What is Workplace Bullying?

In badly run workplaces, bullying is the way that inadequate, incompetent and aggressive employees keep their jobs and obtain promotion. At the same time, bullying destroys teams and causes disenchantment, demoralisation, demotivation, disaffection and alienation. Organisations become dysfunctional and inefficient, where staff turnover and sickness absence are high whilst morale, productivity and profitability are low. Any perceived efficiency gains from bullying are a short term illusion: Bullying puts long term prospects at serious risk.


Definition of bullying:

Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.

Context is everything. Accusing someone of wrongdoing whilst knowing there are no grounds to do so is not fair and cannot be done in good faith, undermines a person's reputation and self confidence and is therefore, by our definition, bullying. Conversely, making a complaint, holding someone to account for substandard work or conduct, reporting malpractice etc, done with honest justification, fairly and in good faith, is not "bullying".

Bullying is not managing

A high proportion of people bullied at work are bullied by someone in a more senior position such as their supervisor or manager, and a common presumption (of abusees, abusers and onlookers) is that the the more senior person is entitled to behave that way at work because their position unquestionably deserves respect and deference, and whatever they are doing in their job must be "managing". Bullying has nothing do do with managing: Management is managing; bullying is not managing. Anyone in a position of authority whose supervisory, motivational or leadership skills amount to bullying demonstrate their inadequacy as a supervisor, motivator or leader. Similarly, people in subordinate positions whose interpersonal conduct amounts to bullying demonstrate their weaknesses as team members.

 "Psychological Projection" is a theory in psychology whereby people deny their inadequacies and weaknesses and externalise them by "projecting" them onto others, i.e. attribute their own unpalatable characteristics to others. For example a person who feels incompetent may constantly accuse other people of incompetence. The hierarchical nature of work environments allows people to project their inadequacies and weaknesses onto others:-

  • to avoid facing up to and doing something about their own shortcomings;
  • to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and its effects;
  • to dilute their fear of being seen as weak, inadequate and possibly incompetent; and
  • to divert attention away from the same.

Predictable Patterns

Workplace Bullying tends to happen in phases that Tim Field called (1) Isolation, (2) Control and Subjugation and (3) Elimination. The terminology in the examples applies to workplaces but has parallels in other situations. Examples are loosely categorised under the "Phase" headings but in reality any of the example behaviours can occur in any phase.


  • routine nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism of a trivial nature - the triviality, regularity and frequency betray bullying; often there is a grain of truth (but only a grain) in the criticism to fool the people (including the target) into believing the criticism has validity, when it does not; often, the criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or fabrication.
  • simultaneous with the criticism, a persistent refusal to acknowledge the target and his or her contributions and achievements or to recognise their existence and value;
  • a persistent effort to undermine the target and his or her position, status, worth, value and potential where the target is in a group (eg at work),
  • being isolated and separated from colleagues, excluded from what's going on, marginalized, overruled, ignored, sidelined, frozen out, "sent to Coventry"
  • The above can be done with or without the cover of a formal disciplinary or capability procedure.

Control and Subjugation

  • being singled out and treated differently; for instance, everyone else can get away with murder but the moment the target puts a foot wrong - however trivial - action is taken against them;
  • being belittled, demeaned and patronised, especially in front of others;
  • being humiliated, shouted at and threatened, often in front of others being overloaded with work, or having all their work taken away and replaced with either menial tasks (filing, photocopying, minute taking) or with no work at all finding that their work, and the credit for it, is stolen and plagiarised;
  • having responsibility increased but authority removed;
  • having annual leave, sickness leave, and (especially) compassionate leave refused;
  • being denied training necessary to fulfill duties;
  • having unrealistic goals set, which change as they approach, also deadlines change at short notice, or no notice, and the target only finds out when its too late to do anything about it.
  • being the subject of gossip which has the effect of damaging one's reputation.


  • the target finds their words, contributions and efforts twisted around, distorted and misrepresented, to the target's detriment;
  • is subjected to disciplinary procedures with verbal or written warnings imposed for trivial or fabricated reasons and without investigation, or with a sham investigation;
  • is coerced into leaving through no fault of their own, constructive dismissal, early or ill-health retirement, etc
  • is dismissed following specious allegations of misconduct or incapability which have just a grain of truth, to give superficial legitimacy to the dismissal.

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

  • targets can be "organized out" - this applies to anyone whose face doesn't fit, i.e. anyone who has identified, complained about or challenged problems with the status quo;
  • they can have their roles "regraded" or "redefined", if not being organised out.
  • The bully's allies and political pawns can be promoted to positions of influence.

Where a re-organisation seems pointless or counter-productive, or if it involves a disproportionate amount of disruption in relation to the perceived benefit of the change, it could be a smokescreen to conceal (and be a vehicle of) bullying. People are so busy coping with the chaos that bullying goes unnoticed. At the same time, the person responsible can claim to be reorganising in the name of efficiency, thus earning him or her the respect of superiors.

Business stakeholders should note that bullying and these deceptive ways of concealing malpractice are manifestations of fraud. They may be done to conceal or distract attention from financial fraud, bribery, corruption, misappropriation of funds and so on. The proper performance of your business depends on appointing trustworthy individuals to positions of influence. If one of your colleagues is prepared to dismiss another colleague on specious grounds to cover their tracks, or a colleague's tracks, you have to ask yourself if can you trust the same people with the resources you still have left.

How does it happen in a civilised environment?

People who bully in adult life tend to be drawn to positions offering them ostensibly legitimate power of some sort, such as jobs that come with administrative or organisational authority over others. It is possible for a sufficiently dishonest person to abuse a position of trust to conceal negligence, incompetence, fraud and more, without ever being held accountable. Subjugation and control by guilt and by threats of worse to come allows abusers to take what they want and to minimise the risk of being reported to or believed by appropriate authorities.

It helps if the bully's superiors and peers are also bullies, or if they are so naive that bullying by their esteemed colleague is literally unthinkable by them, or they're scared of the consequences of crossing the bully. Whatever the underlying reasons, the legitimate authority that comes with a job works to protect bullies from comeback, because their peers and subordinates, HR & legal departments and other bystanders, more often than not, default to blindly respecting the legitimacy of the "master-servant" relationship. Where there are two contrasting accounts of a situation, the default position is to respect the "master's" opinion. In this situation, if the perpetrator is more senior than the target, the perpetrator is supported while the target is shut out and eventually forced to leave, usually under a cloud, freeing the perpetrator to start again on someone else.

Subordinates bully their bosses too. The power or "advantage" which a bully uses is not restricted to that which comes with position. Power can exist in many forms, including the potential to destroy the boss's reputation with false or unfair accusations, or a threat that someone could make an excessive fuss if they don't get their way, or it could take on the form of spreading malicious rumours, saying things that would never be said to the target's face. In summary, a bully needs to have some form of advantage over the target, and that advantage can take on many forms.

Tim Field wrote that in environments where bullying prevails, most people will eventually either become bullies or targets. There are few bystanders, as most people will eventually be sucked in. It's about survival: people either adopt bullying tactics themselves and thus survive by not becoming a target, or they stand up against bullying and refuse to join in, in which case they are at risk of being bullied, harassed, victimized and scapegoated until they have to resign, and/or their health is so severely impaired that they have a stress breakdown, take ill-health retirement or are dismissed on capability grounds, or otherwise find themselves unexpectedly selected for redundancy, or being dismissed on grounds of misconduct.

What triggers workplace bullying?

Bullying can start simply because the target is there, and does nothing at all to provoke it. The target may unwittingly provoke the bullying because they are competent, popular, successful, have integrity or otherwise characteristics that the bully perceives as a threat to their status, fearing that the target will - inadvertently or deliberately - expose some negative aspect of their activity. Bullying is a common response to raising concerns about malpractice (eg fraud, health and safety breaches and bullying), sometimes called "whistle-blowing". Where a bully wants an employee dismissed, but there is no legally fair reason, a bully-tolerant employer will apply conduct and capability procedures, inappropriately and unfairly, to superficially justify the employee's elimination from the organisation and thus reduce the prospect of being sued for unfair dismissal. Used in that way, such procedures are themselves vehicles of bullying by the person(s) conducting them.

What happens when someone complains?

Bullies can give very plausible accounts of what has happened so, when an employee formally complains that they are being bullied, and if the employer takes any notice, there is a tendency for HR to accept the alleged bully's account of events over the target's, irrespective of the merits of the complaint. Reasons for this are rarely if ever published and thus are unclear, but the tendency may be driven by factors such as:

  • An employer's fear of legal action if finding in favour of the complainant, implicitly admitting liability for the complainant's injuries;
  • An employer's financial investment in and dependence on the bully being greater than its investment in / dependence on the complainant
  • The archetypal bully's ability to charm and deceive or frighten the employer's investigator
  • A mutual understanding between the employer's investigator and the bully, which does not exist between the investigator and complainant, whereby the bully's indiscretions will be overlooked, forgiven, hidden away, kept off the records, irrespective of the effect on the complainant or organisation, or future targets.

Whether a complaint of bullying has merit or not, but especially where it has, then any amount of willful negligence, deliberate concealment of evidence, delay or partisan behaviour by the employer or its appointed investigator also amounts to bullying.

For the target, the experience of being "swept under the carpet" in such circumstances can be equally or more traumatic than the original bullying, and where the employer is determined not to acknowledge the problem, it can lead to prolonged absence that ends with resignation, ill-health retirement or dismissal of the target on specious grounds of conduct or capability, as well as legal proceedings. Where the complainant has already acquired a stress-induced illness from the bullying, this final offensive activity literally adds insult to the injury.

Where there have been previous similar complaints about a person's conduct, and where those complaints have been followed by illness and/or untimely departures of the persons making the complaint, one might imagine that any HR officer would spot the similarities, think "enough is enough", and do something about it. However, the HR officer might be beguiled by or terrified of or dependent upon or be the bully, and find it easier to dispose of new complaints in the same way as before.

Where a business opts to protect a bully, the business takes on the task, costs and liabilities associated with resisting and eliminating the target, freeing the bully to focus attention on the next target.

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