Three tales of workplace bullies and how to stop them

17 August 2015 -


As the rise of career-killing bullies continues, Professional Manager looks at what drives these oppressors and how organisations can act to stop them in their tracks. 

Luisa Cheshire

When Kate* took her first university job after a stint at Harvard and completing her PhD in record time, she had no idea her boss would crush her dreams of a glittering academic career. Nor did Alex* expect that the arrival of a new line manager would sever his nine successful years at a global market research company. Similarly, Anna* never thought that collaborating with a colleague would lead to months of misery and her progression at their not-for-profit organisation blocked.

Meet the victims of hidden bullies at work. All three had exemplary professional track records, yet were made to feel worthless and incompetent by bullies who destroyed their self-confidence and ultimately wrecked their careers.

To make matters worse, their respective organisations did nothing to stop it, leaving the bullies free to strike again.

Bullying is rife in the workplace. Ask anyone you know, and the chances are they have been bullied at work or have a friend who has. This shocking trend is on the rise, according to Dr Sheila Keegan, business consultant and chartered psychologist, in her latest book The Psychology of Fear in Organizations.


In 2007, a US study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 37% of those surveyed claimed to have been bullied at work and 62% of firms had done nothing about it.

Since then, there’s been a steady growth in workplace bullying allegations, says Keegan, who suggests pressure on managers to meet performance targets in the post-recession climate is one reason for the increase.

But what is bullying? The UK Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

Such behaviour, Keegan says, may be persistent or occasional, and comes in many forms. In Alex’s case, he was repeatedly told he was incompetent because he was unable to achieve the impossible targets his new manager set him. Over a period of months, Kate’s boss told her she was a “disappointment”, but without giving clear instructions about her job. Anna, meanwhile, was undermined, criticised and ridiculed through subtle asides and endless emails.

Physical and psychological consequences

Whatever the tactics, bullying can have catastrophic consequences: chronic stress, high blood pressure and increased risk of coronary heart disease have all been cited by medical research, according to Keegan. And victims can suffer long-term, sometimes permanent, psychological impairment. Other experts agree.

“Broadly speaking, being bullied erodes people’s self-confidence, and that is an important factor leading to anxiety or a state of depression,” says psychoanalyst Dr Joan Schachter. “Usually a bully makes a person feel powerless and ashamed of themselves. This can provoke a mixed state of anxiety and depression, then the person can’t work.”

Dr Neil Cheshire, clinical psychologist, elaborates. “Bullies damage a person’s sense of self-worth or even of identity,” he says. “This is because the latter depends in part on a sense of self-efficacy. Reduction of this risks depression.”

Almost two years after he was bullied at work, Alex is receiving counselling for anxiety.

Meanwhile, 10 years on, Kate still suffers from writer’s block and impaired confidence. Anna, after three years, has bouts of insomnia and feels unable to progress at work.

So the effects of bullying are devastating, yet workplace bullies consistently get away with it. How? Because bullying is so often a subjective experience, it can be difficult in some cases to identify and prove.

“Bullying is a pattern of behaviour – repeated actions and practices – so it’s not easy to diagnose and verify, and there is often no smoking gun,” says Professor Kevin Morrell of the Warwick Business School. “Plus, sometimes an accusation of bullying can itself be bullying; sometimes people use disciplinary procedures as a tool in their armoury.

“The other thing is that some organisations almost seem set up to support bullying: there can be failures of management systems, poor information flows, or traditionally huge power imbalances,” he adds. “And there are some organisations that reward characteristics that might be associated with bullying.”


There is a ‘dark triad’ of personality traits, says Morrell – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy (see graphic, left) – that make it harder to identify bullies.

“People with these traits can often ‘kick down and kiss up’,” he says. “They may be very skilful at presenting a certain image of themselves, which makes it harder to identify them as bullies.”

He explains that the narcissist is puffed up on wave of entitlement and ego, which is problematic if you work for them because they won’t want anyone to challenge their idealised self-image. Yet the narcissist’s boss, who doesn’t have daily contact, may be taken in by them, and never see the mask slip, instead rewarding them for being a good frontman – or woman – for the organisation.

“Machiavellian employers”, he says, “treat people in a cold and manipulative way. If you are working for someone with those traits, they will treat you like an object. But, if you are the boss of that person, they might seem to be getting great results because they are not pussyfooting around.

“Psychopaths, meanwhile, don’t care if they push people to get results. If you work for them, it’s miserable. If you’re their boss, though, you may like the fact they are getting things done, even if you aren’t fully aware of the costs.”

As well as individuals, bullying can also damage an organisation.

“A bullying culture undermines productivity, innovation and, ultimately, company profits,” says Keegan. “Fear can limit us as employees and human beings. It can stunt our creativity and our abilities to look at situations from different perspectives. If we want to develop engaged, enthusiastic and resilient workforces, ongoing vigilance of, and a zero-tolerance policy to, bullying are essential.”

Keegan cites research that stresses the importance of naming what is happening as ‘workplace bullying’, as well as providing information to those who are being bullied. If these strategies don’t work, sacking the bully is the only viable option.


Morrell suggests an organisation that is serious about rooting out bullies could use exit interviews more effectively. One major media company, concerned about high staff turnover in one department, hired a journalist to rewrite the exit interview questions so departing staff were unable to give the usual platitudes. In came probing questions like ‘name three things you didn’t like about working here’. A bully was unmasked, sacked, and staff turnover returned to normal.

Companies could also make it clear to employees that filing a bullying complaint won’t be a traumatic experience. And they could put systems in place to make it easier for people to move departments, similar to a no-fault divorce. However, the bottom line, as Keegan points out, is to create a supportive work environment where bullying cannot thrive.

Bullying is more likely to be prevalent in organisations where generalised fear is rife, she says. In organisations where people feel supported and more confident, bullying tends to be less tolerated.

“At the most basic level, organisation health is a human right,” says Keegan. “How can it be acceptable to create fear in a workplace, or not try to prevent or reduce it where it does occur?

“Somehow, behaviour that would never be tolerated in the outside world has become, if not acceptable, then tolerated. It is as if, in an era in which redundancy is a real possibility, some staff feel that bullying is an acceptable way to behave.”

Keegan’s view is that reducing excessive fear at work is a must and needs to be addressed through a variety of means, including strong and fair management, coaching, good leadership, the principles of positive psychology, and different approaches, such as appreciative enquiry and collaborative working.

“Trust between employees is the bedrock of an organisation,” she adds. “Bringing human values into the workplace can reap remarkable rewards.”

*Names have been changed

To find out more about the stories of Kate, Alex and Anna read the Summer issue of Professional Manager here.

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