Action You Can Take

As an individual, what can I do to tackle bullying at work?

Workplace bullying often takes place behind closed doors with no witnesses and no obvious evidence. Bullies will lie to save their skins and can be convincing, and will not hesitate to make their victims look and feel like fools if they complain about being bullied. (That's bullying too). Bullies have to be clever to get away with it, but you can be clever too. Here are some ways to deal with bullying at work:

Step 1: Regain Control

  • Whatever you do, always act reasonably.This is not appeasement and giving in, but making logical judgments based on information you know or can logically deduce, politely and fairly.
  • Recognise what is happening to you. If it's bullying - see Am I Being Bullied - then recognise it and deal with it as bullying.
    • Criticisms and allegations you think are unwarranted may be a projection of what the bully perceives as his or her own shortcomings.
      • "Projection" is a way that people deny and externalise problems they have which they would rather not face up to, and it involves attributing those problems to other people. If the bully knows that they e.g. have a dreadful telephone manner, or they're always making mistakes, or they don't really know what their job is, then people in their vicinity may hear them accusing others of having a dreadful telephone manner, always making mistakes and of not knowing what their job is. In this case there is some merit in the hypothesis that every unwarranted criticism or allegation that the bully makes against a target is an implicit, inadvertent confession by the bully of his or her own shortcomings, weaknesses, failures, incompetence, misdeeds and so on.
    • You might have been told that you're being "managed", "mentored", "developed" or "investigated", because these are unusual but ostensibly legitimate business activities with which you're supposed to cooperate. If you're being "bullied", it is not legitimate and there is no ultimate benefit to you in cooperating. Some people will go to significant efforts to superficially justify using inappropriate management procedures, and you need to remain objective and carefully assess the situation just to be sure of what is happening.
    • You may be encouraged to feel shame, embarrassment, guilt and fear - this is a normal reaction, but misplaced and inappropriate. Guilt and fear are well-known as tactics of control. This is how all abusers, including child sex abusers, control and silence their victims.
      • The only way to free yourself from the fear of losing your job is to remember that it is transient anyway, that you have the power to give it up and get a better one whenever you like, and that you will do so if and when necessary. By thinking this way, you stop seeing your job as a possession that the bully can destroy, and start seeing that it is the only means bully has to control you.
  • Remember you are not alone - surveys (by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, TUC, UMIST, Staffordshire University Business School etc) suggest this is happening to between 3 and 14 million employees in the UK, and from extensive feedback, pro rata in other countries. See case histories for the similarities between your case and those of others.
  • You may be wondering Why me? Click here for the answer.
  • You cannot handle bullying by yourself - bullies use deception, amoral behaviour and abuse of power. Get help. There is no shame or failure in this - the bully is devious, deceptive, evasive and manipulative - and cheats. Often, the bully is behaving in the manner of a sociopath or other disordered personality. If you are dealing with a sociopath - I estimate one person in thirty is a serial bully with sociopathic traits - remember that naivety is the greatest enemy. You must see the disordered personality behind the mask and realise that the serial bully has a completely different mindset, often one that will never change - except to improve their skills of manipulation, deception and evasion of accountability.

Step 2: Plan for Action

Step 3: Take Action

Collect Evidence

  • Keep a log (journal, diary) of everything - it's not each incident that counts, it's the number, regularity and especially the patterns that reveal bullying. With most forms of mystery, deception, etc it's the patterns that are important. The bully can explain individual incidents but cannot explain away the pattern. It's the pattern which reveals intent.
  • Keep your diary in a safe place, not at work where others can and will steal it; keep it at home, and keep photocopies of important documents in a separate location (not at work); in several cases the bully has rifled the desk drawers of their target, stolen the diary and then used it as "evidence" of misconduct.
  • Keep copies of all letters, memos, emails, etc. Get and keep everything in writing otherwise the bully will deny everything later.
  • Carry a notepad and pen with you and record everything that the bully says and does. Also make a note of every interaction with personnel, management, and anyone else connected with the bullying. Expect to be accused of "misconduct" and "unprofessional behaviour" and a few other things when you do this.
  • Record everything in writing; when criticisms or allegations are made, write and ask the bully to substantiate their criticisms and allegations in writing by providing substantive and quantifiable evidence. When the bully doesn't reply or fails to supply substantive and quantifiable evidence, write again pointing out you've asked for justification and the bully has chosen not to reply or has failed to justify their claim. On the third occasion point out, in writing, that making allegations and refusing to substantiate them in writing or failing to provide substantive and quantifiable evidence is a form of harassment. The bully's criticisms and allegations, which are usually founded on distortion, blame and fabrication, are an opinion or fabrication for the purpose of control.
  • Obtain as much written information about yourself from your workplace as you can lay your hands on. In the UK you can use the Data Protection Act to obtain details and copies of records held on them. There's a statutory fee of £10. If the company fails to respond within 40 days you can report them to the Data Protection Registrar. Be as specific as possible in your request including names of everyone who is likely to have written about you, dates, places, subjects. Ask for copies of documents and emails. If anything is missing, write and ask for it explicitly - the employer's action and this letter also becomes evidence in your legal case. These two pages tell you how to apply for copies of documentation about you: http://www.guardian.co.uk/bigbrother/privacy/yourlife/story/0,12384,785938,00.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/bigbrother/privacy/statesurveillance/story/0,12382,811765,00.html

Try Working through your Employer and Human Resources

  • Take the matter up with your line management - beware though, most bullies are the line manager and are supported by their line manager, etc. Often, the bullying is hierarchical and comes from the top.
  • Obtain a copy of your employer's bullying and harassment policy. You might wish to do this discreetly (eg through a third party) if you're not yet ready to challenge the bully.
  • Denial is everywhere. The person who asserts their right not to be bullied is often blowing the whistle on another's incompetence (which the bullying is intended to hide). Expect the bully to deny everything, expect the bully's superiors to deny and disbelieve everything, and - as evidenced by thousands of cases reported to my Advice Line - expect personnel/human resources to disbelieve you and deny the bullying, for they will already have been deceived by the bully into joining in with the bully and getting rid of you. Click here for more on how and why Human Resources often don't support targets of bullying.
  • The serial bully likes to play people off against each other so try to reunite yourself with your employer against the bully. Point out professionally to your HR people that the serial bully is encouraging the employer and employee to engage in adversarial interaction and destructive conflict in which there are no winners, only losers. The bully gains gratification from manipulating and watching others destroy each other. If the bully realises they've been rumbled they will move on leaving the employer to incur all the vicarious liability for the their behaviour. The bully has done this before and will do it again. Also point out to HR that the bullying they are seeing is the tip of an iceberg of wrongdoing by the bully which is likely to include financial misappropriation, financial incompetence, breaches of regulations and codes of practice, breaches of health and safety, etc.
  • Serial bullies excel at deception and manipulation. Do not underestimate the bully's capacity to deceive. When dealing with personnel and senior management, focus exclusively on legal and financial matters. Point your personnel/HR people to Bully Online
  • Expect your work colleagues to melt away - to see why, click here.
  • You may be advised to stand up for yourself (although the person saying this will have no idea how to); in fact the more you stand up for yourself the worse things are likely to get - click here to see why.
  • Targets of bullying often have to educate those who are - or should be - supporting them. Copy this information to them, make them aware of Bully Online
  • If you've suffered a psychiatric injury due to bullying, enter it in the accident book. That makes it official.
  • If you are forced into sickness absence or ill-health retirement or you have a stress breakdown through the bullying of a manager or colleague, record it in the accident book; this ensures that the bullying is officially logged. Inform the employer in writing that a person's bullying behaviour has resulted in injury to health causing you (and others) to be ill. If you are subsequently victimised for doing this, you may be able to claim victimization under the Employment Rights Act (there's no qualifying period and compensation is unlimited).
  • It is common practice for employers to order targets of bullying to see a psychiatrist of the employers' choosing and to have the employee diagnosed as being "mentally ill" in order to provide grounds for dismissal whilst thwarting a personal injury claim. See BMA: ethics advice and the articles Abuse of Medical Assessments to Dismiss Whistleblowers and Battered Plaintiffs - injuries from hired guns and compliant courts and Giving Workers the Treatment: if you raise a stink, you go to a shrink!
  • If the bullying has caused you to be off sick with stress, anxiety, depression etc (collectively your symptoms may amount to PTSD) and the employer is trying to coerce you back to work, write a letter to the employer stating that your absence "...is due to symptoms of psychiatric injury resulting from stress caused by the inappropriate behaviours of others and unduly stressful working conditions and that you look forward to returning to work at the earliest opportunity and ... to facilitate your return ask that the employer assures you, in writing, that they will fulfil their obligation of duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act to provide you with both a safe place of work and a safe system of work".
  • Inform your employer that your psychiatric injury (and the ill health of others) is due to bullying by another member of staff and that this employee's behaviour is a danger to the health & safety of employees; highlight the high staff turnover in that individual's department and the corresponding amount of sickness absence / stress breakdowns / early and ill-health retirement / attempted or actual suicides / deaths in service. If you are subsequently victimised for reporting this health and safety hazard you may find the provisions of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 apply.
  • Follow the grievance procedure, but beware that such procedures are biased in favour of the manager, as well as being inappropriate for dealing with bullying. Understand the profile of the serial bully and the four subtypes and emphasise the Jekyll and Hyde nature and compulsive lying. The bully will already have deceived personnel and his/her superiors. If you go to employment tribunal later, the tribunal will look to see if you've followed all the options open to you (regardless of whether or not they work). In the UK, the Employment Act 2002 makes it mandatory for employees and employers to follow grievance and disciplinary & dismissal procedures, otherwise any dismissal is automatically unfair and compensation will be affected.
  • If the bully prevents you from being accompanied to grievance and disciplinary meetings, check your rights under UK law.

Read and Research about Bullying

Get Help from Elsewhere

  • Build yourself a support network. Bullies separate and isolate their targets, sometimes going as far as to cause division within the target's family. The bully is likely to be manipulating your work colleagues into distancing themselves from you, either by sweet-talking them with charm, or by playing on their vulnerabilities whilst raising doubts about their job security.
  • See your doctor - bullying causes prolonged negative stress which results in psychiatric injury. Psychiatric injury has nothing to do with mental illness, despite what others (including some mental health professionals) may say or infer. To see the difference between mental illness and psychiatric injury, click here. If stress is diagnosed, make sure it includes the cause, eg stress caused by conditions in the workplace. If depression is diagnosed, make sure it is recorded as reactive depression. To see how prolonged negative stress causes injury to health, click here. Remember that stress is not the employee's inability to cope with excessive workload but a consequence of the employer's failure to provide a safe system of work as required by the UK Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
  • If you've not done so, contact a bully helpline (see Helplines) and see if there's a bullying survivor support group in your area.
  • Join the BullyOnline support and discussion forum.
  • Seek out self-help groups for mutual support - or consider starting one - a positive and cathartic exercise. Existing support groups are listed on the Links page. For ideas and guidance on starting a bullying survivor support group, click here.
  • Contact your union representative, copy this information to them, advise them of this web site.
  • Reassure and educate your partner/family that your symptoms are a psychiatric injury and will get better. Encourage those around you to read up on bullying and PTSD (see suggested reading, also David Kinchin' book Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: the invisible injury).
  • If you plan to claim compensation for the psychiatric injury caused by bullying under the UK Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme see the TUC guidance.
  • Mental health trap: the symptoms and effects of bullying are a psychiatric injury, not a mental illness. To see the differences, click here. If this trap is sprung, look the bully in the eye and with a witness present say "the state of my physical and mental wellbeing today is a direct consequence of your behaviour towards me over the period [dates]". Expect confusion, then denial followed by more aggression.

Consider Taking Legal Action

  • If you believe you are about to be unfairly dismissed, you may be able to get a High Court injunction to stop the dismissal.
  • If the bully is making unwarranted criticisms in public or on your record, you may feel it appropriate to ask your solicitor to write a letter to the bully pointing out that he or she is subject to the laws of slander, libel and defamation of character.
  • If your employer refuses to get involved, or backs the bully in his/her attempt to get rid of you, you might consider asking your solicitor to write to someone in authority (with legal responsibility) outlining the way your manager has treated you, stating that your rights in law will be vigorously defended against the unacceptable behaviour of one of their employees whose actions will be monitored as a consequence of his or her declared intentions. This turns the spotlight on the bully rather than on the target. If your employer is unwilling to address the bullying - perhaps because the bullying is hiding incompetence which is endemic in the organisation - expect fireworks.
  • Consider suing for personal injury - solicitors may now do this on a no win no fee basis. Bear in mind that this might take 3 years (County Court - awards up to £50,000) or 5 years (High Court - awards over £50,000) or more. For many though, especially those suffering trauma, the legal system can be more abusive than the original bullying. Defence lawyers will often string out the proceedings as long as possible in the hope you'll get fed up and go away, or run out of money, or become so ill you'll have to withdraw, or even die. What a nice world we live in. They're also likely to go through your past and dig up any trauma (including bereavement) and claim that is the origin of your present ill health. This process is similar to victims of rape being portrayed as "loose women" and therefore responsible for the rape. Ironically, anyone suffering PTSD is likely to be frustrated from pursuing a case in proportion to how deserving their case is

Leave for a Better Job

  • Consider leaving - regard it as a positive decision in the face of overwhelming odds which are not of your choosing, not of you making, and over which you have no control. In this type of situation, walking away is the best thing to do, for in doing so, you regain control. Choose to move on and find an employer who truly values you and your skills and where your career can flourish. Refuse to allow your health to be destroyed and your career to be wrecked by a loser. Serial bullies are obsessive and compulsive in their behaviour; once they start on their target they won't let go until that person is destroyed. For most people, the top priority is to be financially stable. What's more important - your job, or your health, career, life and family?
  • If you are forced into leaving, make it clear to your employer in writing that this is due to bullying. Get professional advice before signing anything.
  • If there's any problem with a reference, see case law for Spring v. Corinium and Guardian Assurance and Coote v. Granada Hospitality.
  • Do your utmost to obtain an agreed reference. Without one you may not be able to get another job, especially in the professions. Most employers require a reference from your previous employer and the bully never misses the opportunity to sabotage your career.
  • If all else fails, consider taking your employer to an Employment Tribunal; for further information see the Employment Tribunal section of GOV.UK. If you can't afford a solicitor see the Law Centres web pages. If your union is not giving you legal support, check your household insurance policies to see if you are covered for legal expenses. If your union fails to support you, the union may be in breach of contract - if you're in the UK and this applies to you see http://www.certoffice.org/pages/index.cfm
  • If you've no alternative but to go to Employment Tribunal, previous cases ("case law") are listed in Industrial Relations Law Reports (IRLR), a copy of which is available in some specialist (eg university or college or business) libraries which are often open to the public.

Also Remember

  • If you do take on the bully, beware that bullies can be very vindictive. Often, you are dealing with a socialised psychopath (sociopath) or disordered personality who does not share the same moral values as you. Bullies think they are above the law - but insist that you stay rigidly within the law.
  • The Number One mistake people make is to not recognise the serial bully as a sociopath or disordered personality. Naivety is the greatest enemy - most people can't or won't believe that the person they're tackling is a serial bully, and consequently expect the bully to recognise their wrongdoing and make amends. Serial bullies cannot and will not - but they will ruthlessly exploit other people's naivety to ensure their own survival. Never underestimate the serial bully's deviousness, ruthlessness, cunning, and ability to deceive - and their vindictiveness.

    Phrases you might find useful:

    "By the way s/he chooses to behave, s/he prevents myself and others from fulfilling our duties."

    "By the way s/he chooses to behave, s/he brings her/himself, the staff, the department and the employer into disrepute."

    "The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy; bullying is a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence."

    "Your criticisms and allegations lack substantive and quantifiable evidence."

If you are fighting a case of bullying against a serial bully and the employer chooses to not respond positively, remember the Achilles heels:

  • Bullying is an obsessive compulsive behaviour and therefore repetitive; it's often a lifetime behaviour. It is most likely the serial bully has a history of this behaviour which a little investigation will reveal.
  • The serial bully displays an arrogance and fully expects to get away with their behaviour.
  • Serial bullying is highly predictable; this site describes the profile of the serial bully (click here to see).
  • The serial bully is a compulsive liar with a Jekyll and Hyde nature who excels at deception - therefore their word cannot be trusted. Highlight this at every opportunity.
  • When dealing with the serial bully, concentrate on the patterns of incidents rather than the incidents themselves (which are often trivial when taken out of context). The bully can always explain away individual incidents, but s/he cannot explain the pattern. When discussing any single incident, refer repeatedly to the pattern of which this incident is part.
  • Bullies are adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise pool negative information; make it clear to your employer that the bully is working for his or her own self-interest and gains gratification from encouraging the employer and employee to engage in adversarial interaction and destructive conflict. Remind your employer that the bully is deliberately and wilfully causing the employer to incur vicarious liability for their behaviour.
  • The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and people who bully to hide their inadequacy are often incompetent; the worse the bullying, the greater and more widespread the incompetence. Abusive employers will often pay large out-of-court settlements to keep that incompetence secret.

As an employer, what can I do about it?

Information for employers on dealing with bullying - from creating an anti-bullying ethos within the organisation to developing an anti-bullying policy - can be found here. Bullies are bad for business and the bully causes you, the employer, to incur vicarious liability for their behaviour. Also, download and read Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers from the ACAS website.

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