What is bullying?
Definition of bullying:
Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient(s) feel upset, threatened, humiliated and/or vulnerable, undermining or destroying their self-confidence, reputation and ability to perform, and causing stress which can lead to serious illness.
Bullying at work is commonly sustained by secrecy, denial, ignorance and indifference, often in a climate of fear, with a common result being the premature departure of the target and reward for the perpetrator.
Such behaviour is defined as "bullying" primarily by considering its effect on the recipient rather than the intention of the perpetrator.
What's the difference between bullying, harassment and assault?
Bullying differs from harassment and assault in that the latter can result from a small number of fairly serious incidents - which everybody recognises as harassment or assault - whereas bullying tends to be an accumulation of many small incidents over a long period of time. Each incident tends to be trivial, and on its own and out of context does not constitute an offence or grounds for disciplinary or grievance action.
Where are people bullied?
- in long term jobs by their manager or co-workers or subordinates, or by their clients (bullying, workplace bullying, mobbing, work abuse, harassment, discrimination)
- in short term jobs such as the performing arts, agriculture or construction, where an abusive engager or gangmaster or supervisor has complete power over workers.
- at home by their partner or parents or siblings or children (bullying, assault, domestic violence, abuse, verbal abuse)
- at home by landlords or their agents (bullying, harassment)
- at school (bullying, harassment, assault)
- in the care of others, such as in hospital, convalescent homes, care homes, residential homes (bullying, harassment, assault)
- in the armed forces (bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault)
- by those in authority (harassment, abuse of power)
- by neighbours (bullying, harassment)
- by strangers (harassment, stalking, assault, sexual assault, rape, grievous bodily harm, murder)
- See also: Bullying In Different Professions
What is Workplace Bullying?
The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. It has nothing to do with managing: Management is managing; bullying is not managing. Anyone who chooses to bully implicitly admits their inadequacy.
Some people project their inadequacy onto others:
- to avoid facing up to and doing something about it;
- to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and the effect it has; and
- to dilute their fear of being seen as weak, inadequate and possibly incompetent; and
- to divert attention away from the same: In badly run workplaces, bullying is the way that inadequate, incompetent and aggressive employees keep their jobs and obtain promotion.
Bullying destroys teams, causing disenchantment, demoralisation, demotivation, disaffection, and alienation. Bullies run dysfunctional and inefficient organisations; 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: Long term prospects are always at serious risk.
Bullying behaviours are behind all forms of harassment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse, persecution, conflict and violence. Understanding bullying gives a person the opportunity to understand that which underpins almost all forms of reprehensible behavior. Because of that, bullying remains the single most important social issue of today.
Workplace Bullying tends to happen in phases that can be 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.
- constant 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, which 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;
- constant attempts 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
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 that everything they say and do is twisted, distorted and misrepresented
- is subjected to disciplinary procedures with verbal or written warnings imposed for trivial or fabricated reasons and without proper 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 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 reorganisation 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.
How does it happen in a civilised environment?
A perpetrator of bullying has to have some form of power or advantage over their target, such as physical strength. However, when one person beats up a stranger in the street, it isn't regarded as socially acceptable.
Bullying IS allowed to happen where power over the target is ostensibly legitimate, such as in most cases of child abuse, where the abuser (parent, carer, priest etc) has legitimate authority over the victim.
People who bully at work tend to be drawn to positions offering them 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 coneal negligence, incompetence, fraud and more, without ever being held accountable. Those who an abuser perceives might expose such conduct are likely to be perceived as threats and bullied.
So, the perfect environment for the workplace bully to thrive is in a job that comes with some legitimate authority, which can be used to exercise and conceal inappropriate control over, and abuse of, resources and people. Such bullying is highly effective because a suitably abused "master-servant" relationship can completely disempower the target to the extent that they become dependent on the bully to get through each day without their lives being made hell. An extreme illustration of the phenomenon of the target becoming dependent on the bully was illustrated in the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter captive for 24 years and fathered her seven children. In workplace bullying, the target may well affect their behaviour and not "tell" on the bully in the hope that they will keep their job.
The legitimate authority that comes with a job protects workplace bullies from comeback, because peers and subordinates, HR & legal departments and other bystanders will, more often than not, blindly respect the legitimacy of the "master-servant" relationship and presume that where there are two contrasting accounts of a situation, the "master's" opinion is to be respected by default. Thus, the perpetrator is often given support while the target is shut out and eventually forced to leave, usually under a cloud. This frees the perpetrator to attend to their next target.
There is little to differentiate this cycle of abuse from the much publicised situation of child-abusing priests, where children were too frightened to complain, or were not believed, and where the priests were allowed to continue to destroy the lives of children in their "care". The worst that happened to those who were identified as abusers was a move to a diffrerent location.
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.
Who is behind workplace bullying?
Most workplace bullying is traceable to a person with several of these traits:
- Jekyll & Hyde nature - vicious and vindictive with the target in private, but innocent and charming in the presence of witnesses;
- is a convincing, compulsive liar: will make up anything spontaneously to fit their needs at that moment;
- is always plausible and convincing when peers, superiors or others are present;
- manipulates others' perceptions of reality through falsehood and gossip;
- mimics and regurgitates others' behaviour and words to give an impression of normality and competence;
- his or her own words are hollow, superficial and glib;
- displays a great deal of certitude and self-assuredness;
- is often devious, manipulative, spiteful, vengeful;
- doesn't listen, can't sustain mature adult conversation;
- lacks a conscience, shows no remorse;
- may be emotionally cold, humourless, joyless;
- is disruptive and divisive;
- may exhibit unusual inappropriate attitudes to sex, race, disability and other characteristics people have;
- is drawn to power;
- wants to control everything;
- is selectively (un)friendly and (un)cooperative:-
- is mean, officious and inappropriately inflexible with some people; but is generous, relaxed and very accomodating with others;
- motivates some people with the prospect of reward; but motivates others with fear and guilt.
- consequently, half the team think he's brilliant and half think he's the pits.
- has a relative sense of right and wrong, dictated by what can be got away with ("right") and what can't ("wrong");
- has a compulsive need to criticise;
- portrays him or herself as a wonderful, kind, caring and compassionate person; but
- refuses to acknowledge, value, praise and thank people, except where doing so leads to personal gain;
- becomes impatient, irritable and aggressive if asked to share or address the needs and concerns of others;
- is oblivious to the difference between how he or she would like to be seen, and how he or she is seen;
- has an overbearing belief in their qualities (especially of leadership, if occupying a role requiring leadership); but
- cannot distinguish between leadership, management and bullying;
- i.e. cannot distinguish between maturity and immaturity, decisiveness and impulsiveness, assertiveness and aggression, personal objectives and corporate objectives, eloquence and crassness; honesty and deceitfulness;
- when called to account:-
- aggressively denies and refutes any criticism, counter-attacking the critic with fabricated or distorted counter-criticism;
- feigns victimhood, ("poor me") sometimes bursting into tears, to avoid the question and evade accountability, manipulating others with use of guilt;
Tim Field estimated that one person in thirty has several of these traits, describing them as aggressive but intelligent individuals who express their violence psychologically (constant criticism etc) rather than physically (assault).
What triggers bullying?
Where a person displays some of the above traits, bullying can start simply because the target is there, and does nothing at all to provoke it. It may be unwittingly provoked because the target is competent, popular, successful, has integrity or otherwise characteristics that the bully perceives as a threat to their own status, fearing that some negative aspect of their activity will be exposed - inadvertently or deliberately - by the target. Bullying is a common response to raising concerns about malpractice (eg fraud, health and safety breaches and bullying), sometimes called "whistle-blowing".
What does bullying do to health?
Bullying can cause injury to health and make people ill, with some or all of these symptoms:
- constant high levels of stress and anxiety
- frequent illness such as viral infections especially flu and glandular fever, colds, coughs, chest, ear, nose and throat infections (stress plays havoc with your immune system)
- aches and pains in the joints and muscles with no obvious cause; also back pain with no obvious cause and which won't go away or respond to treatment
- headaches and migraines
- tiredness, exhaustion, constant fatigue sleeplessness, nightmares, waking early, waking up more tired than when you went to bed
- flashbacks and replays, obsessiveness, can't get the bullying out of your mind
- irritable bowel syndrome
- skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, athlete's foot, ulcers, shingles, urticaria
- poor concentration, can't concentrate on anything for long
- bad or intermittently-functioning memory, forgetfulness, especially with trivial day-to-day things
- sweating, trembling, shaking, palpitations, panic attacks
- tearfulness, bursting into tears regularly and over trivial things
- uncharacteristic irritability and angry outbursts
- hypervigilance (feels like but is not paranoia), being constantly on edge
- obsession, not being able to stop thinking about the experience in all its detail
- hypersensitivity, fragility, isolation, withdrawal
- reactive depression, a feeling of woebegoneness, lethargy, hopelessness, anger, futility and more
- shattered self-confidence, low self-worth, low self-esteem, loss of self-love, etc
What happens when someone complains about bullying?
Bullies can give very plausible but dishonest accounts of what has happened so, when the target makes a formal complaint, and if the employer takes any notice, the employer is often convinced by the bully, dismissing the target's account of things. As mentioned above, if the bully is further up the hierarchy than the target, the bully's peers, HR & legal departments and other bystanders will often believe the bully by default, just because of his or her position. (The actions they take next also constitute 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.
If there's a record of instances where similar behaviour by the same person has given rise to grievances, illness and/or untimely departures of staff, one might imagine that the HR officer dealing with it would think "enough is enough", and do something about it. Then again, the HR officer might be beguiled by or terrified of 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 over the task, costs and liabilities associated with resisting and eliminating the target, freeing the bully to focus attention on the next target.
Am I Being Bullied?
As you consider this subjective question, it is important that you try to step back from the situation and are as objective as possible about it. Discuss it with a trusted friend. Bullying is a serious matter and you need to be sure that it's really happening before you accuse someone of it. If you're wrong, your accusations would be untrue and unfair. Think it possible that you may be mistaken. Rule out possible alternative explanations for your experience, for example:-
Some things that feel like bullying are not bullying: for example, if you have obviously broken some disciplinary rule, your employer is allowed to use a fair disciplinary procedure to address the problem.
- If you don't like the way someone is treating you, try to make allowances for the way they are behaving. They might be having a bad day or week. People can lose their temper under pressure, and it might be a short term issue. They might be being bullied themselves.
- Is the way you're being treated the root cause of your unhappiness, or are you making a big deal about someone's minor indiscretions to avoid thinking about some other problem in your life?
If you have tried and failed to find alternative explanations, read on. Also, if you think that one of the alternative explanations applies, read on anyway: Bullying often has the effect of making you feel guilty about things that are not your fault. You might feel that you deserve or are supposed to put up with the way you're being treated. Ultimately, the determination of whether you are being bullied is down to two things:-
- Is there a legitimate justification for the way you are being treated?
- Is the treatment having a neutral or beneficial effect on you?
If the answer to either question is "yes", then you're not being bullied. If the answer is "no", there's a possibility that you're experiencing some of problems listed below.
People who are bullied find that they are:
- isolated and excluded from what's happening;
- denied information or knowledge necessary for undertaking work and achieving objectives
- starved of resources, sometimes whilst others often receive more than they need
- denied support by their manager and thus find themselves working in a management vacuum
- either overloaded with work (this keeps people busy [with no time to tackle bullying] and makes it harder to achieve targets) or have all their work taken away (which is sometimes replaced with inappropriate menial jobs, eg photocopying, filing, making coffee)
- have their responsibility increased but their authority removed
- overruled, ignored, sidelined, marginalised, ostracised
- given "the silent treatment": the bully refuses to communicate and avoids eye contact (always an indicator of an abusive relationship); often instructions are received only via email, memos, or a succession of yellow stickies or post-it notes
- Controlled and Subjugated
- do not have a clear job description, or have one that is exceedingly long;
- set unrealistic goals and deadlines which are unachievable or which are changed without notice or reason or whenever they get near achieving them
- frequently or constantly criticised and subjected to unwarranted, destructive criticism;
- encouraged to feel guilty, and to believe they're always the one at fault
- when they defend themselves, their explanations and proof of achievements are ridiculed, overruled, dismissed or ignored;
- frequently subject to nit-picking and trivial fault-finding. The triviality reveals an absence of any serious concern
- subject to excessive monitoring, supervision, micro-management, recording, snooping etc
- undermined, especially in front of others. Concerns are raised, or doubts expressed about a person's performance or standard of work, but the concerns lack substance and cannot be quantified, or are simply false;
- threatened, shouted at and humiliated, especially in front of others
- taunted and teased where the intention is to embarrass and humiliate
- singled out and treated differently, e.g. being disciplined for arriving one minute late, when others stroll in late without penalty;
- belittled, degraded, demeaned, ridiculed, patronised, subject to disparaging remarks
- regularly the target of offensive language, personal remarks, or inappropriate bad language
- have their work plagiarised, stolen and copied - the bully then presents their target's work (eg to senior management) as their own
- the subject of written complaints by other members of staff (who have been coerced into fabricating allegations - the complaints are trivial, often bizarre ["He looked at me in a funny way"] and often bear striking similarity to each other, suggesting a common origin)
- forced to work long hours, often without remuneration and under threat of dismissal
- refused requests for leave, or unacceptable and unnecessary conditions are attached
- denied annual leave, sickness leave, or - especially - compassionate leave
- when on leave, are harassed by calls at home or on holiday, often at unsocial hours
- receive unpleasant or threatening calls or are harassed with intimidating memos, notes or emails with no verbal communication, immediately prior to weekends and holidays (eg 4pm Friday or Christmas Eve - often these are hand-delivered)
- are invited to "informal" meetings which turn out to be disciplinary hearings
- facing unjustified disciplinary action on trivial or specious or false charges
- subjected to unwarranted and unjustified verbal or written warnings
- are denied representation at meetings, often under threat of further disciplinary action; sometimes the bully abuses their position of power to exclude any representative who is competent to deal with bullying
- dismissed on fabricated charges or flimsy excuses, often using a trivial incident from months or years previously
- coerced into reluctant resignation, enforced redundancy, early or ill-health retirement
- denied the right to earn their livelihood including being prevented from getting another job, usually with a bad or misleading reference
If you're reading this because you think someone you know is being treated this way, send them a link to the page or print it and give it to them - it might be the best thing you ever do for them. If you're reading this because you're worried about the way you are being treated by someone, Read more of this website to find out what courses of action are open to you.
What can I do if I'm being bullied?
- Put your health before anything else
- Be aware of and monitor your stress levels. Try not to allow your stress to get so serious that you become bogged down with it, mindful that it is difficult to reconise the extent of the problem yourself. Ask family, friends and doctor to help as appropriate
- However strong your personality, no one is immune from mental health problems. Unexpressed anger and fear can lead to depression in "normal" people. If you're reading this in time, take evasive action before it gets that bad.
- Document everything - make notes in a diary or journal and keep it safe
- Include notes of what you said and did, not just what others said and did
- Keep memos, emails and other documents that are evidential of bullying
- Especially if you get bullied in private, consider carrying an MP3 recorder or phone to obtain a verbatim transcript of the bullying
- Avoid having one-to-one meetings with the bully if you have already complained about the bullying
- Think and operate strategically
- Remember there are things in life you can control, things you can influence, and things you cannot do anything about. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is you. Try not to fret if you are unable to influence your employer to behave properly. Focus your attention on what you are doing.
- There is a risk that any mistakes you make as a result of being bullied, any sickness absence, and any illness will be used by a bully to discredit you.
- Most of what a bully throws at you is designed to provoke a response that can be used against you.
- Understand this and avoid responding directly to such provocations;
- Always act reasonably and in doing so, a contrast will emerge between you behaviour and the bully's;
- Accept that this probably is not enough to make it stop;
- Remember that there is more to you than your job, and try not to take it too seriously;
- Once you decide to resist the bullying, remember that you may be in for the "long haul";
- Seek but do not depend on support from other managers or trade union.
- If they give tell-tale signs that they do not believe you, do not expect their support;
- Seek independent support from neutral third parties.
- Consider who is or might be facilitating the bullying, and avoid confiding in them.
- Equip yourself with your employer's policies and procedures, and make sure that YOU follow them;
- Be 100% fair and reasonable, but stand your ground;
- Always maintain your dignity and be polite, even in the face of rudeness;
- Get some help, but think about the interests and agendas of the people you hope to trust;
- Have a trusted companion with you as a witness in any meeting to discuss bullying;
- Remember that everything you write, say and do might one day be discussed in a court or tribunal, so make sure your actions are beyond reproach and justifiable. Don't do or say anything that you would not wish to repeat in public;
- Consider recording any meetings about the bullying, even if you have a witness, to ensure you can make an accurate transcription, especially if previous minutes of such meetings typically portrayed a misleading impression of what was actually said, e.g. damaging statements that were not made.
- Keep any recordings and notes strictly confidential and use them only for legitimate purposes.
- Note that covert recordings of confidential meetings would normally be regarded as a breach of trust. A court or tribunal might only consider it to be legitimate conduct where the recording disclosed a greater breach of trust that would not have been captured on an open recording, so the breach would have to be accurately anticipated. Even if that were the case, a bully-facilitating employer would probably regard a covert recording as a sufficient reason to dismiss a target.
- If you have tried the above and it is not working out, seriously consider changing jobs.
- Even though it is unfair that you should have to leave, it is better to do so on your terms, when you choose, with your mental health, disciplinary record and sickness absence record intact, than to stick it out, battling an insuperable force, and being dismissed on some specious misconduct charge after exhausting your entitlement to paid sick leave, suffering from depression.
- If you are considering leaving, consider your legal options as well - you may have recourse through the legal system but remember to put your health and wellbeing before any other consideration.
What can I do if one of my employees is accused of bullying?
- Do not ignore it
- It is possible for a complaint to be faked, or for a complainant to be mistaken. It is also possible that they may be right. Therefore, do not presume anything and do not make decisions based on rumours.
- The fact of the complaint discloses something serious, so aim to get to the bottom of it as promptly as possible
- Listen very carefully to the complainant
- Establish whether the incidents complained of actually occurred
- If you do not believe the complainant, get some help from an expert
- Put your employees' health before anything else
- Think about the interests and agendas of the people who give you evidence
- Follow policies and procedures
- Be 100% fair and reasonable
- If bullying is occurring, do not make excuses for it - it will happen again and be worse next time