Mark Harrold, Senior Clinical Psychologist defines the problem and offers some suggestions on how to avoid being the target of a workplace bully.


Bullying has been defined as ‘behaviour which consistently undermines another’s confidence, reducing feelings of self-worth and self-esteem’. In addition to the untold hardship on the individuals targeted for this treatment, it is an inefficient way to run an organisation. At a recent IMPACT conference, workplace bullying was put at the top of issues on the union’s agenda. The conference highlighted the fact that 7% of employees experienced workplace bullying. Ms Geraldine Maddock, president of IMPACT, regretted that only 15% of victims of bullying had raised the issue with their union. Many staff members leave their job rather than face up to the bullying issue. It was also noted that those who were actively involved in their union were specifically targeted by bullies.

The laws to protect employees from workplace bullying are simply not sufficient to protect innocent victims of this pervasive and destructive practice. However, there are actions which can be taken to protect oneself from being the target of a workplace bully. The first step is to recognise what is happening. Tim Field (1996) has some illuminating insights on workplace bullying.

What is bullying?

The first step in addressing the issue is to recognise what constitutes bullying by an employer. Here are just some of the behaviours demonstrated by bullies which are identified in Tim Field’s (1996) book and which are particularly relevant to those in the caring professions:

  • Claims that the staff member is under-performing, despite the disagreement of peers and colleagues. (The hardest-working staff member often becomes the target.)
  • Removal of status or authority, especially in an underhand and devious manner; demotion, real or implied.
  • Constant unjustified criticism.
  • Being singled out for special negative treatment, e.g. refusal of requests for annual or compassionate leave.
  • Threats of disciplinary action for trivial or fabricated incidents.
  • Deliberate undervaluing, downgrading, ignoring or minimising the value of one’s efforts.
  • Changing a person’s job description without consultation or right of reply.
  • Exclusion from anything to do with the running of a unit or department.
  • Being overburdened with work.
  • Unsubstantiated claims of complaints about the person.
  • Meetings, hearings or appeals which are run as interrogations.
  • Abuse of disciplinary procedures.
  • Fabricated complaints from innocent third parties.

Have you recognised such practices in your own workplace? Those in the caring professions can become particular targets for the workplace bully. Why is it that decent people are subjected to this most cruel and immature behaviour when all they are trying to do is to get on with an honest day’s work?

Why me?

It is evident that nobody is safe from the workplace bully. Here are some of the characteristics of people who are the most likely targets of the workplace bully:

  • Competence represents a very real threat to the workplace bully who doesn’t wish to have his/her own shortcomings shown up.
  • Popularity creates significant difficulties for the workplace bully whose actions are motivated by jealousy.
  • Honesty and integrity are traits which are viewed as weaknesses by the workplace bully.
  • Conscientiousness, loyalty and dependability are further traits to which the workplace bully will respond in a vindictive manner.
  • Being knowledgeable: people whom others approach for advice are envied by the workplace bully.
  • Vulnerable of personal circumstances—a debt, a bereavement or some other domestic pressure can provide an opportunity for the bully to go in for the kill.
  • Having high moral standards and principles.
  • Resistance to subjugation: a person who will not stand for being poorly treated in the workplace may be labelled as a troublemaker, over whom the bully is likely to want to establish control. Union representatives can be a target.
  • Defending a bullied colleague.
  • Highlighting bad practices in the workplace, e.g. the flouting of health regulations, the mistreatment of vulnerable staff or clients, or fraud.
What can a person do to avoid being bullied, or to stop it?

The first step is to develop an understanding of bullies’ motivation. Much of the behaviour of the workplace bully is driven by jealousy and envy. ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, bully.’ The purpose of the bullying is to hide inadequacy. Bullies are immature, they have low self-esteem and they lack a conscience. Despite what can seem a personable façade, bullies have a Jekyl and Hyde persona which rears its ugly head when they are dealing with a victim alone. Some experts have even described this need to control, abuse and subjugate those who are more competent as an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Tactics of the bully

Company reorganisation is a well-practised way in which the bully will attempt to get rid of those individuals who are not to his/her liking. It provides an opportunity to force the reapplication for jobs at lower grades and sets up spurious probationary arrangements. This is one way that a bullying employer can erode the confidence of decent and dedicated workers who are seen as a threat. Another well-worn tactic is to call the victim in for a surprise ‘chat’—which in fact becomes a disciplinary hearing at which the victim may be denied representation or support. Employees must beware of an over-friendly employer who may be seeking out vulnerabilities. A most hurtful aspect of being bullied is the betrayal of trust in such situations. The promotion trap is another familiar bullying tactic—the individual is offered promotion in return for unspecified extra responsibilities. The person is given no option but to accept it, with statements such as ‘if your career is going anywhere, you had better accept it’. Once the victim is in the new post, the bully overburdens the victim to breaking point. These are just some of the more common bullying tactics which are sadly more prevalent than one would wish.

Fighting back

This final section has some suggestions on how to combat the workplace bully. It must be stated that this is not an easy task. The bully has most of the trump cards and the victims’ decency prevents them from descending to the depths of a bullying employer. But there are a number of actions that can be taken:

  • First, recognise what is happening. Very often a victim of bullying finds it difficult to identify why they are feeling bad about their worklife. Learn more about workplace bullying. Tim Field’s web site at is a good starting-point.
  • Realise that you are not alone. Workplace bullying is much more pervasive than research has revealed. Make contact with support groups and seek the support of your friends.
  • Keep a journal. This will indicate the extent of the bullying and serve as useful evidence should legal action be required.
  • Learn to be assertive. Rehearse how you are going to respond to the bully and practise breathing techniques to help you through bullying situations.
  • Get everything in writing. The workplace bully thrives in an environment of claim and counter-claim.
  • Always try to have a witness present when the bully is engaging with you.
  • Confront the bully and clearly state what their bullying is doing to you. If necessary, put your complaint in writing.
  • Keep in regular contact with your union. There is growing awareness of the destructiveness of bullying behaviour in union circles.
  • Do not sign anything you disagree with. Make sure your union representative is present at any negotiations.
  • Mind yourself- Bullying is one of the most debilitating experiences one can encounter. Try to get regular exercise, eat well and get a proper night’s sleep.
  • Bring the issue out into the open and make sure as many people know about it as possible. The workplace bully thrives on isolation and vulnerability. If necessary, use the media. Bullies will not relish the thought of justifying their behaviour in the public eye.
  • Use the legal profession. While the law around workplace bullying is still underdeveloped, a competent solicitor can provide much support and advice.
  • Seek a company policy on workplace bullying. A competent and confident organisation will have no difficulties in implementing a comprehensive bullying prevention strategy.

I will conclude with a quote from the IMPACT document on workplace bullying: ‘Bullying is the misuse of power or position to persistently criticise and condemn; to openly humiliate and persistently undermine an individual’s professional ability until this person becomes so fearful that their confidence crumbles and they lose belief in themselves. These attacks on the individual are sudden, irrational, unpredictable and usually unfair. Despite this, bullying at work is perceived in many organisations as “effective management which gets the required results”‘ (Adams, quoted in IMPACT document on workplace bullying).


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