"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.
Perhaps the most easily recognisable character traits of a Serial Bully are:
- Jekyll and Hyde nature - Dr Jekyll is "charming" and "charismatic"; "Hyde" is "evil";
- Convincing liar - Makes up anything to fit his needs at that moment, and gets believed;
- Treats some people in a way that causes them unprecedented levels of stress, frustration and fear;
- Damages the health and reputations of organisations and individuals;
- Reacts to criticism with denial, retaliation and by feigning victimhood and blaming victims;
- Apparently immune from disciplinary action;
- Moves to a new target when the present one burns out or leaves.
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:
- having an uncharacteristic drop in performance without any logical explanation
- complaining of bullying or similar by a particular person, or by that person's subordinates;
- claiming to be suffering from "burnout", "stress", "stress breakdown", "depression" or similar;
- going on long term sick leave because of stress or some debilitating psychological problem, and never returning to work;
- having a grievance about poor treatment that takes months or even years to close down;
- unexpectedly taking early or ill-health retirement;
- being fired for reasons that were very old or trivial or out-of-character;
- in any case leaving in unsatisfactory circumstances, with the true reason hidden behind a compromise agreement with a confidentiality clause;
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:
- left unexpectedly or in suspicious circumstances;
- have gone on long term sick leave with some sort of psychological problem, and never returned;
- taken unexpected early or ill-health retirement,
- have been involved in a grievance or disciplinary or legal action;
- have had stress breakdowns;
- been over-zealously disciplined for some trivial or non-existent reason.
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
In a work context, people who trust, rely on and confide in each other have needs, e.g.
- to have some work done, service rendered or commodity supplied (especially in the case of a client or employer);
- to be trusted and respected;
- to be helped, supported and developed;
- to develop and preserve a good reputation;
- to be able to earn a regular income
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.
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:
- abusive and violent partners and family members
- abusers of people in care
- bullying neighbours, landlords, authorities, etc
- confidence tricksters and swindlers
- (religious) cult leaders
- child bullies who are impervious to corrective action
- racial and sexual harassers
- sexual abusers and paedophiles, especially operating from a position of trust or untouchability;
- violent offenders including serial killers
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.
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:
- negligence, incompetence, dereliction of duty;
- breaches of rules & regulations, codes of conduct etc;
- chronic failure to fulfill obligations;
- maladministration, misappropriation of budgets, financial irregularities;
- discriminating against others because of their comptence, popularity, status, achievements or any personal characteristic;
- blaming others for their own mistakes, and taking credit for others' work.
- using employer's resources to run their own business on the side;
- moonlighting for employer's clients or competitors;
- leaking confidential information to people who should not be in possession of that information;
- nepotism: awarding contracts or jobs to family and friends;
- demanding unreasonable price cuts by suppliers; refusing to pay suppliers according to agreed contractual terms;
- impropriety and corruption, e.g. offering or accepting bribes;
- fiddling expenses, falsifying time sheets;
- petty pilfering - e.g. filling a petrol can for a private car when topping up the company car and paying with the company's fuel card;
- stealing, diverting, skimming, or "losing" clients' money and investments; embezzlement;
- claiming fraudulent qualifications and misleading or bogus claims of professional affiliation;
- duplicity: e.g. claiming to be concerned about someone or something, but privately regarding the same with contempt;
- fraudulent misrepresentation - e.g. making false claims to gain income or respect;
- conspiracy - e.g. spreading rumours or actively colluding with others to create an alternative reality, where bad looks good and vice versa;
- falsifying witness statements and documents for use in legal proceedings;
- turning a blind eye to malpractice by friends and associates;
- blaming others - concocting false allegations (of anything or everything in this list) and disciplinary charges to justify elimination of innocent employees;
- deliberate victimisation of people who express disapproval or "blow the whistle";
- feigning victimhood and bringing inappropriate legal action if held to account;
(Business stakeholders take note.)
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:
- This is so trivial it's not worth talking about, and I'm not going to discuss it;
- It is my job to manage you. No-one else has complained;
- I don't know why you're so intent on dwelling on the past. You don't drive looking in the rear-view mirror do you?;
- Look, what's past is past, I'll overlook the very serious accusations you've made and we'll start afresh.
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.
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:
- Are you sure this is really going on?;
- That isn't possible!
- She isn't a "bully"!;
- I find it hard to believe - are you sure you're not imagining it?;
- It is obviously very real to you, but we all have different perceptions of reality;
- It is "just your perception".
- I can find no evidence at all to corroborate your allegations;
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:-
- Say they have discovered misconduct, which could be very serious or very trivial;
- There may be multiple allegations;
- The allegation(s) may be very non-specific, so the target does not know what they are being accused of and so cannot prepare a defence;
- The alleged misconduct may be old or very old;
- There might be a grain of truth in the allegation(s). The root of the allegation will not be evidence that there has been misconduct (e.g. a broken window) but evidence that misconduct was a possibility (e.g. the target might once have held a stone or similar object with which he could have broken a window);
- There will be no substantive evidence to support the assertion that any specified misconduct has been or was ever likely to be committed;
- Whatever the allegation, however futile it may seem, the bully/employer will say they are treating it very seriously - because they are. They need to show they have discovered serious misconduct and are following their procedures in order to dismiss the target;
- Although it will be obvious that the allegation is in retaliation, it will most likely be superficially unconnected and the discovery of the supposed misconduct will purport to have been purely accidental.
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.
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:
- I'm the one being bullied here;
- I am deeply offended;
- If it wasn't for me, you (would not be so fortunate/wouldn't have your job/wouldn't have been promoted etc);
- You don't know how hard it is for me;
- I'm the one whose under stress;
- You think you're having a hard time...;
- After all I / we have done for you...;
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.
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 bullyonline.org 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 bullyonline.org 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.
- Allegations of financial or sexual impropriety may indicate that the bully has committed these acts;
- Bullies who steal will accuse others of stealing;
- Allegations of poor performance may relate to poor results which, in all likelihood, are the consequence of the bully's poor performance at managing the target's work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- People have described serial bullies as "charming", and through this "charm", they can convince managers, employers, investigators and courts that they are wonderful people. When peers, superiors or others are present, they seem plausible and convincing. Of course, they are not charming to the people they victimise.
- Some serial bullies may appear superficially competent and professional at their job. Much of their plausibility, normal appearance and apparently dynamic character is the result of mimicry, repetition and regurgitation. They extol the virtues of the latest management fads and use jargon to demonstrate that their way of doing things is en vogue.
- Charismatic, charming serial bullies are capable of anticipating what people want to hear, and then saying it. By applying this skill, they convince others to follow and support them. They portray themselves and are talked about by their disciples as clever, successful, important, wonderful, kind, caring and compassionate people.
- Although they usually have little concept of empathy, they can use charm and mimicry to compensate. However, their attempts at empathy are superficial, amateur, often inappropriately timed or over the top. Rather than being motivated by genuine concern, such attempts are to make the bully look good in front of witnesses.
- Some serial bullies form or join lots of committees. This impresses followers and casual observers by making the bully look busy and important, and it allows them to pass the hours without being required to contribute much if any work.
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.
- A bully might be mean and offhand to the target one day, but disarmingly generous the next. This is a means of psychological control achieved by balancing the target's anger, fear, trust and respect of the bully.
- They can respond to requests for help either with impatience and aggression (if no-one is looking), or with a fulsome and effusive attempt at empathy (if witnesses are present).
- Bullies cannot be trusted with money. Even if they are selectively generous, their net aim is always to take, and never to give;
- They are incapable of reciprocity, ie unable and unwilling to reciprocate any positive gesture.
- They can be insensitive, often callously indifferent to the needs of others, especially when others are in some difficulty.
- Bullies are by default ungrateful people and rarely (if ever) say "thank you" or "well done", except for show, as a means of control.
Arrogance is having, or displaying, a sense of overbearing self-worth or self-importance.
- Serial bullies are frequently self-opinionated and display arrogance, audacity, a superior sense of entitlement, and appear to have a sense of invulnerability and untouchability. They take risks that others would regard as foolhardy.
- They can have an unhealthy need to feel recognised and wanted, which draws them to positions of power, which they then go on to abuse.
- Serial bullies holding positions that require leadership qualities appear convinced of their superiority and have an overbearing belief in their qualities of leadership. In simple terms, they are often haughty, high-handed “know-it-alls” who are not ashamed to tell others how good they are.
- They often act out of gratification and self-interest only, often using and hiding behind the employer;
- As leaders they are autocratic and dictatorial. Most of their actions, most of the time, are dictated by self-interest, self-aggrandisement and self-preservation.
- Extrovert bullies tend to be shouters and screamers, are highly visible, and bully from the front.
- Serial Bullies sometimes display a seemingly limitless energy, especially when engaged in attention-seeking activities or evading accountability.
Bullies look out for and exploit others' vulnerabilities for personal gain or gratification. Other people are seen as objects to be exploited. Also:-
- Serial Bullies often hold deep prejudices relating to others' gender, sexual orientation, culture, religious beliefs, race, and other personal characterisitics, but where they know it is unlawful to exhibit such prejudices, they strive to keep them under wraps. This prejudice can extend to a hatred of sectors of society, e.g. ethnic minorities, disabled people, etc, or to departments in their organisation, or of professions that are aware of and doing something about bullying, such as the police, psychologists, psychiatrists, charities, social workers, counsellors, therapists etc.
- Bullies that are in a job that they cannot do will resent anyone who makes demands on them, and that can include clients, suppliers, superiors and subordinates. They attempt to conceal their resentment but every so often they will make a gaff that reveals disdain or contempt for their colleagues. The frustration arising from general self-restraint may be a reason for venting open aggression on one target at a time.
- When called upon to share or address the needs and concerns of others, they respond with impatience, irritability and aggression.
- Serial bullies detest anyone more competent or popular than themselves. They are unable (or refuse) to praise or value others' achievements, often being scornful, and sometimes refuse to acknowledge other's existence. Their compulsive need to criticise anyone or anything extends to finding fault with the things other people have done right.
- When in a position of power, Serial Bullies appear to gain gratification from denying people what they are entitled to. They are unwilling to conform to societal norms, thinking that rules, regulations, procedures and laws don't apply to them, but reprimand others for perceived failures to comply.
- They see others as a threat; the threat seems to comprise a fear of exposure of inadequacy, and often borders on paranoia;
- They despise anyone who can see through their deception and their mask of normality;
- Bullies are unforgiving and often seize on and exploit others' mistakes or perceived mistakes. If crossed or unwittingly criticised, bullies can hold grudges for long periods and act on them later, eg by denying their transgressor a promotion or by picking them for redundancy - sometimes years later.
- When addressing perceived shortcomings in others, bullies use criticism and humiliation. This approach limits people by controlling and subjugating them, but it does not bring about any performance enhancement.
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:
- using intimidation and criticism to make targets feel isolated and hopeless;
- using gossip, back-stabbing and falsehood to undermine and discredit targets and others;
- plagiarising and taking credit for others' work, denial, retaliation and feigned victimhood to make the bully look good.
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:-
- being a divisive and disruptive influence so that their department becomes dysfunctional and inefficient, and then "reorganising" it. In the chaos, no-one knows what is going on and relies on the bully for information.
- provoking a target into giving an emotional or irrational response, and then seizing on it as evidence of the target's impropriety.
- being unpredictably and disarmingly pleasant, especially if being unmasked in front of witnesses - this plays on people's sympathies and exploits people's guilt;
- introvert bullies - the most dangerous types - tend to sit in the background and recruit others to do the bullying for them.
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.
- They often miss the semantic meaning of language, misinterpret what is said, sometimes wrongly thinking that comments of a satirical, ironic or general negative nature apply to him or herself.
- Some have poor language skills, and use almost exclusively negative language with few or no positive words, limited to parroting fad phrases and regurgitating the latest management jargon.
- They are often humourless and emotionally flat, and attempts at humour are often shallow and superficial.
- Their writing style may be disjointed, lacking flow and consistency, tending to be filled with contradictory statements.
- Others have well developed language skills and can talk almost incessantly, especially about themselves and when boasting about their achievements.
- They seem unaware that listeners do not all appreciate lies, ridiculous propositions, tasteless comments, malicious gossip and sick jokes that come out in the process.
- Their attempts at humour frequently rely on sarcasm, especially in contexts where sarcasm is inappropriate and unprofessional.
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.
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.
- Some show a lack of joined-up thinking, with conversations that don't flow and arguments that don't hold water.
- They often flit from topic to topic so you come away feeling you've never had a proper conversation.
- Some have been described as being like a real life "Walter Mitty" (an ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs);
- Some do a good job of appearing intelligent, but in spite of appearances, they may often perform poorly in academic or professional roles.
- Prolonged exposure to a serial bully may leave observer thinking that they are glib, shallow and superficial with plenty of fine words and lots of form, but no substance.
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:-
- They are often unable to sustain a mature adult conversation, although given the charm and plausibility, you might only realise this in retrospect.
- The bully may be unable to maintain confidentiality, but breaches it with misrepresentation, distortion and fabrication;
- He may be uncommunicative and uncooperative, and is evasive when asked for information (eg by subordinates).
- Work bullies may avoid face-to-face contact with their target and rely excessively or exclusively on memos, emails, text messages, yellow sticky notes, third parties and other strategies to communicate.
- Mistakes are a chance to learn. Rather than learning how to avoid future mistakes, serial bullies use them to learn how be better evade accountability next time round.
- Bullies can rarely distinguish between leadership (maturity, decisiveness, assertiveness, co-operation, trust, integrity) and bullying (immaturity, impulsiveness, aggression, manipulation, distrust, deceitfulness). Many described their bully as smooth, slippery, slimy, ingratiating, fawning, toadying, obsequious, sycophantic.
- Bully's appear to have a short, selective memory and often cannot or will not remember what they said, did, or committed to more than 24 hours ago - but is always able to remember others' faults, often from years ago.
- They are emotionally untrustworthy.
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.
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.
- When something goes wrong, the bully will instinctively blame someone else before accepting responsibility.
- Bullies will take (or persuade others to take) decisions that are extremely damaging to other people, without the slightest concern for the effects of the damage on the person affected.
- Serial bullies know that leaders are supposed to be assertive, and they believe they are. However, assertiveness is the ability to express emotions and needs without violating others' rights and without being aggressive. Bullies are aggressive, and their actions are aimed at causing harm, without any care for the pain and damage they cause in the process.
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.
- Serial bullies cannot be trusted or relied upon to fulfil promises.
- They may be inept or incompetent in the role they are employed to perform.
- Their judgment is often inconsistent and not according to any principle, evident from the bully overruling, ignoring or denying what he or she has said previously.
- Bullies find it difficult to trust others, which partly explains why they want to monitor others excessively. This may be a projection of their own untrustworthiness.
- Background checks may reveal that their qualifications, experience, titles, entitlements or affiliations are ambiguous, misleading or false.
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:
- The bully's behaviour is markedly different depending on who's watching: he or she is innocent and charming in front of witnesses but selectively vile, vicious and vindictive in private;
- He may claim to be acting out of concern, but be stitching up the person he claims to be concerned about;
- She may be superficially cooperative but is in fact motivated by retribution
- Thanking or congratulating someone when thanks or congratulations aren't due - to gain trust or respect
- The behaviours under the heading Denial, Retaliation and Feigned Victimhood are all duplicitous, e.g. distorting, twisting and fabricating criticisms and allegations to justify implementing a disciplinary procedure;
- No-one can (or wants to) believe the bully has a vindictive nature - only the target of the bully's aggression sees both sides;
Hypocrisy is the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold. A hypocritical bully may:
- say one thing one day and deny it the next;
- crticise someone for doing something, and then do it themselves;
- loudly profess some religious belief or affiliation, but have none of the requisite qualities of a believer or affiliate;
- selectively value tasks:
- When the bully does a certain job, it's onerous, difficult and the bully needs lots of recognition;
- When the target does the same job it's trivial, of little or no value, not worth mentioning
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:
- ...whatever other terms more appropriately suit the bully.
Projection can occur at any time but especially when the bully is fighting off a grievance about their own conduct.
- Superficially intelligent bullies have an exceptional verbal facility and can outmanoeuvre most people in verbal interaction, especially at times of conflict;
- Those with average or below average verbal skills will still attempt to get out of trouble by lying or deliberately missing the point.
- They often refuse to be specific and never give a straight answer;
- Some will evade accountability for anything they say or do.
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:-
- creating conflict between those who would otherwise collate incriminating information about them;
- denial, retaliation and feigning victimhood if held to account;
- being devious, spiteful and vengeful especially when under pressure - even the seemingly innocuous "How are you today?" translates to "Is there any comeback on me as to how you're feeling today?"
- undermining and destroying anyone who they perceive as an adversary, a potential threat, or who can see through their mask, by:
- quickly discrediting and neutralising them;
- pursuing a vindictive vendetta if necessary, using the employer's resources, without a care for the cost, damage and liabilities that arise along the way.
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 http://www.hare.org/
The B-Scan 360 - identifying dysfunctional behaviour in managers and potential managers: http://www.b-scan.com/
Treatment for psychopaths is likely to make them worse by Robert Hercz. http://www.hare.org/links/saturday.html
Tribal Elders has links to sites on narcissism and psychopathy http://narcissismnotebook1.tripod.com/
How to know when your love is a con. http://www.lovefraud.com/
Discussion forum on psychopaths http://www.psychopath-research.com/
Antisocial Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisocial_personality_disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder
Paranoid Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paranoid_personality_disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borderline_personality_disorder
Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive%E2%80%93aggressive_behavior
Delusional Disorder http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/292991-overview
Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive%E2%80%93aggressive_behavior
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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2001/mar/10/jobsadvice.careers
Snakes in suits and how to spot them, an article on psychopaths in corporations in The Times. http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/living/Wellbeing/article625473.ece
Serotonin and dopamine levels may be important in psychopathic behaviour. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3007342.stm
Daily Mail article Is that a psycho sitting next to you at work? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-314647/Are-sitting-office-psycho.html
Is your boss a psychopath? Probably, if we are to believe the results of a new scientific study, says the Guardian's Oliver James. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2005/apr/18/medicineandhealth#article_continue
Spot the psychopath near you - Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/02/26/3696402.htm
University of Southern California study: Liar's brains are not the same: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4293520.stm
Straight Talk About Criminals: Understanding and Treating Antisocial Individuals, E Samenow http://www.amazon.co.uk/Straight-Talk-about-Criminals-Understanding/dp/1568218753
Without conscience, the disturbing world of psychopaths among us, Robert D Hare, And many more by the same author http://www.hare.org
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; http://www.amazon.com/Toxic-Coworkers-Deal-Dysfunctional-People/dp/1572242191