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Being bullied at work? How to recognise the signs and take appropriate action 12/05/2014

Bullying is a gradual wearing down process that makes individuals feel demeaned and inadequate, that they can never get anything right, and that they are hopeless, not only within their work environment, but also in their domestic life.

Being bullied at work? How to recognise the signs and take appropriate action

Click to jump to section

  1. Definining workplace bullying
  2. Signs of bullying behaviour
  3. Do you suffer from any of the following?
  4. Why me?
  5. Taking action
  6. Things to remember to do
  7. How to handle your complaint
  8. Remember that bullying is not your fault
  9. Are you a strong management or a bully?
  10. Impact on organisation

Definining workplace bullying

One of the difficulties in approaching the problem of workplace bullying, is that the signs may be hard to recognise and its effects may be attributed to something else, for it creeps up on you long before you are able to appreciate what it is that is making you feel the ill effects.

A good deal of workplace bullying can be overlooked or excused because of a number of euphemisms which are frequently used to justify bullying behaviours.

Bullying at work signs:

  • Harassment 
  • Intimidation 
  • Aggression 
  • Bad attitude 
  • Coercive management
  • Personality clash 
  • Poor management style 

There really is no simple definition of bullying because it can take so many forms, occur in a variety of situations and crosses gender, race, age and can involve one or a number of individuals. However, we define this behaviour as: 

  • Unwarranted humiliating offensive behaviour towards an individual or groups of employees.
  • Such persistently negative malicious attacks on personal or professional performance are typically unpredictable, unfair, irrational and often unseen. 
  • An abuse of power or position that can cause such anxiety that people gradually lose all belief in themselves, suffering physical ill health and mental distress as a direct result. 
  • Bullying can be regarded as the use of position or power to coerce others by fear, persecution or to oppress them by force or threat. It has been identified as a more crippling and devastating problem for both employees and employers, than all the other work related stresses put together. Workplace bullying can range from extreme forms such as violence and intimidation to less obvious actions, like deliberately ignoring someone at work. Yet the disturbing manifestations of adult bullying in this particular context are widely dismissed.

Signs of bullying behaviour

Bullies are often insecure people who do not trust others and see them as a threat to their own positions. Their techniques range from outright aggression such as shouting and swearing and humiliating their targets in front of others, to psychological torture. Bullying can begin innocuously enough, so that the target is at first unsure of their suppressor’s intentions.


  • Repeatedly shouting or swearing in public or private 
  • Public humiliation 
  • Persistent criticism 
  • Constantly undervaluing effort 
  • Personal insults and name calling 
  • Persecution through fear or threats 
  • Dispensing unfair punishment out of the blue 
  • Increasing responsibility whilst decreasing authority 
  • Being overruled, ignored, marginalised or excluded 


  • Setting individuals up to fail 
  • Setting uncontracted tasks 
  • Setting unrealistic deadlines for an increased workload 
  • Removing areas of responsibility and imposing menial tasks 
  • Deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance 
  • Constantly changing guidelines 
  • Withholding work related information 


How to tell if you are really being bullied. If you feel: 

  • Your working relationship feels different from any you have previously experienced
  • You are being persistently ‘got at’ 
  • Your work is being criticised even though you know that your standards have not slipped 
  • You start beginning to question whether these mistakes you are supposed to have made, really are your fault. If this is an accurate picture of what is happening to you at work, reflect on what has happened in the recent past and ask yourself, if everything was alright before, then why not now? 
  • What has changed? 
  • Do you have a new boss? 
  • Has pressure on your current boss increased? 
  • Have you recently changed jobs? 
  • Are your objectives being repeatedly altered? 
  • Have you been asked to do things outside your job description? 
  • Are you under more personal scrutiny? 
  • Are you feeling less involved?

Do you suffer from any of the following?


  • Sleeplessness 
  • Nausea 
  • Migraine/severe headaches 
  • Palpitations 
  • Skin complaints 
  • Sweating/shaking 
  • Stomach problems 
  • Backache 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Lethargy 


Why me?

A target is usually selected on the basis that they are either more attractive, competent, successful, popular. It is a sad fact too that the targets of office bullies are often usually above average performers, efficient and often better at what they do than those who bully them.

Taking action

Before you decide to take action through official channels, it's worth considering an informal approach. Bullying at work usually affects several members of staff at any one time. The more people experiencing the same type of conduct, the less likely any complaint will be thought of as a personality clash on your part. So, check to see if any of your colleagues are experiencing the same treatment as you. 

Initial tactics recommended to deflect the bully are broadly to stand firm, remain confident and keep calm. Asserting yourself by keeping a detailed record of every verbal or other attack will provide sound evidence to confront the bully with at a later stage. The need for proof is essential. If you feel you are being bullied at work you should not suffer in silence but should seek immediate advice from your union or personnel/health and safety officers. 

Those who are the prime targets often feel ashamed to talk about it with colleagues because they feel their professional credibility is being called into question. Be strong, it is not your fault. Do not become isolated, seek support and remember you also have a position of power because your ability or popularity threatens the bully – that is why you are the target. 

Bullying is a severe offence which must be taken seriously by all employers. Your complaints must be believed and dealt with swiftly and sensitively. All too often however, this is not the case.

Things to remember to do

  • Make sure that you know exactly what your job description is so that you can check whether the responsibilities you are given match it.
  •  Keep a record of all incidents which cause you distress or are undermining, and any disparaging attacks on your character or personal competence – log dates and details and write down your feelings after each such occurrence together with your own response.
  • Keep copies of all annual appraisals and correspondence relating to your ability to do the job.
  • Try to get witnesses to bullying incidents – try to avoid situations where you are alone with the bully. Talk to colleagues and see if they will support you. If the bully has made any disparaging claims against you then send them a memo refuting them. Any reply will add to your evidence, as will a refusal to respond.
  • Find out if your employer has a policy on harassment or unacceptable behaviour, which may cover bullying.
  • Take evidence of your experience to your trade union, welfare officer, equal opportunities, health & safety, occupational health advisers or personnel officers.

How to handle your complaint

Keep your complaint as objective as possible so that you can’t be accused of filing the complaint out of malice or ambition. Stand calm and firm and do not allow yourself to be a target but do not take action alone if you are afraid of losing control. 

Sick leave need not be a sign of weakness, it can be a strategy to take time over decisions about what to do next. Make sure you keep all those you have asked for help informed of all developments. 

Follow the company grievance procedures with the help and support of your union or personnel officers. If you do decide to resign, let your company know that you are leaving because you have been bullied. It may well help others in future. 

If you wish to pursue a legal claim against your employer for constructive dismissal or a personal injury claim, seek advice from your Union in the first instance, for if you have a well founded case they will take it up on your behalf.

Talk to friends and family for emotional support. Find out from your GP if counselling is available and make an appointment. Remember that you are the most important person in all of this and to look after yourself is of paramount importance.

Remember that bullying is not your fault

We ask: “Does the courtroom really have to be the appropriate battleground?” Surely in reality the ideal place to solve the problem must be in the workplace itself. Recognition and awareness of workplace bullying is essential if we are to move forward. Mechanisms to deal with bullying are very hard to identify but nevertheless are required in an attempt to work towards good human relations at work.

Are you a strong management or a bully?

Bullying is a sustained form of psychological abuse and often emanates from a senior person taking what they feel is a ‘strong line’ with employees. There is, however, a fine line between strong management and bullying. That line is crossed when the target of bullying is persistently downgraded with the result that they begin to show signs of being distressed, becoming either physically, mentally or psychologically hurt.

It can be distinguished from other work related problems, in that it's not the intention of the perpetrator, but the deed itself and its impact on the recipient or target that constitutes workplace bullying.

It makes your working life utterly miserable, can leave you full of self-doubt, affects performance and is the source of both high absenteeism and in many cases, prolonged sick leave. There are documented cases of major physical impairments of health and many more cases involving nervous breakdown, psychological distress and personality change, besides the intolerable pressure of acute financial repercussions and the total fracturing of careers. It can have a devastating effect on your family.

Impact on organisation

Many individuals who bully will excuse such behaviour as a necessary means of motivating an employee in the highly competitive commercial environment of today. However, the impact on an organisation can be devastating:

  • Increased sick absence 
  • Increased absenteeism 
  • Reduced productivity 
  • High staff turnover 
  • Costly retraining 
  • Low staff morale 
  • Demotivation 
  • Increase in tribunal cases 
  • Civil action for stress 
  • Costly law suits 
  • Risk to public image 
  • Damage to corporate image 
  • Loss of client / customer confidence

Bullying in organisations is, therefore, not only a problem for the individual but also for the organisation as a whole.

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Natalie Cooper, managing editor, Changeboard

Natalie Cooper, managing editor, Changeboard

Natalie Cooper is the managing editor at Changeboard.