“I used to be known as a confident high-flyer, but since he took over I know my confidence has been undermined and I feel under stress at work. He just picks on me constantly; it seems nothing I ever do is right. I am just always depressed, both at work and at home now. It really can’t go on, but what can I do? I need this job.”
“Going to work suddenly seems like entering a war zone without a weapon. I think I am being bullied, but surely bullying stops at the school gates, doesn’t it?”
“The thought of having to get up to go to work causes me such panic and fear that I am physically sick.”
Bullying at work is a much greater problem than people realise. It’s both bad for the individuals and for the organisations they work for and it’s a problem that can be difficult to identify and tackle. This blog post explains how and why bullying takes place, and what can be done about it. It also suggests where you can find further information and advice.
We discuss the following:
- What is Workplace Bullying?
- Why is Workplace Bullying So Hard to Recognise?
- Why Do People Become Bullies?
- Am I Being Bullied?
- How Does Workplace Bullying Differ From Strong Management?
- What is Harassment?
- What Are the Effects of Bullying?
- What Can I Do About Being Bullied?
- What Kind Of Action Should I Take?
- What Can I Do to Improve the Way I Feel?
What is Workplace Bullying?
Bullying behaviour is not about being bossy nor is it about the occasional, angry outburst on the subject of meeting work targets or reaching and maintaining standards. It’s about persistent criticism and condemnation.
If you tell someone often enough that they are stupid, hopeless and not up to the job, they are likely to start believing it and to imagine that it’s entirely their own fault.
Workplace bullying is offensive discrimination, through persistent, vindictive, cruel or humiliating attempts to hurt, criticise and condemn an individual or a group of employees. It means the bully is abusing their power or position to:
- undermine an individual’s ability, causing them to lose their self-confidence and self-esteem
- intimidate someone in a way that makes him or her feel very vulnerable, alone, angry and powerless
These attacks on someone’s performance are unpredictable, unreasonable and often unseen. It’s been likened to a disease that creeps upon the person long before they are aware of what’s happening. It wears the employee down, making them feel belittled and inadequate, and gradually makes them lose faith in themselves. It causes constant stress and anxiety, which can cause ill health and mental distress.
Why is Workplace Bullying So Hard to Recognise?
This is a major problem because bullying is rarely confined to obviously unkind remarks or open aggression. Covert bullying is hidden bullying: underhanded, and difficult to confront, especially if your confidence and self-esteem is already undermined by it. Due to it being so difficult to identify in the workplace, it requires much more investigation.
Most bullying at work is not blatant physical violence, but psychological violence. It’s a hidden, yet repetitive progression of small events and persistent harassment. It can take on a perfectly innocent appearance. For example, it may be an apparently harmless joke, at your expense. If you object, the bully may accuse you of having no sense of humour, or of taking things too seriously. Such incidents have a drip, drip effect.
Open bullying might consist of:
- physical violence
- shouting or swearing at you, in public or private
- instant rages over trivial matters
- humiliating you in front of colleagues
- deliberately ignoring or isolating you in public
- taking disciplinary action out of the blue
- never listening to your point of view
- labelling you or calling you names
- personal insults or ridicule
- smear campaigns.
Covert bullying might include:
- constantly undervaluing your efforts
- persistent criticism
- setting deadlines or objectives that are impossible to achieve
- moving the goal posts
- withholding information and blaming you for being ignorant
- spreading malicious, unfounded rumours
- ignoring, excluding and isolating you
- making threats
- removing areas of responsibility for no real reason
- giving you menial or trivial tasks
- stealing your ideas and taking credit for your achievements
- giving you too little or too much work
- blocking promotion
- refusing reasonable requests for holidays or for training
- constantly overruling your authority
- monitoring everything you do
- blaming you whenever things go wrong.
A bully will usually combine various types of behaviour. Over time, being on the receiving end of these tactics can amount to torture, making grown men and women weep, and fracturing careers. Bullying can sometimes be quite unconscious. The bully may be unaware of his or her own motives and of the full effects of their behaviour, and you may not pinpoint why your morale is so low. But if the bully is aware of causing you offence, he or she may see it as strong management or positive hands-on supervision. If they are constantly and vindictively picking on you, and disguising this from other people, the bullying is deliberate. In the end, whether or not they consciously intended to be hurtful is irrelevant. What counts is whether their behaviour is acceptable by normal standards and whether it disadvantages you.
Why Do People Become Bullies?
Bullying is a basic human impulse and can occur whenever people interact in some way. The behaviour crosses gender, age and race. There’s no typical bully and bullying isn’t connected to a particular personality type or to fixed ways of behaving at work. Each case of bullying is different and takes place within a complex web formed by the personalities, the psychology, the organisation and the wider context involved.
There are many reasons why people might use bullying at work, but what shows up clearly across a number of studies is that bullies have a great need to control other people, either openly or indirectly. Most bullies are in positions of authority, as managers or supervisors. It may be that they are driven by envy and insecurity about their own competence and that this emerges in their desire to keep any possible rivals down.
Bullying is essentially cowardly. The bully hides his or her own inadequacies while making out that other people are at fault. The bully may see the other person as more capable, successful, popular or attractive than they are. The targets of bullying are usually above-average performers, much more efficient and better at what they do than the bully. This reason stands head and shoulders above all others for why certain people are targeted. Less common reasons include race, gender or disability, being vulnerable, timid or unassertive, or blowing the whistle on unacceptable working practices – including bullying.
Am I Being Bullied?
Ask yourself the following questions.
- Does the working relationship feel different from any you have previously experienced?
- Are you being ‘got at’, constantly?
- Is your work being criticised, even though you know that your standards haven’t slipped?
- Are you beginning to question whether the mistakes you’re supposed to have made really are your fault?
If this is an accurate picture of what is happening to you at work, and it wasn’t true before, ask yourself what has changed.
- Do you have a new boss?
- Has the pressure on your current boss increased?
- Have you recently changed jobs?
- Are your objectives always being changed?
- Are you under more personal scrutiny?
- Are you feeling less involved?
- Are you being asked to perform roles outside your job description?
How Does Workplace Bullying Differ From Strong Management?
Someone who is bossy or domineering is certainly being aggressive, but they will take responsibility for their actions and their consequences, in such a way that other people can comfortably deal with its effect. Providing the bossiness does not interfere with anybody else’s rights and wellbeing, it’s legitimate. But it’s rather an ineffective and short-lived use of power. Although bullying is not the same as strong management, it often spreads downwards from a senior manager taking what they feel is a ‘strong line’ with employees. All managers have the right to manage and are given the authority to do so. But they need to ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the criticism constructive or destructive?
- Is the criticism about the mistake, or about the person?
- Is it designed to make the person aware of their error and to get it right in future, or just to humiliate them?
You cross the line between strong management and bullying when there is purposeful, malicious intent. It happens when hurting an employee or colleague by intimidating, upsetting, embarrassing, humiliating, offending or ultimately destroying them is more important than getting the task done. Bullying can easily become part of the culture in companies that pride themselves on their strong, robust management. Employees may assume that management allows and even condones such behaviour unless it takes action against it. Certain organisations are more likely to nurture bullying behaviour. These include places that are fiercely competitive, where there’s fear of redundancy, where people lack proper training, where there are poor working relationships, where management is authoritarian and where there’s little consultation and no accepted codes of conduct.
What is Harassment?
To all intents and purposes, bullying and harassment are the same things, because harassment means continuously troubling or annoying someone. However, we tend to attach the word harassment to conduct that focuses on particular aspects of a person – their state of mental health, for instance, or their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, disability, beliefs or age.
In particularly nasty forms, this type of harassment can take the form of physical contact, obscene remarks and gestures, gossip, pressure to provide sexual favours, intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking, or even physical attacks.
What Are the Effects of Bullying?
The stress on people who are slowly and persistently undermined can cause physical and emotional symptoms. This often happens if their complaints about ill-treatment are not taken seriously. They are then left feeling angry and with a strong sense of injustice.
As a rule, bullying is not a subject that’s readily discussed among colleagues, even though it might be happening to a number of people in the same workplace. If someone believes they alone have been singled out for attack, they can end up feeling it’s their own fault. This can happen even when their work record was unblemished until there was a sudden (and relevant) change in circumstances – the arrival of a new boss or a change of management. In accepting the blame, their self-confidence crumbles and this inevitably undermines their performance. In these circumstances, people may well start taking time off work.
Bullying brings unimagined misery, with consequences that may be tragic. There are documented cases of people’s physical health being damaged, and many more cases involving psychological distress, breakdown of mental health, or personality change. And this is in addition to the financial problems people may have to face and the disruption to their careers. Bullying can also devastate family life. Relationships deteriorate, children get less attention, and divorce rates increase.
Bullying can provoke the following symptoms:
- severe headaches
- feeling sick
- sweating and shaking
- excessive thirst
- constant tiredness
- skin complaints
- loss of appetite
- stomach problems
- acute anxiety
- panic attacks
- mood swings
- loss of interest in sex
- loss of self-esteem
- lack of motivation
- obsessiveness and withdrawal
- suicidal thoughts.
Persistent, unpredictable bullying creates such fear that individuals frequently make up reasons for staying away from work. They can also develop feelings of paranoia, believing that if they tell tales, the bully will pursue them. If no one officially acknowledges what they are going through, most people being bullied will admit to having murderous feelings towards the person who is making their lives a misery. Targets of bullying devote a great deal of time to imagining how they might get rid of their tormentor. Such fantasies are common and provide an outlet. But, unfortunately, the aggression can turn inwards and may result in attempted suicide.
What Can I Do About Being Bullied?
Bullying managers control others by both threatening staff and carrying out their threats. Their leadership is based on fear and aggression. Their power lies in frightening people to such an extent that nothing is said. But your power lies in the possibility that you might speak out.
Making that decision may not be easy, because it involves taking risks. You may be afraid of making things worse. You may be believed, or you may be dismissed as a troublemaker or as someone who simply can’t cope. You may not know who to complain to, or be afraid that they may take the bully’s side and that it might come down to your word against theirs. You may worry that the bully will hit back.
In the end, you may be left with three choices:
- Hand in your notice, and escape the problem altogether.
- Accept what is happening, because you have financial commitments and you need the job.
- Stand firm, and take action.
What Kind of Action Should I Take?
Confronting the Bully
Well-meaning people may advise you to confront the bully. Unfortunately, this is more likely to enrage than to persuade them to see reason. It can result in a worsening of the bullying and is generally unsafe. However, if you do decide on this course of action, stay calm and stand firm, and don’t allow yourself to be a victim. Don’t take any action alone if you are afraid of losing control of the situation.
Instead of resorting to confrontation, you could seek immediate advice from your personnel, health, safety and welfare officers, or your union representative. Find out if your employer has a policy on bullying and harassment. Follow the company’s official grievances procedures, with the help of your advisers.
Try not to become isolated; seek support from friends and colleagues, as well as from those in authority. Remember you are in a position of power because of your ability or popularity.
Try to avoid situations where you are alone with the bully. Try to have others at hand witness bullying incidents. Seek proof of the bullying as soon as you identify it, and talk to colleagues to see if they will support you. You will have to be aware that people may well be nervous about putting themselves in the line of fire.
Keep a record of the incidents, and any relevant documents, such as emails, memos and faxes, you may have received. Log dates and details of all the incidents that cause you distress and all the undermining, cutting remarks, or attacks on your character or personal ability. Incidents may seem trivial in themselves, but put together, they can form a clear pattern.
Know Your Job Description
Make sure you know exactly what your job description states so that you can check whether the responsibilities you are given match it. Keep copies of all annual appraisals and correspondence relating to your ability to do the job. Keep everyone helping you informed of all developments, in writing, and ask for their written responses.
Leave Your Job
It may well be that leaving your job becomes the best option. Don’t regard this as defeat, but as a positive decision, taken because things are otherwise stacked against you. It’s your way of getting back in control. Let your organisation know why you are leaving. It may well help others in the future.
If you wish to pursue a legal claim against your employer for constructive or unfair dismissal, or a personal injury claim, seek advice from your union in the first instance. If your case is well-founded, they will take it up on your behalf.
What Can I Do to Improve the Way I Feel?
You are the most important person in all of this, so look after yourself. Practising some basic self-assertiveness skills can help you to feel better about yourself, and you may find classes available locally.
Another way of helping yourself is to set about counteracting the effects of bullying. Counselling can be very helpful in these circumstances.