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Constant criticism, nit-picking, no empathy, control freak, denial, charm, glib, compulsive liar, devious, manipulative? Read this

Introduction to the Serial Bully

On other pages:

Serial bully attitudes to life and work
Serial Bully character profile

Written by Tim Field Foundation.

"Serial Bully" is a term that Tim Field coined to describe the character he came to realise 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. His clients often 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. He 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 and updating Tim's work. This content refines, condenses and builds upon Tim Field's original text, which can be read here.


This is a bully who will move from one target to another, and whose depravity is only constrained by the realisation that they have to appear normal to fit in among civilised people. One consequence is that they rarely use physical violence on their targets, resorting instead to activities that are harder for onlookers to notice, such as emotional blackmail and underhand tactics to get their way.

A serial bully could be anyone. They are attracted to positions of authority, but not everyone in authority is a serial bully, and not every serial bully is in a position of authority. They cannot be identified by their status, but by their actions.

(This example is a male, but a bully can also be female.) He gives the impression that he must have cheated his way into his role with over-embellished or false information on his application, smooth-talking his way through the interview, because he seems to lack relevant competence for his role, substituted by an over-developed ego and sense of entitlement. Just like the old saying that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, some regard this character as smooth and accomplished, and yet, to others he seems to be grossly incompetent and gets irritated when he doesn't get what he wants. His behaviour is is often insensitive and unintelligent, but he appears to have no idea and is equally unaware of the effect of his behaviour on others.

To some, he appears to be fuelled by anger and aggression, but he can control the outward signs much of the time and especially in front of the people he thinks he needs to impress. He vents his anger on those who do not matter to him, or on people he is actively trying to undermine. Consequently, these people are the first to see behind his facade of charisma.

At first, he gains and maintains respect by exaggerating his achievements, favouring cronies and by mimicing the behaviour of respectable people. With time, even those who regard him as smooth and accomplished respect him mainly because they are frightened of not doing, believing he could turn nasty with anyone who disagrees with him.

He does turn nasty. Feeling threatened by colleagues with competence, integrity and popularity, he picks one out and projects onto them his own inadequacy and incompetence. Using unwarranted criticsm and threats, he controls them and subjugates them, without a thought for the contribution they make to the organisation, or their reputation or self confidence. Sooner or later this person - the bully's "target" - realises that they are not being "managed" but "bullied", and they start to show signs of intolerance. The bully now fears exposure of his own incompetence, and takes steps to disable the the target, typically by isolating them and/or destroying their credibility and reputation among peers and decision-makers, 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.

Serial Bully Traits

Perhaps the most easily recognisable Serial Bully traits are:

Symptoms of a Serial Bully at work

Most cases of workplace bullying involve a serial bully, to whom all the dysfunction can be traced. A person who is being bullied may already know, or come to realise that they have a string of predecessors who have either:

Any of these things can indicate some form of dysfunction in the workplace. It is not always obvious at first as to why one colleague was fired and another suddenly went off with depression. These things are confidential to those involved and tend to be explained away with plausible 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 fit the profile of the Serial Bully.

The same information will be available to the employer, who should be able to notice a pattern, particularly if it is highlighted in a complaint of bullying. Business stakeholders should note that a serial bully is likely to be doing far more damage to their business than just occasionally destroying the health and careers of competent staff members. However, in cases observe by Tim Field and the current writer, where there really was a serial bully, employers seemed to prefer not to acknowledge it and even to try and conceal it, possibly fearing the consequences of acknowledging actions for which the organisation would be vicariously liable.

"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

NEXT: Read about a Serial Bully's Attitudes to Life and Work

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