Workplace Bullying, Victimisation and Harassment

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Make work a better place to be

At Impact Factory we often talk about making work a better place to be. That's part of the central foundation of our ethos.Assertiveness Training

We know full well that bullying is one of the key things that makes work a horrible place to be.

Intimidation, harassment, unfair criticism and blame, belittling sarcasm; being shouted at, ordered about, dismissed, singled out. All these are types of overt bullying.

Covert bullying, on the other hand, is less obvious. It can take the form of being overlooked for promotion, someone gossipping about you, being lied to or having information withheld. It can be as insidious as being manipulated into doing something you'd rather not, putting your desk in an awkward place, never inviting you to join the 'gang' for lunch or after work drinks at the pub, not being included in team activities. All things guaranteed to undermine confidence and self-esteem.

Bullying doesn't just happen boss to employee. It can happen between peers, it can be upwards or downwards, it can be between clients and suppliers. Bullying can take the form of exclusion of one group by another, one department or division by another.

Bullying smacks of superiority, arrogance, prejudice, ignorance and most importantly, immaturity and insecurity.

What drives bullies?

So what's going on here? What's driving bullies so that they behave so horribly?

Well, bullies like being in control, they like the power they have over how someone else feels and behaves; they like frightening other people and maintaining their ascendancy. They are not mindful of any one else's feelings; they 'act out' rather than negotiate; they let their beliefs, biases and knee-jerk reactions rule, rather than modifying their own behaviour.

And they're always right. They are adept at always justifying and defending their behaviour, making other people wrong, never apologising and never, ever admitting that maybe what they've done was out of line.

By pointing out just how someone else has screwed up, by fighting with someone they know won't fight back, by throwing out snide asides and comments, by matching their superiority to someone else's inferiority, they stay puffed up and distanced from their own insecurity.

It's like the schoolyard bully who feels inadequate and so has to demean someone else to feel better.

Make a note of all that for future use - knowing the source of bullying behaviour will come in handy when we get to the what you can do about it part.

The end result of any of this is, of course, that the person being bullied dreads going into work. Associated fallout is less productivity, lack of motivation, isolation, stress and feeling under pressure most of the time.

Now we know that lots of companies have unions, complaints procedures, tribunals or other forms of legal redress. EU Directives are designed to protect employees from workplace bullying, harassment, unfair dismissal and discrimination

All well and good.

But you know, sometimes it's not so easy or straightforward for some people to take advantage of their legal rights and options. It can feel downright impossible to take that crucial first step. There's any number of reasons for this: I don't want to rock the boat; no one will be believe me - it's my word against theirs; I'll be seen as a grass - I just want to get on with everyone; I can't risk losing my job; what happens when I need a reference; I won't get promoted; my job would really be hell if I did something; I'll look a real fool because I can't deal with this on my own; I should be able to rise above it; maybe if I keep my head down they'll stop.

The list is endless.

But whatever the reasoning behind it, the result is that people stay paralysed and unable to help themselves out, or get help from elsewhere.

Types of Bullying

There are two types of workplace bullying we're going to address here. One has to do with being the innocent victim of someone else's inappropriate, intimidating and harassing behaviour. You didn't actually do anything; you're in the line of fire; you've been singled out by someone who, for whatever reason, finds this form of communication (sic!) acceptable.

This may be your problem because you're the victim of it; but it's really their behaviour that is out of line and just plain wrong.

The other type of bullying may, on the surface, feel similar to the first type. It isn't. This is the type of bullying that happens when the problem lies with you, not them. It can occur when you let yourself be taken advantage of or singled out to do jobs you don't like. You find yourself acquiescing to other people, putting other people's needs before your own, making other people more important than you.

What can happen then, is that other people experience your over-accommodating behaviour and unconsciously take advantage of it. It's called the path of least resistance. Interestingly enough, these people begin to look like bullies because there is a big disparity between their demands and your compliance. It feels to you (and may even look like it from the outside) as though they are intimidating you.

They aren't. They just don't know that there's anything particularly wrong with their behaviour. They aren't being driven by inner demons the way a real bully is; they just want to get the job done and you seem to be the person to give them the least hard time about it.

Why this type of bullying is so difficult to handle is that when you're on the receiving end of it, it's hard to believe that they' aren't doing it deliberately. We expect other people to operate with the same set of rules and expectations that we do and are bewildered when they don't.

Here's an example: One company we work for has a very polite culture, or at least it used to. There was a bit of broom sweeping and they got a new MD and a new Marketing Director in one go. The Marketing Director uses very colourful language, which has shocked quite a few people in the organisation. One person in his department told me that he was a bully because he didn't respect people's sensitivities.

He wasn't a bully. He just communicated so differently from the way people were used to that his behaviour looked aggressive and could be construed as bullying.

Again, with this type of bullying (or supposed bullying), part of the problem is that they' are not told that there's anything wrong; you just kind of expect that because it's a problem for you they should know that. Inside your head you are very clear what you want to say; you may well say it to many other people. It's easy, then, to somehow think you've said it to them, when you haven't.

This type of bullying feels deliberate when it isn't.

It's hard to accept that maybe sometimes it's your own behaviour that can be responsible for creating what feels like a bully out of someone else, and you can go a long way to helping yourself if you can distinguish between the two types of bullying.

We have two interesting examples from two different companies.

Type one Bullying:

In one company we were running effective communication skills courses for groups of employees from a manufacturing company. During the first course a couple of people complained about this one manager, how tough he was, how he raged at his staff, how demanding he was and how he bullied his team. The next course the same thing and the next and the next.

Then we finally got to meet this guy, and they were all correct! We think if he could have got away with slugging his people he would have, he was that aggressive. He was also exceptionally good at his job, just a terrible people person.

But because it wasn't all that long ago that this type of management style was considered acceptable (yelling at people, being tough and frightening), he never made the transition as a manager to a more people focused approach. In turn, the management allowed his behaviour because he got results.

We found this attitude really difficult to work with and actually took our concerns to the MD. Bye bye client. And we imagine he's still there making life difficult for his staff.

Type two Bullying:

In another company we were running a change management programme and we kept hearing about this horrible marketing director. He didn't listen to his staff, he over-rode their decisions, he intimidated, was inconsiderate and set far too heavy workloads. On our courses he kept appearing as a problem when we were working on project management strategy.

About a third of the way through all these courses, we met this 'ogre' marketing director and he was great! Passionate, ambitious, professional, and yet very demanding of his people. We realised early on in our meeting that this was a reasonable person, who was not a deliberate bully: he was so focused on his end results that he swept people along without realising the impact he had, and that sometimes they weren't able to keep up with him. We also realised that his people just didn't know how to handle him.

As we felt it wasn't yet our job to tell him the impact he was having, we started asking people on the courses:

"Well what could you do to help move things forward with this guy? How could you do things differently? How could you handle him better? How could you let him know when he's stepped over a line?"

What happened was that people came up with some really creative solutions that were non-confrontational and yet highly effective.

To our delight, when they changed how they approached him he changed the way he worked with them. Where before he was seen as difficult, he's now viewed as a champion.

Having said all that, the reality is, it's no fun for you whichever form of bullying you're being subjected to. The feelings on the receiving end are the same: dreadfully disempowering.

One of the things that's easy to say and yet really hard, if not impossible to do, is to actually stand up to bullying behaviour. If you don't stand up to them, they'll just pick on you more. However, though 'experts' (including ourselves) say that one of the best ways to tackle bullies is to confront them, asking that of someone whose self-confidence is at rock bottom and whose esteem has vanished is like asking a couch potato to run a marathon.

It's the same as saying to an unassertive person, "Just say no!" If I could just say no, I'd have said it already. If I could stand up and confront the bully, I'd have done it already.

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty of some of the things you can do.

Involving Others

One of the first things to do is not to keep it to yourself. However, what you don't want to do is start a chain of gossip that does nothing to resolve the problem, but does everything to feed it. Gossipping may make you feel better, but what tends to happen in these situations is that most people gossip with others who have no authority or skills to stop the bully's behaviour.

It feels safe to do this, you get to talk about it without having to do anything risky and it's particularly comforting when someone else agrees with you and acknowledges what you're going through.

It just doesn't change the situation.

So, however tempting it might be to do otherwise, choose someone to talk to who will be able to help you shift the situation. The next bit may feel somewhat tricky to do. You need to present your 'case' in a reasoned, clear, objective way. Why this can feel really tricky is that you will almost certainly be full of emotion about what's been happening to you and that can make it really easy to slip into blaming, finger-pointing and accusation.

It will help if you also go prepared with specific examples of when and how you were bullied and the affect each situation had on you. It is really important that you do not paint the bully as the devil incarnate!

Not a good idea:

Ed was so terrible to me. Just ask Phil. He criticised me every time I opened my mouth. I can't believe anyone could be so insensitive. My life is hell because of him. I know he has it in for me. He bullies me every chance he gets.


I have a real complaint about Ed. When we were in a meeting with Phil's team yesterday, he criticised me in front of everyone without giving me a chance to explain. If this was the first time it had happened, I'd be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately this has happened at the past two team meetings, as well as in our one-to-ones.

When you're in the midst of strong feelings, it can be very difficult to present yourself in a neutral way. If you can manage it, however, you will not come across as someone with an axe to grind, but as a responsible and professional member of staff.

Having a Go Yourself

The things we'll talk about here are effective in dealing with either type of bully.

Remember we told you to make a note of that stuff on why a bully bullies. Here's where knowing that could come in handy.

One of the things a bully counts on is silence - your silence. If you're frightened or intimidated it can feel as though your only option is to accept it.

However, something else the bully really likes is when you decide you've finally had enough and the huge accumulation of rage and humiliation spills over into a verbal barrage. Meat and potatoes to a bully.

You're now fighting on territory they are very familiar with and with little effort they will squash you flat. Unless you are really confident of your skills, never, ever fight bullies by their own rules. They've been doing it a lot longer than you and you will lose.

They may be primed for a fight, but the softer forms of confrontation are usually beyond them.

One softer form of confrontation is to let the other person know the affect their behaviour has on you in a non-accusatory, non-blaming way. Much like the earlier example of when you tell a third party what's been going on, the idea is to dispense with the finger pointing, because again, the bully will squash you if you do the blame game.

Example One (not recommended):


You're reports are crap; I don't know why I bother even asking you to produce them. You're useless.


(Blaming and finger-pointing): How dare you talk to me like that. You just go around thinking you can lord it over everyone and I've had enough. No one likes you and you just go around making everyone's life miserable.

You're all set now for a rip-roaring fight.

Example Two (recommended)


You're reports are crap; I don't know why I bother even asking you to produce them. You're useless.

(Affect of behaviour): I find that when you yell at me I feel disappointed you can't just sit down and tell me what you'd like me to change.

(Consequences): This means we never get to discuss how my work could be improved.



(Affect of behaviour): I find that when you yell at me I feel frustrated that we can't communicate better.

(Consequences): It feels impossible to come to you with potential difficulties.



(Affect and consequences all in one go): I find that when you yell at me, I feel less inclined to want to help you out.

Letting people know the affect their behaviour has on you is called boundary setting. With boundary setting, little and often works. We recommend that you not try to resolve every issue you have with your bully in one go. However, each time he/she has a go at you, you feedback the affect and the potential consequences.

If you do not set clear boundaries for the other person, you are, in effect, giving tacit approval that what they are doing is all right (or at least they can convince themselves that it is). A boundary is for the other person, not you. You know when someone has crossed the line of acceptable behaviour; setting a firm boundary is what you do to let the other person know that what they are doing isn't OK.

Invisible Stuff

We want to tell you our policeman story, because it's a really good example of how one person was able to triumph over some manipulative bullying.

At least two or three times a week, towards the end of the working day, our friendly PC would get cornered by his sergeant, telling him to drive the 'governor' someplace or pick something up that was needed for the next shift. Even though he sat at a bank of desks with two other people, he was picked on each and every time.

It meant his working day got extended by at least two to three hours, and he also had to deal with his increasingly fed up wife to boot.

What to do? He couldn't say no; you don't do that in the police force. He couldn't complain; he wasn't being asked to do anything outside the remit of his job. And whether this was deliberate or unconscious bullying, the result was the same: he felt taken advantage of, coerced and disempowered.

Here's what we suggested he do. As soon as he saw his sergeant, he stood up so he didn't feel so little. Next he wandered over to his two colleagues' desks so he was standing between them by the time the sergeant arrived. Suddenly, he was no longer the obvious choice, he had made himself part of a three. Of course, the sergeant still told him who he had to pick up, so instead of immediately saying, sure, he turned to his two colleagues and said, "Either of you available to go tonight?"

He asked this knowing full well neither of them was going to volunteer. What he accomplished though, was to make himself less isolated, less the obvious target, more part of a team. He didn't put his neck on the line, didn't make a fuss; but he did make a different impression.

The next time after that when his sergeant came hunting, he made it a general request to all three of them, instead of singling out our hero.

This is a great example of some of the invisible things you can do. You know you're doing something different, but no one else does. These small changes in behaviour can actually feel more empowering sometimes than having to handle and (hopefully) survive the big confrontations.

We know full well that bullying is degrading, humiliating and frustrating. You don't have to stay a victim of it. There are active things you can do to get some power back. If you look at the few suggestions we've offered, the intention of all of them is to surprise and wrong-foot the bully - they won't be expecting it. Then you can begin to negotiate a different way of communicating.

By the way, we know managing a bully takes loads of practise, so make sure you have someone who'll support your efforts and give you lots of pats on the back.


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