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How to .... spot bullying at work

Posted by Denise on 17 February 2012 | 0 Comments

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Identifying bullying is a difficult skill.  The problem with bullying is that it isn’t always easily spotted.  It can either be a set of visible behaviours  that the perpetrator doesn’t understand constitutes bullying or  it can be a deliberately deployed set of toxic behaviours displayed by a person who uses their personal and professional power to crush the power of others.

Bullying is defined by the effect of the behaviour, even though there may not be a specific intent to bully.   Put more simply, it’s not about what was intended, it’s about how it was received.

Bullies can fall into two types;  the visible aggressive type and the charming but manipulative, sometimes cunning,  perpetrator who works under the radar.

So what are the workplace indicators that might signal that you have a workplace bullying problem?

Low Morale

Low morale and lack of motivation can be signs that people  are miserable and unhappy at work, which can be a result of a bullying manager or team member.   Whilst it may not necessarily point to bullying occurring, it is a potential cause that should be explored.

Changed / Poor performance

A negative relationship with a bully in the workplace will affect performance in some way.  A previously competent and reliable performer may exhibit either a steady decline or a sudden drop in the quality of their work.   The victim may demonstrate decision making problems, lack of focus and concentration, loss of self-confidence and belief in their abilities. Basic tasks such as phone calls, conversations and routine personal tasks become difficult.  The victim may withdraw from work social events and will keep their head down in the workplace.


Teams with a bullying leader often have a high absence rate.  Being bullied is highly traumatic and victims are likely to experience high levels of physical and psychological stress which can result in anxiety, sleeping problems,  and inability to cope with seemingly simple stuff .  In a toxic workplace, absenteeism is a way of avoiding the perpetrator.

Intra-Team Conflict

A manager / team leader sets the tone of communication in their team.   Individuals led by an unchallenged bully will learn that such behaviour is acceptable in the organisation.  Over time this behaviour will  filter out to other parts of the organisation, eventually turning a positive, performance focused culture to one that is toxic.  Many years ago I witnessed this with the change of the top person in an organisation.  At alarming speed the culture changed  from a great place to work to one of aggressive, negative toxic behaviours at every level of the organisation.  The result?  Good people left and the organization  developed a poor employer reputation which affected their recruitment.  Business results dropped.  It continued to spiral downwards until it was eventually bought out.

High Staff Turnover

Staff who are being bullied or who observe unchallenged bullying may eventually vote with their feet.  Persistent criticism, unrealistic expectations, unpredictable punishments and unpleasant behaviour will cause people to leave.   With a covert bully it may be difficult to identify if the high turnover is caused by bullying behaviour.  Exit interviews are one way of uncovering this.   However  people  may  refuse to give an exit interview for fear of future reference.  More than one person refusing to give an exit interview is a signal that you need to look closely at what is going on in the team.  Have an external, independent person speak with ex-employees

Aggressive Behaviour

The visible aggressive bully is easy to spot.  When they are people leaders they may suggest  they are demonstrating ‘tough management’ rooted in positional power and control.  There’s a difference between command and control driven management and positive management that is fair, just, strong and results driven.

The manipulative, controlled bully is not so easy to spot.  However, even the most controlled bully will at some point lose control; blaming others publicly, shouting, swearing, name-calling, threats and insults.  When this happens tackle it quickly and firmly.  To leave it unchallenged  is to leave your staff unprotected and your organisation open to litigation.

Don't ignore it, do something about it...

Bullying isn’t ok.  If you think you have a problem in the workplace don’t ignore it and hope it will go away.  It won’t.  It will get worse.  Seek advice about how to turn things around and take visible action.  Involve your staff;  help them to understand what bullying is and communicate your expectations  of positive behaviours.  For those affected by a bully it will be the light at the end of the tunnel, a signal that things will get better.  For the bully;  well they will either turn their behaviours around or go somewhere else where they can continue to inflict destruction.

Click here for a handout on Workplace Bullying Behaviours

Click here for a factsheet on Bullying and Gender

adapted from a CIPD article.

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