workplace bullying

My job involves helping people understand the causes and effects of bullying at work. This is often called ‘raising awareness’.There is certainly a need for it; the term bullying is applied willy-nilly to any number of behaviours, and in many cases the term is misused.

Sadly, there is no denying that genuine cases of workplace bullying occur, causing untold harm and, in extreme cases, real psychological damage to the victims. But the term has come to be more generally used to describe all sorts of unpopular behaviour.

No discussion

‘Bullying’ is an emotive term and, because of the impact it has it puts people on the defensive right away. This forestalls any sensible discussion or debate in the workplace.

The result of this is that the term ‘bullying’ is devalued as it widely used to describe behaviour that is seemn to be rude, demanding or heavy-handed. Such behaviour is completely unacceptable and should be condemned, but it is wrong to call it bullying.

To do so causes multiple further complications:

  1. The word bullying often triggers a knee-jerk reaction by the system. Managers, or HR, abruptly invoke procedures laid down to deal with authentic cases of bullying.
  2. This precludes the sort of conversation which should initially be happening in response to any inappropriate behaviour at work.
  3. Instead of discussing the problem which triggered the complaint, the parties involved in the dispute (the alleged offender and the complainant), are immediately set against each other.
  4. This causes further problems as they will probably still be working together and the problem is not addressed pending ‘investigation’ of the complaint.
  5. The alleged offender often has no right of response pending investigation and may be stigmatised as well. In some cases, they are suspended during this process. In effect, they are judged as guilty without a fair hearing.
  6. The complainant is not called to account because the use of the term ‘bullying’ automatically places them as ‘victim’ (whatever the language being used), by implication vulnerable and above question.

Despite the well-intentioned and quite sensible policies on bullying that some organisations have now put in place, the complications above are fairly common. Applying such policies to relatively mundane (though no less serious) interpersonal disputes causes problems which could be avoided, if only sensible and mature conversation could be used instead.

This, of course, would involve managers in such discussions, and many have told me that they feel safer invoking a policy because it leaves a verifiable trail. They also perceive ‘talking’ as more time-consuming, time which most can ill-afford.

Bullying awareness

There has been a significant increase in demand for training sessions on bullying awareness in recent years, and this has been linked to the need of organisations to manage performance in a more muscular fashion during tough times.

In other words, because staff may need to be pushed harder, employers and some managers have anticipated that their attempts to ensure output – to use the term loosely – often in the face of dwindling resources, would result in counter-accusations of bullying by staff who resented the pressure.

I don’t know if there have been more accusations, though anecdotally there seem to be in the public and private sector organisations I go into. This turns on two main factors:

  1. Some managers are not very confident when managing people-related matters. This may not be their fault, as they are often not trained very well in how to motivate and engage staff. Clumsy efforts to get them to perform better may produce resentment in some employees. Incidentally, managers often say that they feel under skilled in this area and employers could do more to help (some do, hence the request for Bullying awareness for managers and Bullying awareness for staff).
  2. Because the pressure in on to ‘get a quart out of a pint pot’, under-performing staff who in the past may have been carried are now under scrutiny. In some cases the individual being ‘performance managed’ can lead to an accusation of bullying.

The wrong terminology

This brings me to a third aspect, and the main point of this post. The term bullying is widely overused. Bullying is a specific phenomenon which seeks to systematically demean and diminish an individual. It takes place regularly over an extended period, causes loss of confidence and self-esteem in the victim and in extreme cases results in psychological damage like depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For more information on this, read Bullying at Work. In a recent article in the Guardian, an employment law specialist is quoted as saying : “There should be zero tolerance of bullying in any workplace yet there is no rule book about what defines it.” (Bully for you, the Guardian, 27/02/10).

No clear definition

She has a point. When I started to work on this topic some years ago I quickly learned that there was no diagnostic checklist for identifying bullying at work. There are plenty of lists of examples (see Bullying at Work, above) of bullying behaviour, but bullying behaviour does not necessarily equal the process of systematically undermining someone psychologically which properly defines bullying.

Shouting at some on the odd occasion, or shouting at everyone, would not qualify as bullying. Bad behaviour, Yes, out of order and in need of correction, Yes, but bullying? No.

This struck me as odd, and managers and staff I was speaking to were obviously confused and uncertain about how to identify bullying. We live in an age of information overload, yet there was no quick way to get simple information on how to identify workplace bullying. Something was needed.

So I wrote a checklist to enable people to understand and identify what constitutes workplace bullying, so they can take steps to a) prevent it from occurring, and b) to know, if an allegation is made, whether to call it bullying or to look for some other relationship problem between employees.

This is the checklist I use in my training to help managers identify bullying, either in their own behaviour or between employees. It is also included in my Bullying Survival Guide, published in 2009 (you can download this at the link below).

Bad behaviour is not necessarily bullying

Being on the receiving end of inappropriate management behaviour does not constitute bullying. I am not condoning rude or irresponsible behaviour in the workplace, of course staff should not be threatened, coerced, intimidated or treated disrespectfully. Behaviour like this is wrong and must be corrected. But it is not bullying. Neither is bullying associated only with managers; there are plenty of cases of peer to peer abuse and much of it is justly called bullying.

But the increasing and  careless use of ‘bullying’ as shorthand for ‘I don’t like the way I am being treated’ is in itself the cause of a problem. The ‘B’ word tends to produce a knee-jerk reaction at work and in the media, as we have seen in the last week or so, which means that informed discussion and corrective measures do not get implemented.

It also means that damaging accusations are made and often publicised before all the information is in (with no proof, in other words). For every accusation there is an accuser and an accused. I have seen a case where someone alleged to have bullied has been sent home to wait out an investigation, only for the accusation to be dropped. There are no winners in this and more damage is done. Furthermore the real problem – a troubled relationship between two people at work – is not helped and corrected as it could be enable the working relationship to function better. After all the two people will probably have to continue working together once the allegations have been dealt with.

It must also be remembered that an accusation of workplace bullying has consequences for both accuser and accused. I have seen troubling cases where no thought was given to the stress and emotional trauma caused to the alleged perpetrator, whether the case against them was proven or not. Careers can be damaged and serious psychological harm  can result.

Mature and able discussion

I argue that what is needed is for managers to learn how to discuss sensitive issues with confidence, and not to buckle at the first sign of push-back from unhappy staff. When an employee sees management practice as unfair or feels mistreated in some way, it should provoke discussion, not policy.

But that will only happen where the culture of the organisation encourages it, and managers are up to the task. In some situations, it is easier to frame a complaint as ‘bullying’. This may be for several reasons for this, but just because bullying is mentioned, that doesn’t mean that managers (or HR) should immediately accept the term without question. Such a complaint should initiate informed and able discussion to find out the underlying problem (when complaining most of us adopt extreme ‘positions’ which don’t necessarily describe the problem).


It would be helpful to de-mystify workplace bullying so that staff and managers understand what it is and, just as important, what it is not. Until this happens managers are often unsure of how to manage poor performance or afraid to step in to do it and performance-related discussions with staff can flare into hot debates about bullying.

We know what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of bullying at work, and equally there is clear evidence on what sort of workplace culture tends to encourage bullying.

By the way, staff can be just as fed up as managers with a colleague who under-performs and then make false accusations to deflect attention away from themselves. Spurious accusations of bullying also mean that real cases may go undetected.

Workplace bullying is pernicious and destructive. It is also too common for a civilised society to tolerate. I am not for a moment saying that bullying doesn’t exist, it does.

What I am saying it that misuse of the term and misunderstanding about what really constitutes workplace bullying muddies the water. This confusion means that some people are falsely accused, and that some interpersonal problems or other complaints are not addressed in the constructively when they get the ‘bullying’ label attached.

Nobody wins when debates about workplace behaviour are based on misunderstandings about what constitutes bullying. Providing staff and managers with proper information on this insidious and damaging behaviour, and what to do about it, is the responsibility of employers. But staff can also do something to help themselves by understand when bad behaviour may rightly be called bullying, and when it should not.

Then, whatever the behaviour, it can be tackled appropriately.

Download the Bullying Survival Guide here:

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See the Guardian article: Bully for you: Intimidation at work.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.