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Half the population are bullied by a serial bully ... most only recognize it when they read this

Half the population are bullied ...
most people only realise it when they read this page

What Is Bullying?

Updated by Tim Field Foundation

"...A major barrier to organizational efficiency and productivity and a major cost to organizations and to economies as a whole." - Clive R Boddy

Definition of bullying:

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 surveyLyn 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

What's the difference between bullying, harassment and assault?

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.

Where are people bullied?

This is not an exhaustive list and does not include activities readily identifiable as criminal.

What is Workplace Bullying?

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:

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.


Control and Subjugation


One way to conceal bullying is to have regular or even continuous "reorganisations", where:-

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

How does it happen in a civilised environment?

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.

Who is behind workplace bullying?

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:




Jekyll & Hyde nature

Ruthless and unpleasant

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).

(More information on the Serial Bully)

What triggers bullying?

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.

What does bullying do to health?

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:

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.

What happens when someone complains about bullying?

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.

What a bully might say when held to account

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.

Am I Being Bullied?

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:-

Conversely, people who work for bully-tolerant organisations who find themselves undergoing such procedures, often:-

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:

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.

What can I do if I'm being bullied?

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.

What can you do if one of your employees is accused of bullying?

 "More information on identifying and overcoming bullying and its effects on health is in Tim Field's book Bully in sight: how to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying"

Bullyonline is a project of the Tim Field Foundation and is funded in part by sales of books

Welcome to Bully OnLine, web site of the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line where Tim Field shares his unique insight into bullying and its effects on health and profits. Explore the site by clicking the coloured text or mauve buttons at the bottom of each page. If you have question, see the frequently asked questions page.

Where now at Bully OnLine?
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about bullying
Overcoming myths, misperceptions and stereotypes
The answer to Why don't you stand up for yourself?
Bullying and vulnerability
Why have my colleagues deserted me?
What's the difference between bullying and mobbing?
What is harassment and discrimination?
Why grievance procedures are inappropriate for dealing with bullying
The difference between bullying and management
Facts, figures, surveys, costs of bullying | Cost of bullying to UK plc
UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line statistics
Profile of the serial bully - who does this describe in your life?
Information for nurses | Information for voluntary sector employees
Information for teachers being bullied
Bullying of lecturers in further education
Bullying of lecturers in higher education
Bullying in the social services sector
Bullying in the public sector - the political dimension and
why trade unions fail to support their members

Bullying in the military | Bullying of students
Scheduled training and conferences on bullying | Other events about bullying
Articles on bullying available online
Bullying on TV, radio and in print media
Requests to take part in surveys etc | Bullying issues needing research
Tim Field's quotes on bullying | Vision for bullying
Feedback about Bully OnLine | Survivor testimonies
The Secret Tragedy of Working: Work Abuse - PTSD Chauncey Hare
Bullying resources in: Australia | Canada | Finland | France | Germany | Ireland | Sweden | USA

Bully OnLine: Site map | Site index | Site search
Home pages
Bullying at work (this page) | School bullying | Family bullying
Bullying news | Bullying case histories
Press releases and media centre
Action to tackle bullying | Bullying resources
Stress, PTSD and psychiatric injury | Related issues
Related web pages
The Tim Field Foundation
Bully OnLine Home Page
Books on bullying and psychiatric injury