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Constant criticism, nit-picking, no empathy, control freak, denial, charm, glib, compulsive liar, devious, manipulative? Read this

The serial bully
How to spot signs and symptoms of serial bullies, sociopaths and psychopaths
including the sociopathic behaviour of the industrial psychopath and the corporate psychopath

Types of serial bully: The Attention-Seeker, The Wannabe, The Guru and The Sociopath

"All cruelty springs from weakness."
(Seneca, 4BC-AD65)

"Most organisations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person's divisive, disordered, dysfunctional behaviour can permeate the entire organisation like a cancer."
Tim Field

"The truth is incontrovertible; malice may attack it, ignorance my deride it, but in the end, there it is."
Winston Churchill

"Lack of knowledge of, or unwillingness to recognise, or outright denial of the existence of the serial bully is the most common reason for an unsatisfactory outcome of a bullying case for both the employee and employer"
Tim Field

I estimate one person in thirty, male or female, is a serial bully. Who does the following profile describe in your life?

The serial bully:


The serial bully appears to lack insight into his or her behaviour and seems to be oblivious to the crassness and inappropriateness thereof; however, it is more likely that the bully knows what they are doing but elects to switch off the moral and ethical considerations by which normal people are bound. If the bully knows what they are doing, they are responsible for their behaviour and thus liable for its consequences to other people. If the bully doesn't know what they are doing, they should be suspended from duty on the grounds of diminished responsibility and the provisions of the Mental Health Act should apply.

On this page
The can of worms behind every case
Introduction to the serial bully | Detailed profile of the serial bully
Types of serial bully: The Attention-Seeker, The Wannabe, The Sociopath and The Guru
Denial - avoiding acceptance of responsibility
Sexual assault and denial in the Paul Hickson case
Projection | Affairs | Validity of testimony | Other web pages
On another page
Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) | Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD) | Borderline Personality Disorder
Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy | Attention seeking
How, where and why bullies target their victims

The focus of this page is the serial bully in the workplace, however, the profile is relevant to most types of abusers, including:

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the serial bully in the workplace is also a serial bully at home and in the community.

The common objective of these offenders is power, control, domination and subjugation. What varies is the means by which these are pursued, ie the way in which violence is expressed. Most of the offenders in the list above commit criminal or arrestable offences; the serial bully commits mostly non-arrestable offences, for example:

Most cases of bullying involve a serial bully - one person to whom all the dysfunction can be traced. The serial bully has done this before, is doing it now - and will do it again. Investigation will reveal a string of predecessors who have either left unexpectedly or in suspicious circumstances, have taken early or ill-health retirement, have been unfairly dismissed, have been involved in disciplinary or legal action, or have had stress breakdowns. Serial bullies exploit the recent frenzy of downsizing and reorganisation to hinder recognition of the pattern of previous cases.

The serial bully in the workplace is often found in a job which is a position of power, has a high administrative or procedural content but little or no creative requirement, and which provides opportunities for demonstrating a "caring" or "leadership" nature.

Introduction to the serial bully

Embittered by an abusive upbringing, seething with resentment, irritated by others' failure to fulfil his or her superior sense of entitlement, and fuelled by anger resulting from rejection, the serial bully displays an obsessive, compulsive and self-gratifying urge to displace their uncontrolled aggression onto others whilst exhibiting an apparent lack of insight into their behavior and its effect on people around them. Jealousy and envy motivate the bully to identify a competent and popular individual who is then controlled and subjugated through projection of the bully's own inadequacy and incompetence. When the target asserts their right not to be bullied, a paranoid fear of exposure compels the bully to perceive that person as a threat and hence neutralise and dispose of them as quickly as possible. Once a person has been eliminated there's an interval of between 2 days and 2 weeks before the bully chooses another target and the cycle starts again.

Detailed profile of the serial bully

The serial bully also:

Other adjectives to describe the serial bully include cunning, conniving, scheming, calculating, cruel, sadistic, ruthless, treacherous, premeditated, exploitative, pernicious, malevolent, obnoxious, opportunist, unconcerned, etc.

The lack of interpersonal, social, and empathic skills are reminiscent of autism; the serial bully relies almost entirely on rules, procedures, aggression, denial and mimicry to hide their lack of people skills. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often excellent actors and mimics.

Most people with this profile are incompetent at their job and the bullying is intended to hide this incompetence. However, a few recent cases suggest that some serial bullies (especially the quiet ones):

New! Serial bully types

Attention-Seeker | Wannabe | Guru | Sociopath

The profile above covers the most commonly-reported behaviours of serial bullies. From casework I've been able to identify four primary types of serial bully:

The Attention-Seeker

Motivation: to be the centre of attention
Mindset: control freak, manipulation, narcissism
Malice: medium to high; when held accountable, very high

The Wannabe

Motivation: craves respect for being competent and professional despite lacking in competence and professionalism
Mindset: deceptive
Malice: low to medium; when held accountable, medium to high

The Guru

Motivation: task focused
Mindset: confusion, inability to understand how others think and feel
Malice: zero to low; when held accountable, low to medium (it's often the absence of malice that identifies a guru type of serial bully) but could be medium to high if narcissistic or psychopathic traits are present

The Socialised Psychopath or Sociopath

Also known as the corporate psychopath, workplace psychopath, industrial psychopath and administrative psychopath.

Motivation: power, gratification, personal gain, survival
Mindset: manipulation, deception, evil
Malice: high to very high; when held accountable, off the scale

Power over people

The serial bully is able to exert a hold over people for a variety of reasons.

Targets are disempowered such that they become dependent on the bully to allow them to get through each day without their life being made hell.

The serial bully is often able to bewitch an emotionally needy colleague into supporting them; this person then becomes the bully's spokesperson and advocate. How people can be so easily and repeatedly taken in by the bully's glib charm, Jekyll and Hyde nature, and constant lying is a mystery. Psychopaths are especially adept at conning people in this manner.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD)

The serial bully exhibits behaviours similar to or congruent with the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

The serial bully exhibits behaviours similar to or congruent with the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD)

The serial bully exhibits behaviours similar to or congruent with the diagnostic criteria for Paranoid Personality Disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Some visitors to Bully OnLine have suggested that the bullies in their lives exhibit characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder


Personality Disorders

There's more on Personality Disorders at

Avoiding acceptance of responsibility - denial, counterattack and feigning victimhood

The serial bully is an adult on the outside but a child on the inside; he or she is like a child who has never grown up. One suspects that the bully is emotionally retarded and has a level of emotional development equivalent to a five-year-old, or less. The bully wants to enjoy the benefits of living in the adult world, but is unable and unwilling to accept the responsibilities that go with enjoying the benefits of the adult world. In short, the bully has never learnt to accept responsibility for their behaviour.

When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, the bully instinctively exhibits this recognisable behavioural response:

a) Denial: the bully denies everything. Variations include Trivialization ("This is so trivial it's not worth talking about...") and the Fresh Start tactic ("I don't know why you're so intent on dwelling on the past" and "Look, what's past is past, I'll overlook your behaviour and we'll start afresh") - this is an abdication of responsibility by the bully and an attempt to divert and distract attention by using false conciliation. Imagine if this line of defence were available to all criminals ("Look I know I've just murdered 12 people but that's all in the past, we can't change the past, let's put it behind us, concentrate on the future so we can all get on with our lives" - this would do wonders for prison overcrowding).

b) Retaliation: the bully counterattacks. The bully quickly and seamlessly follows the denial with an aggressive counter-attack of counter-criticism or counter-allegation, often based on distortion or fabrication. Lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy and blame are the hallmarks of this stage. The purpose is to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for their behaviour. Often the target is tempted - or coerced - into giving another long explanation to prove the bully's allegation false; by the time the explanation is complete, everybody has forgotten the original question.

Both a) and b) are delivered with aggression in the guise of assertiveness; in fact there is no assertiveness (which is about recognising and respecting the rights of oneself and others) at all. Note that explanation - of the original question - is conspicuous by its absence.

c) Feigning victimhood: in the unlikely event of denial and counter-attack being insufficient, the bully feigns victimhood or feigns persecution by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt. This commonly takes the form of bursting into tears, which most people cannot handle. Variations include indulgent self-pity, feigning indignation, pretending to be "devastated", claiming they're the one being bullied or harassed, claiming to be "deeply offended", melodrama, martyrdom ("If it wasn't for me...") and a poor-me drama ("You don't know how hard it is for me ... blah blah blah ..." and "I'm the one who always has to...", "You think you're having a hard time ...", "I'm the one being bullied..."). Other tactics include manipulating people's perceptions to portray themselves as the injured party and the target as the villain of the piece. Or presenting as a false victim. Sometimes the bully will suddenly claim to be suffering "stress" and go off on long-term sick leave, although no-one can quite establish why. Alleged ill-health can also be a useful vehicle for gaining attention and sympathy. For suggestions on how to counter this see the advice on the FAQ page.

By using this response, the bully is able to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for what they have said or done. It is a pattern of behaviour learnt by about the age of 3; most children learn or are taught to grow out of this, but some are not and by adulthood, this avoidance technique has been practised to perfection.

A further advantage of the denial/counter-attack/feigning victimhood strategy is that it acts as a provocation. The target, who may have taken months to reach this stage, sees their tormentor getting away with it and is provoked into an angry and emotional outburst after which the bully says simply "There, I told you s/he was like that". Anger is one of the mechanisms by which bullies (and all abusers) control their targets. By tapping in to and obtaining an inappropriate release of pent-up anger the bully plays their master stroke and casts their victim as villain.

When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, mature adults do not respond by bursting into tears. If you're dealing with a serial bully who has just exhibited this avoidance tactic, sit passively and draw attention to the pattern of behaviour they've just exhibited, and then the purpose of the tactic. Then ask for an answer to the question.

Bullies also rely on the denial of others and the fact that when their target reports the abuse they will be disbelieved ("are your sure this is really going on?", "I find it hard to believe - are you sure you're not imagining it?"). Frequently targets are asked why they didn't report the abuse before, and they will usually reply "because I didn't think anyone would believe me." Sadly they are often right in this assessment. Because of the Jekyll & Hyde nature, compulsive lying, and plausibility, no-one can - or wants - to believe it. Click here for a detailed explanation of the target's reluctance to report abuse.

Denial features in most cases of sexual assault, as in the case of Paul Hickson, the UK Olympic swimming coach who sexually assaulted and raped teenage girls in his care over a period of 20 years or more. When his victims were asked why they didn't report the abuse, most replied "Because I didn't think anyone would believe me". Abusers confidently, indeed arrogantly, rely on this belief, often aggressively inculcating (instilling) the belief ("No-one will ever believe you") just after the sexual assault when their victim is in a distressed state. Targets of bullying in the workplace often come up against the same attitudes by management when they report a bullying colleague. In a workplace environment, the bully usually recruits one or two colleagues (sometimes one is a sleeping partner - see Affairs below) who will back up the bully's denial when called to account.


Serial bullies harbour a particular hatred of anyone who can articulate their behaviour profile, either verbally or in writing - as on this page - in a manner which helps other people see through their deception and their mask of deceit. The usual instinctive response is to launch a bitter personal attack on the person's credentials, lack of qualifications, and right to talk about personality disorders, psychopathic personality etc, whilst preserving their right to talk about anything they choose - all the while adding nothing to the debate themselves.

Serial bullies hate to see themselves and their behaviour reflected as if they are looking into a mirror.


Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviours etc on to other people to avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it (learning about oneself can be painful), and to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies. Projection is achieved through blame, criticism and allegation; once you realise this, every criticism, allegation etc that the bully makes about their target is actually an admission or revelation about themselves. This knowledge can be used to perceive the bully's own misdemeanours; for instance, when the allegations are of financial or sexual impropriety, it is likely that the bully has committed these acts; when the bully makes an allegation of abuse (such allegations tend to be vague and non-specific), it is likely to be the bully who has committed the abuse. When the bully makes allegations of, say, "cowardice" or "negative attitude" it is the bully who is a coward or has a negative attitude.

In these circumstances, the bully has to understand that if specious and insubstantive allegations are made, the bully will also be investigated.

When the symptoms of psychiatric injury become apparent to others, most bullies will play the Mental Health Trap, claiming their target is "mentally ill" or "mentally unstable" or has a "mental health problem". It is more likely that this allegation is a projection of the bully's own mental health problems. If this trap is being used on you, assert "projection" as a defence against disciplinary action or as part of your legal proceedings.

It is a key identifying feature of a person with a personality disorder or psychopathic personality that, when called to account, they will accuse the person who is unmasking them of being the one with the personality disorder or psychopathic personality from which they (the bully) suffer.


Of over 10,000 cases of bullying reported to Bully OnLine and the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, in at least half the cases, the bully is having an affair with another member of staff. The affair has little to do with friendship, and a lot to do with strategic alliance in pursuit of power, control, domination and subjugation. In a further quarter of cases, there's often a suspected affair, and in the remaining quarter, there is often a relationship with another member of staff based not so much on sexual attraction but on a mutual admiration for the way each other behaves.

If the bully is a female in a junior position, she finds a weak male in a senior position (this is usually not difficult) - for example the President, Chief Executive, any Senior Executive, Finance Director, Personnel Director, or Departmental Director, etc - then gains patronage, protection and reward (eg promotion) by traditional methods. Once promotion is gained, the female calculates who can give her the next promotion; if the first male cannot, he is ditched and another adopted. The males are unlikely to admit this is happening or has happened.

If the bully is a male in a senior position, he is often sleeping with a secretary or office administrator, as this is where he gets his information and where he spreads his disinformation. Sometimes the female junior can be identified by her reward, eg being the only person allowed to hold the keys of the stock cupboard (everyone has to grovel to her if they want a new pen), or being put in charge of the office in the bully's absence when there are others who are senior to her who would make more appropriate deputies.

Most serial bullies have unhappy and unsatisfactory private lives which are characterised by a string of broken relationships. If you are the current target of a serial bully and taking legal action, a little digging into the bully's past, including their personal life, will usually unearth some unsavoury facts that the bully would prefer not to be made public. In some cases, serial bullies have been found to have criminal convictions for fraud, or to have been compelled to attend therapy or counselling for their habit of compulsive lying, or they might have a record of domestic violence. Under normal circumstances making these facts part of the proceedings might be considered unethical; however, if you're the target of a serial bully, the circumstances are not normal.

Validity of testimony

Because of the serial bully's Jekyll and Hyde nature, compulsive lying, charm and plausibility, the validity of this person's testimony cannot be relied on in disciplinary proceedings, appeal hearings, and under oath at tribunal and in court. Emphasise this when taking action.

Mediation with this type of individual is inappropriate. Serial bullies regard mediation (and arbitration, conciliation, negotiation etc) as appeasement, which they ruthlessly exploit; it allows them to give the impression in public that they are negotiating and being conciliatory, whilst in private they continue the bullying. The lesson of the twentieth century is that you do not appease aggressors.

The disordered thinking processes of the criminal / antisocial mind are succinctly described in Stanton E Samenow's book Straight talk about criminals. For example:

"Certain people who I term non-arrestable criminals behave criminally towards others , but they are sufficiently fearful [and knowledgeable of the law - TF] so that they do not commit major crimes. We all know them: individuals who shamelessly use others to gain advantage for themselves. Having little empathy, they single-mindedly pursue their objectives and have little remorse for the injuries they inflict. If others take them to task, they become indignant and self-righteous and blame circumstances. Such people share much in common with the person who makes crime a way of life. Although they may not have broken the law, they nonetheless victimize others."
(Chapter 8, The criminal mind exists independent of particular laws, culture or customs)

In Samenow's 1984 book Inside the criminal mind he uses this description:

"Some criminals are smooth rather than contentious, ingratiating rather than surly, devious rather than intimidating. They pretend to be interested in what others say. Appearing to invite suggestions, they inwardly dismiss each idea without considering its merits. They seem to take criticism in stride but ignore it and spitefully make mental note of who the critic was. They misuse authority and betray trust but are not blatant about doing so. With the criminal at the helm, employee morale deteriorates. His method of operation sooner or later discourages others from proposing innovative ideas and developing creative solutions."
(Chapter 6, Work and the criminal)

I recommend both Samenow's books.

Other web pages of interest

Robert D Hare is a world-leading authority on psychopathic behaviour and author of The Hare PCL-R Psychopathy Checklist Revised. See and his articles: Psychopaths: New Trends in Research and Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder: A Case of Diagnostic Confusion

The B-Scan 360 - identifying dysfunctional behaviour in managers and potential managers:

Industrial Psychopaths can thrive in business: not all psychopaths end up in prison. Many are found in management positions, according to Dr Paul Babiak speaking at the annual meeting of the American Neuropsychiatric Association.

Treatment for psychopaths is likely to make them worse by Robert Hare, PhD.

Channel 4 Equinox Science of crime examines psychopaths.

Dealing with manipulative people: an excerpt from the book In Sheep's Clothing By George K Simon.

Tribal Elders has links to sites on narcissism and psychopathy.

New! Beware the sociopath: no heart, no conscience, no remorse: how to spot a sociopathic love fraud con artist explores the relationships between bullying, abuse, mobbing, psychopathy and emotional intelligence in various contexts.

Case histories of people who are dealing with or have dealt with a serial bully.

Discussion forum on psychopaths

Personality Disorders

PSYCHOPATH is a learning, resource and support group



Are you married to a psychopath? Robert Matthews writes in The Sunday Telegraph, 10 May 1997

Go-getting managers revealed as psychopaths, Robert Matthews writes in The Sunday Telegraph, 10 May 1997

How to spot the socialised psycho, Robert Matthews tells you how to recognise a psychopath, Sunday Telegraph, 10 May 1997

Yes, I live with a psychopath, Robert Matthews writes more about psychopaths following a flood of letters in response to his previous article. Sunday Telegraph, 12 July 1997.

Psycho bosses on the loose: are you in their line of fire? Hilary Freeman writes about psychopathic bosses in the Rise section for graduate of The Guardian, 10 March 2001.

Chief executives should be screened to weed out psychopaths, says Robert Hare

Snakes in suits and how to spot them, an article on psychopaths in corporations in The Times

Serotonin and dopamine levels may be important in psychopathic behaviour

Daily Mail article Is that a psycho sitting next to you at work?

Kate Hilpern in The Guardian reveals the socialised psychopath as charming and plausible, but they hide a dark secret.

Michael Steinberger in the New York Times looks at corporate psychopaths thrive on constant downsizing and relentless merging.

Working with Monsters - dealing with the workplace psychopath: John Clarke discusses his book Working with Monsters: How to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopath on ABC Brisbane.

Is your boss a psychopath? Probably, if we are to believe the results of a new scientific study, says the Guardian's Oliver James.

Snakes in suits: transcript of Australian Radio National program about corporate psychopaths with Robert Hare and Paul Babiak:

Psychopaths or Psychopathic Students in Criminal Justice: A Problem for the Profession of Criminal Justice by Russell Eisenman.

Of Criminals And CEOs: the difference between bold, creative visionaries and deluded psychopaths is not as big as it used to be, Tara Pepper writes in Newsweek.

University of Southern California study shows brains of pathological liars differ from normal people.


Without conscience, the disturbing world of psychopaths among us, Robert D Hare, The Guilford Press, 1999, ISBN 1-57230-451-0.

The mask of sanity, Hervey Cleckley, C V Mosby Publishing, Fifth Edition, 1976. The standard work on psychopathy which describes at length the damage a psychopath causes to the family unit and to society.

New! Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job: Working with the narcissists, borderlines, sociopaths, schizoids, and others, Alan A Cavaiola PhD and Neil J Lavender PhD, New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition, 2000

More insight into the serial bully...

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