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Are You Being Bullied?

According to the results of a study presented at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in April 2005, more than one in eight people admit to being bullied at work, and ganging up against the boss - often a middle manager - is on the increase. But what are ‘bullying behaviours’, and how can you tell if you yourself are being bullied?

According to the trade union AMICUS in their publication ’Bullying at work: How to tackle it’, the type of workplaces where bullying is more prevalent are those where one or more of the following factors exist:

• An extremely competitive environment
• Fear of redundancy or downsizing
• Fear for one’s position of employment
• A culture of promoting oneself by putting colleagues down
• Envy among colleagues
• An authoritarian style of management and supervision
• Frequent organisational change and uncertainty
• Little or no participation in issues affecting the workplace
• Lack of training
• De-skilling
• No respect for others and/or appreciation of their views
• Poor working relationships in general
• No clear published and accepted codes of conduct
• Excessive workloads and demands on people
• Impossible targets or deadlines
• No procedures or policies for resolving problems

Being bullied is an isolating experience. It tends not to be openly discussed in case this increases the risk of further ill-treatment, and because the ‘target’ often feels ashamed to discuss it with colleagues in case their professional credibility is called into question. Even the mildest form of intimidation may be very disturbing, and, as this intensifies over time, the effect on the victim can be severe.

Early warning signs of being bullied include:

• ‘This relationship is different to anything I’ve experienced before’
• ‘I’m persistently got at for no good reason’
• ‘My work is forever being criticised, even though I know my standards haven’t slipped’
• ‘I’m beginning to question my own ability’
• ‘I wonder if all these mistakes are really my own fault’
• ‘My supervisor is overbearing and constantly rude’
• ‘My boss is constantly ridiculing me in front of my team’
• ‘I don’t want to go into work anymore. It’s making me ill’

It’s not unusual to hear complaints from individuals that their professional competence has been called into question by their colleagues or managers. These attacks might be overt actions such as a public ‘dressing down’ for work errors, or covert behaviour such as circulating rumours or gossip that appear to question an individual’s ability. One difficult area is where this includes ‘non-action’ - for example not giving acknowledgement and/or approval for a good piece of work, or not asking for an opinion from the person who is clearly best qualified to provide that input. These areas are also very difficult for the targets of bullying to raise, as they question their own validity.

Examples of bullying behaviour

Bullies will typically:

• Make life at work constantly difficult for their targets
• Make unreasonable demands: constantly criticising
• Insist that their way of carrying out tasks is the only way
• Shout at victims, publicly, in order to get things done
• Give instructions and then subsequently change them for no apparent reason
• Allocate tasks which they know the person is incapable of achieving
Refuse to delegate when appropriate
• Humiliate their targets in front of others
Block promotion, refuse to give fair appraisals or refuse to endorse pay increases or bonus awards
• Exclude the victim from meetings or other legitimate business activities
• Constantly make attacks on the professionalism or personal qualities of their targets

Personal attacks

In addition to attacking a person’s work role, bullying behaviour may also include actions and statements that are intended to undermine them personally, for example where someone has an interest that is easy to ridicule; or by making comments related to physical characteristics such as their height, weight, clothes or hairstyle – all of which are clearly inappropriate in a work environment and can undermine the person’s standing at work.


Social isolation and its effects should not be underestimated. It is reminiscent of the playground and can be just as miserable and humiliating for adults as it is for children (if not more so as it can jeopardise their livelihood). Enforced social isolation of an individual within a group also requires enormous courage for any one group member to break ranks with their ‘bullying’ colleagues and risk the consequent ridicule and rejection. Once these situations happen, for whatever reason, they are typically very hard to stop.


Overwork, in a bullying sense, involves the imposition of highly unrealistic deadlines where people are effectively deliberately ‘set up’ to fail. This may also appear as ‘micro management’, where every dot and comma, bolt, nut and screw is checked so often that incompetence or inability is deliberately implied.

Bullying by subordinates

Bullying by subordinates can take many forms such as not delivering messages, hiding notes, changing documents, excluding people from social groups, or not delivering papers for meetings on time – all of which are designed to make the bullied manager seem incompetent.


People who are deliberately ‘destabilised’ feel that they have lost control over their work environment and, as a result, have ceased to be able to carry out their duties in a relaxed manner without being threatened. Instead they live from day to day as they fight to regain a position of normality, often unsuccessfully.

Workplace behaviour such as obvious inconsistencies in the allocation of rewards, unequal enforcement of working standards, withholding privileges, changing objectives without warning, or breaking agreements, also invariably leads to extreme discomfort for the individual(s) concerned.

So to summarise, bullying behaviour includes overt action such as yelling and shouting; covert action such as rumour and gossip; non-action such as deliberately failing to include individuals in discussions; or a more general inaction that adversely impacts on the victim’s situation (or security) at work – all of which can be extremely distressing for the individual(s) involved, and counterproductive for their employer.

Submitted by:

Carole Spiers

Carole Spiers combines three roles of Broadcaster, Journalist and Corporate Manager in the challenging field of stress management and employee wellbeing. Carole is frequently called upon by the national and international media and provides keynote presentations on stress-related issues. Tel: +44(0) 20 8954 1593 Fax: +44(0) 20 8907 9290 Email: info@carolespiersgroup.com www.carolespiersgroup.com


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