The Office Bully

We have all come into contact with one at some time or another but there is nothing that causes more angst in the workplace than the activities of a bully. Strutting around, loud mouthed, opinionated, full of bluster and of course always right. If a situation arises in which there may be (God forbid) the possibility of error – then the shouting begins and it is all YOUR FAULT. The fault cannot possibly lie with the person who is always right (the bully). He, or she, must keep control of the situation. To do otherwise is to admit a failure, an error, and this cannot be. Result? Unhappiness all round.

Then of course there is the other type – more of an ‘under cover’ bully. Doesn’t shout or bluster but is always criticizing, always picking on one or two ‘target’ people; making snide comments about their dress, or personality; always diminishing, always demeaning; “That was a simple task. Can’t you do anything right?” sort of thing. Sound familiar?

This sort of attitude, all too common I might add, benefits no one; not the victim nor the bully. The bully’s attitudes are entrenched and the ill will felt by the ‘target’ towards the bully is reinforced. The result is stress all round and a distinct lack of work/life balance. No one is happy. Not the bully’s target and, believe it or not, neither is the bully.

Bullying usually involves repeated incidents in a discernable pattern of behaviour that is intended to diminish, intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. Sometimes bullying also may involve purposefully avoiding or ignoring someone (negative contact) as well. It is basically a power play by the bully to boost their self esteem.

In a modern society it is accepted that employers have a general duty of care; to protect employees from risks at work. This duty covers both physical harm and mental health. Most employers choose to address bullying as a serious issue because both physical and mental harm can "cost" an organization in lost production, poor motivation and low morale, poor levels of customer service which leads to a bad corporate image. Of course there will always be differences in opinion and sometimes conflicts at work, however, behaviour that is unreasonable and offends or is harmful to any person should not be tolerated.

There may be situations when a strong leader, who does not ‘suffer fools’ gladly, demands instant obedience to an order and who will be frustrated and show it, when things don’t go the way it was planned. This may be a bit over the top, as it were, but is understandable and generally no one holds a grudge. Comments that are objective and are intended to provide constructive feedback are not usually considered bullying, but rather are intended to assist the employee with their work.

Pure bullying, for the sake of it is entirely another matter. While bullying is a form of aggression, the actions can be both obvious and subtle and generally follow a pattern of behaviour where one or more incidents or series of incidents are directed at one person or a group of people.

Examples abound but would include:

· spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo

· excluding or isolating someone socially

· undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work

· physically abusing or threatening abuse or intimidating a person

· removing areas of responsibilities without cause

· constantly changing work guidelines

· establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail

· withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information

· making jokes that are obviously offensive to the targeted victim

· intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying or stalking

· assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure)

· reducing work load or ‘sidelining’ a person, thus creating a feeling of uselessness

· often shouting with the use of profanities

· constantly criticising a person

· belittling a person's opinions

· unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment

· blocking applications for training, leave or promotion

· tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment.

The effects of bullying may be profound and have a lasting psychological impact on the victim(s). People who are the targets of bullying may experience a range of effects including:-

· shock

· anger

· feelings of frustration and/or helplessness

· increased sense of vulnerability

· loss of confidence

· physical symptoms such as inability to sleep or loss of appetite

· psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach pains or headaches

· panic or anxiety, especially about going to work

· family tension and stress

· inability to concentrate, low morale and poor productivity.

These are serious matters and will generally result in the workplace as:-

· increased absenteeism

· increased staff turnover

· bad ‘vibes’ leading to increased stress levels in the workplace

· increased risk for accidents / incidents

· reduced productivity and motivation

· low morale

· poor customer service leading to a bad corporate image.

There is a great deal that an employer can do to root out a bully and to alleviate the situation, the most important of which is management commitment. This commitment is best evidenced by a comprehensive written policy covering this vexed matter. All stakeholders should be involved in the preparation of this policy – management, staff, union representatives, lawyers and any other parties such as contractors, who are likely to be affected. This policy must state in unequivocal terms that bullying or unacceptable behaviour, in any form – harassment likely to cause physical or psychological harm – will be treated as a serious matter and that there will be severe penalties for the perpetrator(s). While every eventuality can never be covered, examples of unacceptable behaviour should be clearly stated, together with what avenues staff may follow (in full confidence) to alert management and what steps management will take to deal with the matter. It should be made clear that management will fully support the victim and if necessary provide counselling services. There should also be a ‘whistle blower’ type protection policy for anyone not directly involved but who has observed and reports a bullying situation.

Management should ensure that adequate and appropriate training is given to supervisors and others to identify bullying and what measures can be taken to address the situation. It should be made absolutely clear that any violence or threats of violence (for whatever reason) will result in instant dismissal and the laying of criminal charges.

Bullies are not, within themselves, strong people – they generally have low self esteem and may possibly come from an emotionally deprived background where such tactics are considered normal. When confronted bullies may try to bluster their way out of the situation – “I did not mean you to take it that way, I was only joking”, kind of thing or they may get very angry because that have been caught out. Either way they have lost control of the situation (something they desperately seek to maintain). Such a person will require counselling if they are to remain useful members of the workforce.

This is no excuse for bullying but it does give a clue as to the best approach a victim should take in addressing a bully’s tactics. It is best to ‘clear the air’ as soon as possible even though it will take a degree of courage on the victim’s part to confront the bully, but it must be done sooner rather than later. It may be advisable to have support – a union representative or someone who is superior, in the work place, to the bully – when the confrontation takes place.

The victim has a range of actions that should be followed:-

· Firmly tell the person that his or her behaviour is not acceptable and ask them to stop. At this point it would be advisable to have your support present, as a witness.

· Keep a factual journal or diary of events. Record the date, time, what happened and the outcome, in as much detail as possible including the names of witnesses.

· Keep copies of any letters, memos, e-mails, faxes, etc., received from the person.

· Immediately report the harassment to the person identified in your workplace policy, your supervisor, or a delegated manager. If your concerns are not met to your satisfaction, go to the next level of management.

· Never retaliate. You may end up looking like the perpetrator and will most certainly cause confusion for those responsible for evaluating and responding to the situation.

Remember, it is not just the character of the incidents, but the number, frequency, and especially the pattern that can reveal the bullying or harassment. A cohesive, harmonious and productive work force is not possible when there is disruption and a bully is most certainly a disruptive influence.

(It is hereby acknowledged that some of the above material has been adapted from publications of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)


Andrew Campbell-Watt is a qualified Life Coach. During the journey of his life he has also picked up two degrees - a Bachelor of Psychology and Bachelor of Commerce - and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business. Along the way he has also gathered a life time of study and practical experience in moral philosophy,ethics and stress management. These he has applied in his forty odd years in business, for himself and as an employee. He has since found increasing need to use his special skills in helping ...

Go Deeper | Website

Want More?

New Graphic
Subscriber Counter