot do anything about. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is you. Attempting to persuade your employer to act responsibly can be pointless and thus painful, but it is in your interests to try not to fret about it if it does not work. Focus your attention on what you can do and are doing.
- There is a risk that any mistakes you make as a result of being bullied, any sickness absence, and any illness will be used by a bully to discredit you. Most of what a bully throws at you is designed to provoke a response that can be used against you.
- Understand this and avoid responding directly to such provocations;
- Always act reasonably and in doing so, a contrast will emerge between your behaviour and the bully's;
- Accept that this probably is not enough to make it stop;
- Remember that there is more to you than your job, and try not to take it too seriously;
- Remember that once you decide to resist the bullying, you may be in for the "long haul";
- Seek but do not depend on support from other managers or trade union.
- If they give tell-tale signs that they do not believe you or do not support you, do not keep hoping that they will support you.
- Seek independent support from neutral third parties.
- Get some help, but think about the interests and personal agendas of the people you hope to trust;
- Consider who is or might be facilitating the bullying, and avoid confiding in them.
- Equip yourself with your employer's policies and procedures, and make sure that YOU follow them, and encourage others to do the same;
- Be 100% fair and reasonable, even when standing your ground;
- Always maintain your dignity and be polite, even in the face of rudeness;
- If you can, have a trusted companion with you as a witness in any meeting to discuss bullying. If you don't have a companion you can trust, make sure you have an audio recorder;
- Remember that everything you write, say and do might one day be discussed in a court or tribunal, so make sure your actions are beyond reproach and justifiable. Don't do or say anything that you would not wish to repeat in public;
Notes of formal and semi formal meetings often contain omissions or note-takers' conflicting perceptions of what was said, leading to disputes over the accuracy of the minutes. Eliminate the possibility of such disputes by making audio recordings of meetings about the bullying, even if there is a note taker present. You do not need permission to make accurate notes, and it is very telling when someone who hopes to create a record of the meeting they want, rather than the meeting they had, objects to you making an audio recording. If there are objections, record the meeting one way or another.
Keep any recordings and notes strictly confidential and use them only for legitimate purposes. A covert recording of a confidential meeting could be perceived by an employer as a breach of trust, leading to disciplinary action A court or tribunal might only consider covert recording as legitimate conduct where the recording discloses a more significant breach of trust by someone else.
- If you have tried the above and it is not working out, seriously consider changing jobs.
- Even though it is unfair that you should have to leave, it is better to do so on your terms, when you choose, with your mental health, disciplinary record and sickness absence record intact, than to stick it out, battling an insuperable force, and being dismissed on some specious misconduct charge after exhausting your entitlement to paid sick leave, suffering from depression.
- If you are considering leaving, consider your legal options as well - you may have recourse through the legal system but remember to put your health and wellbeing before any other consideration.
- Do not ignore it
- It is possible for a complaint to be faked, or for a complainant to be mistaken. It is also possible that they may be right. Therefore, do not presume anything and do not make decisions based on rumours.
- Be aware of the modus operandi of bullies and their special talents for flattery and for acquiring a following.
- In a dispute over bullying, the bully is likely to be the one with the most witnesses until enough people decide that it is safe to speak out.
- Do not try to understand what drives the bully's behaviour. Concentrate on their actions rather than psychological causes.
- Get support. Use HR professionals and occupational psychologists. Use external specialists if your environment might restrict the freedom of an internal partner to objectively assess the situation
- Be prepared to dismiss an employee that bullies others. The more influence they have over your results, the more they should behave well. If you tolerate bad behaviour among people who drive your bottom line, you will give the message "We want the results and we don't care what you do to achieve them". This is the worst message you could give when you remember that bullying at work destroys teams, collaboration and willingness to contribute; it increases staff turnover and puts your business at risk of lawsuits, as well as indicating a high potential for fraud and corruption.
- Leave no doubt in your employees' minds that it is always safe to speak out.
- The fact of the complaint discloses something serious, so aim to get to the bottom of it as promptly as possible
- Listen very carefully to the complainant
- Establish whether the incidents complained of actually occurred
- If you do not believe the complainant, get some help from an expert
- Put your employees' health before anything else
- Think about the interests and agendas of the people who give you evidence
- Follow policies and procedures
- Be 100% fair and reasonable
- If bullying is occurring, do not make excuses for it - it will happen again and be worse next time.