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Bullies in the Workplace

Bullies in the Workplace

Bully, Effectiveness, Workplace, Productivity, HR Management, strategyWhen “Jim” accepted a job with an oil services company, he didn’t realize he was putting his career at risk.  He’d heard stories that his new boss “Bill” was one tough son of a gun and that those who got on Bill’s wrong side didn’t last long.  Jim didn’t worry, he was tough too.

“Anne” didn’t benefit from the same forewarning.  When she landed what she thought was a dream job, she quickly bonded with her charismatic boss “Karla.”  When Karla liberally poured wine at an informal evening out and said “tell me all about you,” Anne did.

Like many others in the country, Jim and Anne found themselves in a job nightmare.  According to an Associated Press alert, 29 percent of all U.S. managers and employees deal with workplace bullies.

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) white paper reports that “one out of six individuals report being bullied at some time at work during their careers.”   According to SHRM’s latest survey, bullying in the workplace is three times as prevalent as illegal discrimination and occurs at least 1,600 times as often as workplace violence.  Although no state currently protects employees against workplace bullying, bills before the Massachusetts, Illinois and New York legislatures may change that.

Bullies come in many sizes and types, among them the character assassin, the micro-managing control freak; the silent grenade ready to explode and the opportunistic, manipulative backstabber.  Like schoolyard bullies that throw spitballs, workplace bullies generally launch their attack by making unjustified accusations about their target’s character, competency, personality or emotional stability.  By creating hearsay they erode others’ respect for and trust in their target.   Left unchecked, they undermine their target’s self-confidence and work relationships.

Many initially try to ignore workplace bullies, hoping if they act professionally the bully will leave them alone or act nicely in return.  Often, those targeted view the initial bully onslaught as a one-time event.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Bullies perceive niceness and avoidance as weakness and an invitation to take advantage.  Those who don’t stand up to the bully’s initial attack inadvertently encourage continued bullying.

Most individuals confronting a workplace bully expect to receive support from co-workers or another senior manager.  Unfortunately, because many bullies show their true selves only to their target while maintaining a charming front toward others, and because most individuals give the benefit of the doubt to the bully unless they personally experience the attack, bystanders rarely help those slammed by bullies.  When those on the sidelines finally realize what’s going on, they may consider the fight not theirs or even run for cover.

Unfortunately, those confronted by a bully often instinctively make exactly the wrong moves, either playing into the bully’s hands or naively coming across as an easy target.  These wrong moves include trying to appease the bully; stooping to the bully’s level and thus losing others’ respect; letting the bully isolate you from others and wasting energy by responding to phony issues.

What does it take to stop a bully?  You – because bullies lack internal brakes, those who want to stop a bully from steamrollering or trampling over them have to out-maneuver the the bully.     When under attack you can’t afford ordinary reactions such as letting the bully push your emotional hot buttons; becoming angry or arguing; pleading, giving in; taking the bully’s words at face value; trying to appease the bully or agreeing under pressure or stooping to the bully’s level.   When you react to a bully’s provocative attack, you give the bully the upper hand.

To avoid these nonproductive yet instinctive reactions, take a moment to realize what’s going on and ask yourself “what game is this?”  Then, don’t play.  For example, if the bully confronts you with “where did you come up with this crap?” respond straightforwardly and non-defensively with “it came from the Harvard Business Review” or whatever source you used.

You can further out-maneuver the bully and avoid non-productive point-counterpoint arguments by countering attacks with questions.  For example, if the bully mutters, “you sure screwed this up,” ask “in what way?”  If the bully says, “just about every way you could have,” then respond, “as soon as you give me a specific, we can move forward.”  By rising above the attacks and offering to deal with real issues, your actions announce “bullying won’t fly with me.”

The good news -- bullying is a two way interaction.  You can’t be bullied if you refuse to play the bully’s game by his rules.  If you don’t play along, you merely witness a failed attempt to bully you.

Soon after he started his job, Jim correctly assessed that Bill treated well those he considered in his camp.  Hoping to move up fast, Jim became Bill’s hatchet man on jobs he chose to delegate and worked seventy hour weeks on projects for which Bill took credit.  Within a year Jim had a reputation nearly as negative as Bill’s and yet higher ups in his company viewed Jim as a strong producer who got tough jobs done fast.

When Bill realized Jim might upstage him, he decided to take Jim out.  The two men fought relentlessly until Jim decided he’d had it.  Unfortunately, the stress trashed Jim’s personal life as well and the resulting divorce so disheartened Jim he stepped off the career escalator he’d hoped to ascend.

Soon after Anne started, she experienced Karla’s dark side.  Karla pushed Anne to spy on others in the building.  When Anne hesitated, Karla asked Anne if she’d like others knowing some of Anne’s secrets, including the fact she’d danced topless to pay her college tuition.  When Anne got caught shifting through papers on a lead manager’s desk, Karla disclaimed all knowledge of the situation and personally fired Anne.

Do you work with a bully?  Don’t play the bully’s games.


Quick Link: Confronting Workplace Bullying - Special Report Free Download

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Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @, via her workplace 911/411 blog, or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.

  1. Great post Lynne! Any insights if it is the supervisor who engages in emotional bullying?

    • Hi, Tresha, I’m working on on update that relates specifically to this. Thanks!

  2. Very good article. I like it because it captures a lot of good information in an easy to read time frame – very succinct. I wonder…do you have any recommendations for good anti bullying videos or powerpoints to train both team leaders and team members?

    • Hi, Kelly, I’ll look around. And if I find one, will post it here. And do you want to send an email address or connect with us on LinkedIn? I’m at and @lynnecurry10 on twitter. Lynne

  3. Good article Lynne. I have experienced working with the office bully. I agree with your statement the key being not given in to playing the bully’s game. When a person adapts to playing the game, they give up their own power, which gives the bully the recognition and control they desire. At this point it’s easy to determine who the winner is and who has lost out.
    Thank you!

    • You are so right Jamie, the bully will eventually loose out. If you are the productive employee, which is also the one being bullied, the boss will not say it, but will certainly miss you.
      So sorry to you also for having to experience a bully, it is not a good envirnment I would wish on anyone.
      Hope you got out and have now know what a great workplace, minus the bully, feels like!
      Thank you for sharing!

  4. I worked for a bully and it wasn’t good for my health. And Lynne, I agree, don’t give into the power that they so need. When I did or backed down some, things only had gotten worse. So many times this person made me feel small and that I had learned nothing over my career, which I knew better, but started to question. Once you start to question your experience, knowledge and worth, it is time to go!
    I have to say, I am doing much better, health is great and I have taken so much knowledge with me, which is better than the bad habits and bully teaches I would have if still there.
    People need to stand up and not allow bullying at work to continue; it makes for a very poor work envirnment and for those worrying about health costs, will raise them. Be sure you can look you in the mirror everyday and be happy with what you see. If you look in the mirror and see you letting the bully win and not happy with who you are becoming, time to cut the tie!
    Good Luck to all those and hope you the best in your situations, if you have one!

  5. This is such a difficult situation. In tough times when people need jobs they are willing to put up with this behavior. This type of behavior becomes a culture within a workplace and intolerance is the norm. Find those within a workplace who take the high road, don’t gossip, and don’t play games. There is safety in numbers and don’t jeopardize or question your own sanity. Bullies are not brave, they are insecure and small people.Be brave and secure in who you are.

  6. The worst situation is when the bully owns the company…there is nobody higher up to complain to.

  7. Thank you for your important and timely article, Dr. Curry.

    As an external workplace conflict consultant specializing in mediation and working with abrasive employees, I am concerned about the perception that resolving the matter is the responsibility of the target of the behavior. While this can definitely be empowering, it can also perpetuate feelings of weakness and powerless if the approach is not successful. Additionally, there is always the very real possibility that the employee will be reprimanded for insubordination.

    As indicated by your article, “bullying” is ultimately complex.

    I am often contacted by workplace representatives (Human Resources personnel, employees, employers, etc.) who describe situations that could potentially involve bullying. However, the perception that some such situations merely involve a “conflict” or “personality difference” may prompt a request for mediation. If during my initial casework (which involves confidential conversations with the parties and explaining the mediation process), I determine that bullying may be involved, I will let the parties know that I would not recommend mediation at this point in time. Because “self-determination” is the foundation of mediation, I listen closely to the parties’ needs and interests. If both parties believe mediation is something they’d like to try, and I conclude that mediation will not risk greater harm, I may proceed. However, I may offer alternatives that may (or may not) eventually lead to mediation.

    As indicated by a couple of the comments so far, the power imbalance (particularly in situations in which the “bully” is the supervisor and/or the person to whom such behavior is to be reported) may be so great, the target is left to fend for him or herself in many cases. These can be extremely difficult situations in which the only “solution” is to resign. These situations don’t necessarily mean that the employee is “weak.” It may mean the employee has courageously exhausted all known avenues for resolution and have determined the situation is beyond his or her control.

    Thank you for your efforts in this area.

  8. Jamei, Brenda, Debra, Shelley, I agree with the points being made & insights offered and Debra of course I’d like your materials. I’ve written now about a dozen articles on Bullying. I’ll make sure I send at least one more to Tresha as I value how she puts out such a good forum on an important topic. At some point soon, I’m hoping to put together an E-book on the topic and will plan to work with Tresha on that. Lynne

  9. Hi Kelly, here is one of the best bullying videos Ive found on the web.
    The video points out the organization’s responsibility for addressing the problem, states that mediation is not an effective resolution, gives credibility to perceptions and all in all it’s a well thought out video that shares most of the issues around wpb. I would have liked to have seen the video touch on the affect that demonizing bullies has had and continues to have to our inability to resolve the problem. Understanding the abrasive behaviour is crucial if we ever expect to resolve it.

    Lynne, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I feel people can learn not to play the game as long as the bully is not in a more powerful position and even then it can be difficult as the mental strain and pain can become too much for those targets who are usually kind, caring, compassionate people and importantly seen as a threat by the bully who we see defending against being perceived as incompetent.
    We so often hear about the target coming off second best when trying to expose the reality of the situation, those they seek help from are unable to help for one of many reasons. Hopefully now that we understand so much more and are able to offer a process that deals with the core root of the behaviour, we will see positive and lasting change in the next few years.

  10. Women are more frequently bullied than men. In fact, a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 62 percent of bullies were men and 58 percent of targets were women. The survey also revealed that the majority (68 percent) of bullying is same-gender harassment and that women bullies target women 80 percent of the time.


  1. Bullies in the Workplace | HR C-Suite | Leaders... - […] Find out what it takes to stop a workplace bully. (Bullies in the Workplace (via Instapaper))  […]

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