Myths and Stereotypes about Workplace Bullying

When someone complains about bullying or abuse, there will always be someone ready to suggest that is was the fault of the complainant, and they will dream up or regurgitate some of the myths and stereotypes in this list, suggesting that the bullying was actually some normal form of behaviour that other people are happy to accept, and/or that the complainant is too sensitive or weak or otherwise inadequate. 

If you find yourself faced with some of these excuses, this page might lead you to the words you need to stand up for yourself.

What some people call "bullying" is really tough dynamic management

The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. Good managers manage, bad managers bully. People bully to hide their weakness and inadequacy, and to divert attention away from their incompetence. Many employers don't want to calculate the cost of low morale, poor productivity, poor customer service, high sickness absence, high staff turnover and frequent grievance and legal action that are a consequence of "tough dynamic management".

What some people call "bullying" is really assertiveness

Assertiveness is confidence and directness in claiming one's rights or putting forward one's views. It is entirely possible to be assertive without being aggressive, dismissive, threatening, or disregarding others' rights, boundaries or values. Where someone:-

  • puts forward their views accompanied by a threat, that is called "being threatening";
  • states their opinion and at the same time trashes the other person's opinion, that is called "being dismissive";
  • ridicules a person in front of their peers, that's called "bullying";
  • shouts their opinion with aggressive body language, that's called "being aggressive";
  • lies in order to motivate someone to do something they otherwise would not do, it's called "being manipulative";
  • and so on...

No one likes to be accused of bullying however, and so someone whose conduct is on the list above will feel better about themselves, and make their target feel bad about accusing them of bullying, by saying they were just being "assertive", as if somehow threatening, trashing opinions, ridiculing staff etc are all duties laid down in their job description.

People who get bullied are "victims"

Bullying is something that people choose to do, but not something that people choose to have done to them, and so we prefer the term "Target" to describe the person being bullied: Bullying is directed towards, aimed at and sometimes specially tailored for a specific recipient, hence the term. "Victim" is a broader term describing a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. While it is true that bullying can render a person "helpless or passive", it can also inspire an assertive response. The term "Target" covers anyone who is bullied, regardless of its effect on them. 

Another reason to avoid the term "Victim" is that it is associated with "victim mentality", a catch-all term for someone with a "poor me" attitude, someone who can't take responsibility for themselves, who expects others to rescue them from whatever situation they're in. Alleging that a target has a "victim mentality" can be used as part of a bullying strategy to undermine and discredit a target, with the logic that that the target complains about everything; bullying is just the latest in a long list of complaints, so the complaint has no basis. So, we use the term "Target".

Victims are "authors of their own misfortune".

When held accountable, abusers, rapists, child molesters, harassers, bullies and violent people typically blame their victims, and thus attempt to mitigate their actions. Thus, women who get raped are said to be "asking for it", women who are assaulted by their husbands "bring it on themselves" and children who are sexually abused "should know better". Similarly, people who are bullied at work or in other contexts are sometimes blamed for bringing it on themselves, e.g. for refusing to participate in some dishonest activity, for reporting malpractice, for complaining of bullying, for being unable to do 80 hours work in 50 hours, or for being "too sensitive". These expressions and their like are all uttered by abusers/bullies, and by their supporters, apologists, protectors and deniers, to try and mitigate the actions in question, even though such actions are the sole responsibility of the abuser/bully.

But surely victims must do something to invite the bullying?

Children attract the attention of paedophiles by being children; women attract rapists by being female. Similarly, homophobes, racists and bullies are always attraced to their targets by some personal characteristic, plus an opprtunity to abuse presenting itself with a good prospect, in the abuser's mind, of them getting away with the abuse. Targets of workplace bullying tend to attract the attention of abusers by being competent, popular, productive, successful, having integrity, being emotionally mature etc, or because they just happen to be there. In sweatshop environments where everyone is bullied, targets are abused just because they need to earn money.

"It takes two to tango"

This anecdote is regularly misused by apologists, who would like to think that the target is to blame. The tango is a beautiful dance performed by two consenting, co-operating participants; Bullying is a one sided disgrace, enacted by the bully on another person without their consent. Suggesting that the target participated willingly is another way of trying to blame the target for the bullying.

Victims are weak and inadequate

Bullying and abuse always involves some the bully/abuser having and abusing some form of power over their target, which could be physical, political, financial, hierarchical, situational etc. People abuse their power to gain something that they would not and probably should not otherwise have had, and they do this because they are giving in to some weakness on their part: Greed, envy, ambition, social or sexual or financial or managerial inadequacy etc. The abuse of power is a sign of weakness, impatience, incompetence, immaturity, inadequacy, the lack of a moral compass and so on, on the part of the abuser/bully. Abusers/bullies nonetheless try to appear relatively normal by labelling their targets as "weak", "unstable", "mentally ill" and so on.

By comparison, targets of bullying are typically not unduly moved by the powers they have, and have no thoughts of abusing it. They go to work to work, and they are not interested in office politics or conflict. They typically have a strong sense of fair play and reasonableness, a low propensity to violence, a reluctance to complain and a mature understanding of the need to resolve conflict with dialogue, or to simply tolerate the inadequate interpersonal skills of those they work with. Bullies often regard these character traits as weaknesses, to be exploited, which leads to targets withstanding daily abuse for months or years without complaining. In conclusion, targets are psychologically robust while their abusers are pitifully weak by comparison.

Victims are loners; Victims are not team players

Targets of bullying tend to be independent, self-reliant, self-motivated, have no need to form gangs or join cliques, have no need to impress, and have little time for office politics. Usually this makes them central, valued team members. One intentional effect of bullying is to isolate targets from their colleagues, and the stress of being bullied, with no support from colleagues, can make targets withdraw from associations they might otherwise have maintained. In that sense, in consequence of being bulllied, targets might find themselves with fewer friends at work and, on that basis, accused of being "loners" and "not team players".

Victims are sensitive / oversensitive

Sensitivity comprises a constellation of values to be cherished and nurtured, including empathy, respect, tolerance, dignity, honour, consideration and gentility. Anyone who is not sensitive is insensitive. Targets who reveal that they detect malicious intent are often labelled by those fail to detect it as being "oversensitive". Anyone who habitually bullies others is likely to be callously insensitive and indifferent to the needs of others and, when called upon to share or address the needs and concerns of others, to respond with impatience, irritability and aggression.

Victims are too weak to stand up for themselves

Targets of bullying are typically high-performing employees who go to work in order to work. They do not go to work with the intention of indulging in conflict, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. When faced with conflict, they tend to prefer dialogue to try and resolve it. Targets are more likely to try to negotiate than resort to grievance procedures and legal action. Often, these characteristics have no effect on bullying and might even irritate the perpetrator so much that the bullying gets worse. If and when the bully is questioned about their conduct, they will cite these characteristics as signs of weaknesses.

Can't you sort it out like adults?

Tim Field worked and liaised with over 10,000 people who were affected by workplace bullying and wrote that he was "... constantly amazed at the resourcefulness, innovativeness, flexibility, determination and stamina shown by targets of abuse". The nature of bullying in a workplace is such that if you do nothing to deal with it, it gets worse, and if you make an effort to deal with it, it gets worse still. When a target takes steps to make someone stop bullying them, their bully and the (corporate) political system that sustains them often respond by holding their ground, making sure the target's efforts come to nothing, and making the target's life more difficult. Where a workplace culture sustains bullying, it is almost impossible for a target to make it stop.

Victims are unstable and unhealthy

People who observe targets as "unstable" are seeing the destabilising effect of the stress that comes with bullying. The irritability, fragility and hypervigilance are symptoms of psychiatric injury, and not pre-existing personality traits. It is unscientific, disrespectful, insensitive and offensive to suggest otherwise. One would not assume that someone with a broken leg has caused their injury on the basis that they must have been born with weak bones.

Victims can't defend themselves

"Defence" from bullying at work is often an intellectual "game" - knowing when to keep quiet, and when to speak up; detecting the difference between reasonable and unreasonable instructions, having an argument ready. Well thought-out rational arguments supported by evidence do not work with bullies: They only work when dealing with reasonable people; bullying is unreasonable and so rational debate with the person bullying you is a waste of time, effort and patience. Bullies excel at manipulation, deception, compulsive lying and a host of antisocial behaviours, in the face of which a rational and civilised defence is often futile.

Victims take employers to court because it's easy money

Seeking legal redress is very expensive, financially and emotionally. Where claimants succeed, their compensation is calculated on the basis of what they might have earned since the act complained of, minus what they have earned. A proportion may then be deducted if the court or tribunal finds that the target "contributed" to their own demise. Employment Tribunal cases in the UK can easily take a year to complete, and if there's an appeal, it could be four or five years. Personal injury cases can last ten years, and the legal process (in all types of case) can be more stressful and demoralising and personally damaging, than the act complained of in the first place.  To a prospective employer, a job candidate who has taken a former employer to court is less attractive than one who hasn't.  Prospective employers presume that the candidate is "trouble" or "not a team player", so the former target ends up in a lower status job with a lower salary.

Victims are only interested in compensation

Many targets who sue their employers do so in the hope that the employer will learn and improve the working conditions of the remaining workforce, by doing something to prevent a recurrence of the bullying episode that prompted the law suit. Many set out wanting "justice", i.e. to redress the injustice they have suffered. Where legal action is at the forefront of a person's mind in the early stages of a dispute, with the main aim being an unrealistic compensation award, they might be bully feigning victimhood after having been held to account for unreasonable conduct.

Ironically, while many employment tribunal claimants want "justice", and so start out with the idea of financial compensation at the back of their mind, they eventually have to accept that financial compensation is the only remedy that civil courts and tribunals have the power to order.

Victims sue employers because they are awkward

Nobody in their right mind would begin legal proceedings against their employer or former employer unless they firmly believe they have a sound legal reason for doing so, and where the person has no other way of recovering what they have lost as a result of their employer's actions. This is not a sign of the employees's awkwardness if they have a demonstrable case that their employer has treated them unreasonably or illegally. Legal action is a natural consequence of an organisation operating a culture of bullying.

Grievances and legal actions prolong victimhood

Grievance procedures and legal actions can be drawn out and stressful, and they often don't work out as hoped, but they are supposed to be the way that law-abiding workers and citizens can bring otherwise unresolvable disputes to a legitimate end. Another legally permissible solution is for the target to walk away and not pursue a complaint. Which solution is right depends on a host of considerations that are unique to each situation. Either way, a correct decision has nothing to do with a desire to exhibit or prolong a state of "victimhood", and walking away does not imply that the target did not have an arguable case.

Victims are just whiners who can't get along with people

One effect of bullying is to give the target several things to complain about, and reasons not to trust some of their colleagues. To an unsympathetic, uninformed observer, a target of bullying may appear to be disgruntled, defensive and withdrawn. A bully may well describe their target as a constant complainer who has no friends or support. However, bullies often single out individuals who are competent and popular, because they are competent and popular. Bullies envy others' success, and the easy-going, stable relationships that targets have with others.

Why do victims go after their employers too?

A worker's contract is with the employing organisation, and it's the employer's duty to afford each worker a safe working environment, with a mutual bond of trust and confidence, to give efficacy to the employment contract. The organisation is legally liable for the actions of its agents and employees. Where a worker wants to take legal action under employment legislation, the employer will be the respondent. In discrimination cases in the UK, individual employees can be named as respondents as well. However, where the conduct being complained about has happened in the course of employment, there is no option but to name the employer as respondent.

Where the nature of the bullying is such that it is prohibited by criminal laws (e.g. Protection from Harassment Act, Public Order Act, Criminal Justice Act etc), the matter should be reported to the police, who could be expected to deal with the accused in person rather than with the employer.

If a victim is truly bullied, why don't more employers side with them?

In most workplace bullying, the bully holds a position of hierarchical power over the target. When the target complains about her boss's conduct, the boss explains it away as being normal management and, in the process, paints the target as an awkward, poor performing, mentally unstable drain on the organisation. Other managers tend to believe the bully by default, simply because of their rank.

Where bullying has occurred, employers nevertheless tend to eliminate targets rather than bullies, possibly to try to avoid the risk of legal exposure that would come with an admission that bullying had occurred. Businesses and Public Sector organisations seem to have unlimited funds - even in times of austerity - to employ legal teams to defend themselves against negligence claims.

Trade unions exist to protect their members

Whilst trade unions have achieved much for workers over the years, the Number One complaint of people who contacted the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and Bully OnLine (and other support groups) is that their trade union is refusing to support them in their case of bullying. One possible reason is that trade unions fear that their relationship with an employer and their general negotiating position will be damaged if they take on a difficult case involving a single employee.

It's just a personality clash

A personality clash is where two people of equal rank or status or value or power don't see eye to eye. Bullying consists of a pattern of unilateral, frequent, persistent, trivial, nitpicking criticism, isolation, exclusion, undermining, discrediting, setting up to fail, etc, toward a person who the bully has disempowered and disenfranchised. HR departments nevertheless frequently write off bullying as a "personality clash".

There's a fine line between tough management and bullying

The line is as fine as the line between a normal relationship and sexual harassment; between marriage and domestic violence; between great sex and rape; between sex education and pedophilia. Bullying and managing have almost nothing in common. The objectives of management include motivating people in a sustainable way to perform tasks that the business needs. The objectives of a bully are power, control, domination and subjugation of others, achieved largely through manipulation, deception and abuse of power. "Management" is a convenient term used to excuse and conceal the serial bully's disordered, dysfunctional and destructive behaviour.

You'll never be able to prove bullying

This is a message of discouragement given out by the most arrogant abusers, who bully behind closed doors without witnesses. "No-one will ever believe you", they say. Every form of abuse, including bullying, involves a perpetrator, an action and a target, and the action is always recordable in some format. Mutliple actions create the context in which subsequent actions become obviously offensive.

Responding to bullying is bullying

It depends on how you respond. If the bullying takes the form of frequent, offensive personal comments, responding by making equally offensive personal comments puts the target on the same moral footing as their bully. Likewise, if the bullying takes the form of unfounded accusations about the target's competence, responding with unfounded accusations about the bully's competence could be regarded as equally destructive behaviour. In the long term, no one will know who made the first offensive comment.

Responding assertively, or holding a bully to account by determined, reasonable means, is not bullying. It is possible that a bully in this position will play the victim, feign tears and act as if and say they are they are being bullied. That does not objectively mean that they are being bullied, and the suggestion that reasonable action in response to bulling is of itself bullying is disingenuous.

Bullies have high self-esteem

People with high self-esteem have no need to bully. People with high self-esteem manifest their high self-esteem in having only positive interactions with others. Bullies only have positive interactions with the people they think they need to impress, and negative interactions with everyone else; negative interactions are a hallmark of low self-esteem. Bullies are motivated by jealousy, envy and prejudice which are indicators of low self-esteem. Bullying is the antithesis of high self-esteem.

Bullies are nice people really, they're just under a lot of pressure

It does not matter if they are under pressure; What matters is whether they have been bullying or not. Most abusers, violent partners, harassers, rapists, molesters and pedophiles have friends who trust them, and will be able to think of mitigating circumstances to try and excuse their behaviours. Anticipation of this attempt at defending, minimising or denying bullying is a good reason to focus on the conduct being complained of, rather than the perpetrator's personality.

There's no such thing as a "difficult person"

This could be argued, but it is unarguable that there is such thing as "difficult behaviour", and it is also the case that some people exhibit this more than others. What matters most is the behaviour.

Victims have problems with people in authority

This is one of a string of counter accusations that bullying bosses and abusive employers use to try and discredit targets, especially when the bullying, negligence, fraud etc that the target is exposing has all emanated from people in positions of authority. In fact, targets typically understand the need for hierarchies and work well within them, and have due respect for whatever authorities are over them. Honest people do not have a problem with authority, but with the abuse of it.

Victims are suffering from learned helplessness

When people use the term "learned helplessness" they may be seeing the symptoms of trauma resulting from prolonged negative stress (which includes confusion, bewilderment, depression and anxiety, and a tendency to "catastrophise", i.e. to anticipate the worst possible outcome from a set of circumstances) and wrongly assume that these symptoms were character traits present before the abuse, which they were not.

Only about 2% of people who reported their case to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line exhibited symptoms of learned helplessness. Over 90% of cases involved a target who had exhausted all possible means of resolution but who had only just realised that they were dealing with an individual with whom it was impossible to negotiate or mediate. Targets' moral courage was demonstrated by their ability to withstand abuse for months or years, but to remain determined to resolve the conflict. By contrast, the first time bullies were faced with accountability, they would run for the cover of authority, demanding protection.

There's no such thing as a "serial bully"

By the same logic, there must be no such thing as a serial rapist, serial killer or habitual shoplifter, burglar or drunk-driver. Of course we know that such characters exist and there is no logical reason to believe that serial bullies (i.e. people who enjoy making their way through careers by inappropriately taking advantage of, manipulating and advancing their status for their own ends, regardless of the expense to employer, colleagues, customers and society) do not exist. They do.

This victim thinks they are being bullied at work because they were bullied at school

People who were bullied at school learned to spot bullying at an early age and are thus easily able to recognise offensive behaviour within a supposedly civilised context. Also, people get bullied at school because of their personal qualities, qualities which bullies despise and respond to with aggression. Such qualities endure through life.

You can't get PTSD from bullying

Those who promote this view are out of touch with both reality and research. This view is also offensive to those who suffer PTSD as a result of bullying (and harassment, stalking, domestic violence, abuse, etc). See denial above. The late Professor Heinz Leymann established the link between bullying and psychiatric injury (PTSD) in the 1980s and his research and experience is available on his web site. The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology (EJWOP), 1996, 5(2), devoted a whole issue to bullying and its effects, including PTSD. New research is also confirming what targets of abuse have always known: bullying causes PTSD.


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