On this page
What is bullying?
The twelve types of bullying | Forms that bullying takes
Hierarchical bullying, peer bullying, upward bullying
An answer to the question, Why me?
How bullies select their targets | Events that trigger bullying
Personal qualities of targets that bullies find irresistible
The difference between bullying and harassment
On another page
Definitions of bullying
What is mobbing?
What is bullying?
Bullying is persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and much more. In the workplace, bullying usually focuses on distorted or fabricated allegations of underperformance. Click here for definitions of workplace bullying.
Why do people bully?
The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. Bullying has nothing to do with managing etc; good managers manage, bad managers bully. Management is managing; bullying is not managing. Therefore, anyone who chooses to bully is admitting their inadequacy, and the extent to which a person bullies is a measure of their inadequacy. Bullies project their inadequacy on to others:
a) to avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it;
b) to avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour and the effect it has on others, and,
c) to reduce their fear of being seen for what they are, namely a weak, inadequate and often incompetent individuals, and,
d) to divert attention away from their inadequacy - in an insecure or badly-managed workplace, this is how inadequate, incompetent and aggressive employees keep their jobs.
Bullying is an inefficient way of working, resulting in disenchantment, demoralisation, demotivation, disaffection, and alienation. Bullies run dysfunctional and inefficient organisations; staff turnover and sickness absence are high whilst morale, productivity and profitability are low. Prosperity is illusory and such organizations are a bad long-term investment. Projection and denial are hallmarks of the serial bully.
Bullying is present behind all forms of harassment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse, persecution, conflict and violence. When the bullying has a focus (eg race or gender) it is expressed as racial prejudice or harassment, or sexual discrimination and harassment, and so on. When the bullying lacks a focus (or the bully is aware of the Sex Discrimination Act or the Race Relations Act), it comes out as pure bullying; this is an opportunity to understand the behaviours which underlie almost all reprehensible behavior. I believe bullying is the single most important social issue of today.
is a form of abuse, and bullies - and unenlightened employers - often go to great lengths to keep their targets quiet, using threats of disciplinary action, dismissal, and gagging clauses. What bullies fear most is exposure of their inadequacy and being called publicly to account for their behavior and its consequences. This makes sense when you remember that the purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and people who bully to hide their inadequacy are often incompetent.
A bully is a person who
Bullying is obsessive and compulsive; the serial bully has to have someone to bully and appears to be unable to survive without a current target.
Despite the facade that such people put up, bullies have low self-confidence and low self-esteem, and thus feel insecure. Low self-esteem is a factor highlighted by all studies of bullying. Because such people are inadequate and unable to fulfil the duties and obligations of their position (but have no hesitation in accepting salary), they fear being revealed. This fear of exposure often borders on paranoia.
Bullies are seething with resentment, bitterness, hatred and anger, and often have wide-ranging prejudices as a vehicle for dumping their anger onto others. Bullies are driven by jealousy and envy. Rejection (which cannot be assuaged) is another powerful motivator of bullying.
Bullies are people who have not learned the lesson of consequences, ie that if they behave well there are good consequences (reward), but if they behave badly there are bad consequences (restriction, sanction, punishment, etc). Since childhood, bullies have learnt that they can avoid the unpleasant consequences of bad behaviour through the instinctive response of denial, blame, and feigning victimhood.
How to spot a bully in your workplace
If you have a serial bully on the staff they will reveal themselves by their department showing excessive rates of
Types of bullying
Pressure bullying or unwitting bullying is where the stress of the moment causes behaviour to deteriorate; the person becomes short-tempered, irritable and may shout or swear at others. Everybody does this from time to time, but when the pressure is removed, behaviour returns to normal, the person recognises the inappropriateness of their behaviour, makes amends, and may apologise, and - crucially - learns from the experience so that next time the situation arises they are better able to deal with it. This is "normal" behaviour and I do not include pressure bullying in my definition of workplace bullying.
Organisational bullying is a combination of pressure bullying and corporate bullying, and occurs when an organisation struggles to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets, imposed expectations, and other external pressures.
Corporate bullying is where the employer abuses employees with impunity knowing that the law is weak and jobs are scarce, eg:
- coercing employees to work 60/70/80 weeks on a regular basis then making life hell for (or dismissing) anyone who objects
- dismissing anyone who looks like having a stress breakdown as it's cheaper (in the UK) to pay the costs of unfair dismissal at Employment Tribunal (eg £50K maximum, but awards are usually paltry) than risk facing a personal injury claim for stress breakdown (eg £175K as in the John Walker case)
- introduces "absence management" to deny employees annual or sick leave to which they are genuinely entitled
- regularly snoops and spies on employees, eg by listening in to telephone conversations, using the mystery shopper, contacting customers behind employees backs and asking leading questions, conducting covert video surveillance (perhaps by fellow employees), sending personnel officers or private investigators to an employee's home to interrogate the employees whilst on sick leave, threatening employees with interrogation the moment they return from sick leave, etc.
- deems any employee suffering from stress as weak and inadequate whilst aggressively ignoring and denying the cause of stress (bad management and bullying)
- "encourages" employees (with promises of promotion and/or threats of disciplinary action) to fabricate complaints about their colleagues
- employees are "encouraged" to give up full-time permanent positions in favour of short-term contracts; anyone who resists has their life made hell
Institutional bullying is similar to corporate bullying and arises when bullying becomes entrenched and accepted as part of the culture. People are moved, long-existing contracts are replaced with new short-term contracts on less favourable terms with the accompanying threat of "agree to this or else", workloads are increased, work schedules are changed, roles are changed, career progression paths are blocked or terminated, etc - and all of this is without consultation.
Client bullying is where employees are bullied by those they serve, eg teachers are bullied (and often assaulted) by pupils and their parents, nurses are bullied by patients and their relatives, social workers are bullied by their clients, and shop/bank/building society staff are bullied by customers. Often the client is claiming their perceived right (eg to better service) in an abusive, derogatory and often physically violent manner. Client bullying can also be employees bullying their clients.
Serial bullying is where the source of all dysfunction can be traced to one individual, who picks on one employee after another and destroys them. This is the most common type of bullying I come across; most of this web site is devoted to describing and defining the serial bully, who exhibits the behavioural characteristics of a socialised psychopath. Most people know at least one person in their life with the profile of the serial bully; most people do not recognise this person as a socialised psychopath, or sociopath. I estimate one person in thirty is either a physically-violent psychopath who commits criminal acts, or an antisocial whose behaviour is antisocial, or a sociopath who commits mostly non-arrestable offences. For an in-depth insight into serial bullying, click here.
Secondary bullying is mostly unwitting bullying which people start exhibiting when there's a serial bully in the department. The pressure of trying to deal with a dysfunctional, divisive and aggressive serial bully causes everyone's behaviour to decline.
Pair bullying is a serial bully with a colleague. Often one does the talking whilst the other watches and listens. Usually it's the quiet one you need to watch. Usually they are of opposite gender and frequently there's an affair going on.
Gang bullying is a serial bully with colleagues. Gangs can occur
anywhere, but flourish in corporate bullying climates. If the bully is an extrovert, they
are likely to be leading from the front; they may also be a shouter and screamer, and thus
easily identifiable (and recordable on tape and video-able). If the bully is an introvert,
that person will be in the background initiating the mayhem but probably not taking an
active part, and may thus be harder to identify. A common tactic of this type of bully is
to tell everybody a different story - usually about what others are alleged to have said
about that person - and encourage each person to think they are the only one with the
correct story. Introvert bullies are the most dangerous bullies.
Half the people in the gang are happy for the opportunity to behave badly, they gain gratification from the feeling of power and control, and enjoy the patronage, protection and reward from the serial bully. The other half of the gang are coerced into joining in, usually through fear of being the next target if they don't. If anything backfires, one of these coercees will be the scapegoat and sacrificial lamb on whom enraged targets will be encouraged to vent their anger. The serial bully watches from a safe distance. Serial bullies gain a great deal of gratification from encouraging and watching others engage in conflict, especially those who might otherwise pool negative information about them.
Gang bullying or group bullying is often called mobbing and usually involves scapegoating and victimisation.
Vicarious bullying is where two parties are encouraged to engage in adversarial interaction or conflict. Similar to gang bullying, although the bully may or may not be directly connected with either of the two parties. One party becomes the bully's instrument of harassment and is deceived and manipulated into bullying the other party. An example of vicarious bullying is where the serial bully creates conflict between employer and employee, participating occasionally to stoke the conflict, but rarely taking an active part in the conflict themselves.
Regulation bullying is where a serial bully forces their target to comply with rules, regulations, procedures or laws regardless of their appropriateness, applicability or necessity. Legal bullying - the bringing of a vexatious legal action to control and punish a person - is one of the nastiest forms of bullying.
Residual bullying is the bullying of all kinds that continues after the serial bully has left. Like recruits like and like promotes like, therefore the serial bully bequeaths a dysfunctional environment to those who are left. This can last for years.
Cyber bullying is the misuse of email systems or Internet forums etc for sending aggressive flame mails. Serial bullies have few communication skills (and often none), thus the impersonal nature of email makes it an ideal tool for causing conflict. Sometimes called cyberstalking.
In environments where bullying is the norm, most people will eventually either become bullies or become targets. There are few bystanders, as most people will eventually be sucked in. It's about survival: you either adopt bullying tactics yourself and thus survive by not becoming a target, or you stand up against bullying and refuse to join in, in which case you are bullied, harassed, victimized and scapegoated until your health is so severely impaired that you have a stress breakdown (this is a psychiatric injury, not a mental illness - see health page for details on stress, or the PTSD page for details on psychiatric injury), take ill-health retirement, leave, find yourself unexpectedly selected for redundancy, or are unfairly dismissed.
Hierarchical bullying, peer bullying, upward bullying
The majority of cases of workplace bullying reported to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and Bully OnLine involve an individual being bullied by their manager, and these account for around 75% of cases. Around a quarter of cases involve bullying and harassment by peers (often with the collusion of a manager either by proactive involvement or by the manager refusing to take action). A small number of cases (around 1-2%) involve the bullying of a manager by a subordinate. Serial bullies like to tap into hierarchical power, but they also generate their own power by simply choosing to bully with impunity and justifying or denying their behaviour with rationalisation, manipulation, deception or lying.
In a case of bullying of a manager by a subordinate, it's my view that as bullying is a form of violence (at the psychological and emotional lever rather than the physical) it's the responsibility of the employer, not the individual manager, to deal with violence at work.
What is bullying?
People who are bullied find that they are:
A favourite tactic of bullies which helps them evade detection is to undertake a "reorganisation" at regular intervals. This has several advantages:
However, there is never any cost-benefit justification to the reorganisation - no figures before and no figures after to prove the reorganisation has brought benefits.
There are many reasons how and why bullies target others, and the reasons are consistent between cases. There are many myths and stereotypes such as "victims are weak" which I deconstruct on my myths page. Bullying often repeats because the reasons that bullies target their victims don't change, hence this section also answers the questions "Why do I keep getting bullied" and "Why do bullies continue to bully me?".
1) How do bullies select their targets?
The bully selects their target using the following criteria:
Jealousy (of relationships and perceived exclusion therefrom) and envy (of talents, abilities, circumstances or possessions) are strong motivators of bullying.
2) Events that trigger bullying
Bullying starts after one of these events:
3) Personal qualities that bullies find irresistible
Targets of bullying usually have these qualities:
The typical sequence of events is:
There are many myths, misperceptions and stereotypes that bullies and their supporters, apologists and deniers disingenuously use to hide the facts listed above and to further victimise those targeted; click here for insight to counter these tactics.
What's the difference between bullying and harassment?
Acts of harassment usually centre around unwanted, offensive and intrusive behaviour with a sexual, racial or physical component. Measures to identify and proscribe acts of harassment derive from the Sex Discrimination Act, the Race Relations Act and the law of assault. More recently, the Disability Discrimination Act (1996), the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) and the Protection from Harassment Act (1996) have also influenced attitudes towards harassment. Significantly, the Protection from Harassment Act accords emphasis for the first time on the target's perception of the harassment rather than the perpetrator's alleged intent.
At present, if one is being bullied and is white, British, able-bodied and the same gender as the bully, one is not currently covered by discrimination law. Ironically, one is thus discriminated against by not qualifying under existing discrimination law. Whilst the DTI like to quote the Protection from Harassment Act as the way to deal with bullying at work, the Act is designed to deal with stalkers, not an incompetent manager criticising a subordinate in a work environment.
Under the previous Conservative government, the DTI similarly quoted the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act as the way to deal with bullying. To my knowledge not a single case of workplace bullying has been resolved by either act - or is ever likely to be.
Definitions of harassment and bullying vary and there is much overlap. The essential differences between harassment and workplace bullying are as follows:
|Has a strong physical component, eg contact and touch in all its forms, intrusion into personal space and possessions, damage to possessions including a person's work, etc||Almost exclusively psychological (eg criticism), may become physical later, especially with male bullies, but almost never with female bullies|
|Tends to focus on the individual because of what they are (eg female, black, disabled, etc)||Anyone will do, especially if they are competent, popular and vulnerable|
|Harassment is usually linked to sex, race, prejudice, discrimination, etc||Although bullies are deeply prejudiced, sex, race and gender play little part; it's usually discrimination on the basis of competence|
|Harassment may consist of a single incident or a few incidents or many incidents||Bullying is rarely a single incident and tends to be an accumulation of many small incidents, each of which, when taken in isolation and out of context, seems trivial|
|The person who is being harassed knows almost straight away they are being harassed||The person being bullied may not realise they are being bullied for weeks or months - until there's a moment of enlightenment|
|Everyone can recognise harassment, especially if there's an assault, indecent assault or sexual assault||Few people recognise bullying|
|Harassment often reveals itself through use of recognised offensive vocabulary, eg ("bitch", "coon", etc)||Workplace bullying tends to fixate on trivial criticisms and false allegations of underperformance; offensive words rarely appear, although swear words may be used when there are no witnesses|
|There's often an element of possession, eg as in stalking||Phase 1 of bullying is control and subjugation; when this fails, phase 2 is elimination of the target|
|The harassment almost always has a strong clear focus (eg sex, race, disability)||The focus is on competence (envy) and popularity (jealousy)|
|Often the harassment is for peer approval, bravado, macho image etc||Tends to be secret behind closed doors with no witnesses|
|Harassment takes place both in and out of work||The bullying takes place mostly at work|
|The harasser often perceives their target as easy, albeit sometimes a challenge||The target is seen as a threat who must first be controlled and subjugated, and if that doesn't work, eliminated|
|Harassment is often domination for superiority||Bullying is for control of threat (of exposure of the bully's own inadequacy)|
|The harasser often lacks self-discipline||The bully is driven by envy (of abilities) and jealousy (of relationships)|
|The harasser often has specific inadequacies (eg sexual)||The bully is inadequate in all areas of interpersonal and behavioural skills|
Where now at Bully OnLine?
How can I recognise that I'm being bullied?
What is bullying and why me? |Definitions of bullying
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about bullying
Overcoming myths, misperceptions and stereotypes
The answer to Why don't you stand up for yourself?
Bullying and vulnerability
Why have my colleagues deserted me?
What's the difference between bullying and mobbing?
What is harassment and discrimination?
Why grievance procedures are inappropriate for dealing with bullying
The difference between bullying and management
Facts, figures, surveys, costs of bullying |Cost of bullying to UK plc
UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line statistics
Profile of the serial bully - who does this describe in your life?
Antisocial Personality Disorder |Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Paranoid Personality Disorder |Borderline Personality Disorder
Bullies and attention-seeking behaviour
Munchausen Syndrome and MSBP
Information for nurses |Information for voluntary sector employees
Information for teachers being bullied
Bullying of lecturers in further education
Bullying of lecturers in higher education
Bullying in the social services sector
Bullying in the public sector - the political dimension and
why trade unions fail to support their members
Bullying in the military |Bullying of students
Scheduled training and conferences on bullying |Other events about bullying
Articles on bullying available online
Bullying on TV, radio and in print media
Requests to take part in surveys etc |Bullying issues needing research
Tim Field's quotes on bullying |Vision for bullying
Feedback about Bully OnLine | Survivor testimonies
The Secret Tragedy of Working: Work Abuse - PTSD Chauncey Hare
Bullying resources in: Australia |Canada |Finland |France |Germany |Ireland |Sweden |USA
Bully OnLine: Site map | Site index | Site search
Bullying at work (this page) |School bullying |Family bullying
Bullying news | Bullying case histories
Press releases and media centre
Action to tackle bullying | Bullying resources
Stress, PTSD and psychiatric injury | Related issues
Related web pages
The Field Foundation
Bully OnLine Home Page
Books on bullying and psychiatric injury