ARTICLE: Bullies in the workplace – they’re far too ‘expensive’ to keep! - Know Bull! Australia :: Workplace anti-bullying website

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ARTICLE: Bullies in the workplace – they’re far too ‘expensive’ to keep!

Dated: April 2008 (Updated May 2014)

NOTE: Ordinarly, Know Bull! does not  display the 'proof' that exists against workplace bullies. But we're making an exception in this instance and present a small fraction of a workplace bully example (see the end of this article for information).

Bullying in the workplace is on the increase, largely 'un-addressed'—and wreaking 'havoc' on staff and organisational productivity. In fact, the first scientific study of its kind to address workplace bullying, the 2007 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey
that was commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) —revealed some disturbing data about the prevalence of workplace bullying and its effects. 

One of the major findings of the WBI-Zogby survey— was that "Bullying in the U.S. is 4 (four) times more prevalent than illegal, discriminatory harassment," which includes such things as discrimination due to race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, or age.

Similarly, Know Bull!s survey report into the Extent and Effects of Workplace Bullying
, published in 2010, revealed that an ‘active’ bully exists in 66% of work places, and this bully is more likely to be a ‘boss’. The report also found these bully bosses don’t always act alone, preferring to operate as a bully group, or mob in 83% of cases. This finding is disturbing, as it raises questions about the likelihood of workplace bully ‘complaints’ and investigations being dealt with in a full, fair and impartial manner.

The Workplace Bullying Institute also stated around 37% of U.S. workers had reported being bullied on the job, while 49% said they had witnessed a bully in action. This represents an incredible 86% of the workforce, or 71.5 million Americans affected by bullying in the workplace at a (then)
cost of $74 billion per year.

The UK’s largest commercial insurer, Royal & Sun Alliance, said that bullying at work costs U.K. businesses around £18 billion every year, or 8-10% of company annual profits; while the Australian Human Rights Commission estimates the dollar ‘cost’ of workplace bullying in Australia at somewhere between $6-36 billion annually, when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered.

Bullying in the workplace affects both workplace bully ‘targets’ and ‘non-targets’ alike…

As far back as 2001, Australian employment agency Drake Personnel said that the antics of one serial bully in the workplace had the potential to reduce their victim’s performance by half, and other employees up to 33%. Interestingly,
information provided by the Crisis Prevention Institute in the U.S, stated that when targets believe a work colleague has treated them disrespectfully, half lose work time worrying about future interactions with the instigator, while half contemplate changing jobs to avoid a recurrence. Know Bull!s survey report also found that 53% of bully targets stated their productivity was reduced by 50-70% as a result of workplace bullying. Further, witnesses also stated their productivity was affected, with the majority, 67% estimating a 10-40% decline.

Consequently, people do not contribute their best in the workplace when they fear harassment, bullying or abuse.

The bully 'target' is rarely the ‘nerdy wimp’…

Workplace bully ‘targets’ go to work—to work. They are not unprofessional, incompetent, or dishonest. And far from the misperceptions and stereotypes, the bully target is rarely the office loner, or nerdy wimp. In fact, they tend to be ethical, professional, well liked, highly personable, intelligent, and self-assured people. Which begs the question—Why do they become the targets of workplace bullies?

Increasingly, workplace research suggests that workplace bullies select targets, because they pose a perceived '
threat'. In reality, it’s the target’s productivity, skills, talent, and popularity with peers and superiors that trigger the bully’s ‘threat response’. The reason these traits are viewed as threatening— is because in the mind of a bully, these traits have the potential to draw a comparison between themselves, and the competent and popular employee. There is only one reason a bully engages in bullying behaviour—and that’s to hide their incompetence. At the core of every workplace bully there is an incompetent employee. In the bully’s mind comparison to anyone, equates to potential exposure of their incompetency in their job. And the workplace bully’s worst fear— is the fear of exposure. So they set about eliminating the perceived threat from the workplace, by directing organisational focus on the target, by means of distorted or fabricated allegations of underperformance.

Workplace bullying is no more than a ‘smokescreen’, designed to ‘shift’ organisational focus, while simultaneously shielding the workplace bully’s inadequacy. According to Tim Field from, “The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. Bullying has nothing to do with managing. Good managers manage, bad managers bully”. Management is managing, while bullying is not. “Therefore, anyone who chooses to bully, is admitting their inadequacy. And the extent to which a person bullies—is a measure of their inadequacy.”
When it comes to workplace bullying, what we’re essentially witnessing in workplaces across the globe is the most ‘incompetent’ of staff, targeting the most ‘competent’.

Finally, as for misperceptions that workplace bully targets are weak, overly sensitive, or in some way invite the bullying, research and literature reveals the opposite.

A website poll conducted by Know Bull in 2009, titled, How many times have you been the 'target' of a workplace bully?
revealed workplace bully targets are subjected to, and withstand many months to years of daily verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. The strongest response overall, 32%, was from those respondents who had been bullied from 18 months to more than 2 years.

These are professional employees, who nearly always ‘go the extra distance’ in their jobs—and not weak, overly sensitive people. 

What is bullying—and what it isn’t…

Workplace bullying is not
someone simply being critical of your work. Nor, is it someone who simply doesn’t like you.

Workplace bullying occurs when the words or actions of a person, or persons, are designed to demean, humiliate, intimidate, de-value, and generally harm you professionally. And for various behaviours to be classified as ‘workplace bullying’ certain elements need to be present.

There’s a strong possibility someone is a ‘workplace bully’ when their behaviour is:

  • Planned mistreatment in the form of verbal abuse; conduct that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or sabotage which interferes with work.

  • Also, a bully’s behaviour will have any combination of five ‘aims’, which are: threats to professional status; threats to personal standing; isolation; overwork, and de-stabilization.

  • The behaviour will be repeated and persistent, and is generally not a one-off incident. However, there can be rare occurrences when the behaviour is so extreme there can be no doubt it's essentially bullying behaviour.

  • Finally, behaviour that is considered as ‘bullying behaviour’ will have health harming effects—either physically, emotionally, or both.

Profile of the ‘workplace bully’…

Workplace bully behaviours, don’t
just ‘happen’. They are deliberate, planned, and used with extreme effectiveness. 

Just like their workplace counterparts, workplace bullies, have free
choice over the behaviour they choose to display in the workplace. Most employees choose behaviours resulting in positive interactions with colleagues, while workplace bullies choose behaviours resulting in interactions that are negative. 

When a workplace bully is called on to explain their behaviour, they invariably use a variety of strategies to evade accountability, such as feigning victimhood, counter-attack, and denial—by either refusing to admit their behaviour, or saying they didn’t know what they were doing. However, workplace bullies excel at manipulation, deception, and compulsive lying. They have no integrity and they don’t respect other people’s values. They also have a clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong—they just choose not
to conform to socially acceptable standards of behaviour. 

Workplace bullies don’t bully simply because they don’t know what they’re doing, or worse—just ‘doing their job’. What needs to be understood, is that bullying is
behaviour…and behaviour…is choice. It’s no different to the molester who chooses to molest, the abuser who chooses to abuse, or the rapist who chooses to rape. Bullies bully—because they choose to bully.

How workplace bullying occurs…

The two most compelling questions workplace bully ‘targets’ ask is: Why was I chosen as a bully target? And, How did this happen?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. In order to become a potential bully ‘target’, a person needs to possess work ethic and personality traits bullies view as threatening, such as hard working, ethical, professional, truthful, and competent. If a bully exists, over the course of time they will ‘identify’ employees displaying these traits. Coincidentally, being a hard working, competent professional, means this employee will have an uncanny ‘ability’ to spot a fake and inadequate fraudster who is abusing their power within the workplace. However, the workplace bully also has the ‘ability’ to spot those who can see through their behaviours, and potentially expose their incompetence. Thereby ensuring the likelihood of this employee becoming the target of a workplace bully.

The second question: How did this happen? —Although a little more complex is still answerable. Certain factors need to be in play for workplace bullying to take place, and the starting point is the workplace—meaning the workplace requires a ‘culture’ that fosters and/or supports workplace bullying. One of the findings of the Know Bull! Extent and Effects of Workplace Bullying
survey, being the existence of ‘bully boss mobs’, is one example of a workplace that supports workplace bullying. So too, is the workplace that has anti-bullying policies that are neither promoted nor policed, and organisations going through badly designed and managed restructures.

Secondly, there exists a ‘need’ for targets to become known—those hard-working and competent employees that are liked, and admired. They transfer into the organisation and become known for their good work ethic and personality, or they already reside in the workplace when a bully enters the organisation. Either way, it’s just a matter of time before they draw the attention of the workplace bully.

Next, the potential target needs to have some type of ‘vulnerability’, which is usually ‘financial’. In other words they have children to feed, clothe, and educate; a mortgage; or debts to pay. Other vulnerabilities include working in a remote area with fewer jobs; being an older worker with limited opportunities outside their present employment; or a shrinking job market—as in a recession.

Lastly, in order for the ‘target’ to progress into the workplace bully’s ‘cross hairs’ there needs to be a ‘trigger event’. This can be as simple as the previous target leaving the organisation. Additional examples of trigger events include organisational restructures, mergers, or downsizing; or as simple as a staff member receiving public recognition for their efforts—especially when it draws attention to the bully by ‘comparison’. As previously mentioned, the principal goal of workplace bullies is to conceal their inadequacy. They neither want, nor
will tolerate being compared to ‘high-achievers’ with a good work ethic.

Health harming effects of workplace bullying…

The health harming effects of workplace bullying has been well documented over the years, and Know Bull!s Extent and Effects of Workplace Bullying
report added to this growing body of information.

82% of survey respondents who had been the ‘target’ of a workplace bully, stated they suffered or been diagnosed with sleeping problems and depression. This was closely followed by anxiety, 76%, and constant fatigue, 58%. Of greater concern, is 5.5% (or one in twenty bully targets) experienced suicidal thoughts after being exposed to workplace bullying, while one in five (or 17%), were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
. And perhaps the most damning health harming effect of workplace bullying revealed by Know Bulls findings, is one in five (16.6%) of survey participants, who said they had known of, or worked with a fellow employee, who after being targeted by a workplace bully—later committed suicide.

For targets of workplace bullies, the exposure to prolonged negative stress from incessant bully attacks will cumulatively result in '
psychiatric injury'. In saying this —we don’t mean the target will experience some type of mental illness. Despite superficial similarity, there are many distinct differences including:

  • Mental illness is assumed to be inherent, (internal), 

  • Psychiatric injury is caused by (external) forces i.e. something or someone else —denoting ‘liability’. 

  • An ‘injury’ is likely to get better—given time. 

Those who suffer mental illness exhibit a range of associated symptoms such as paranoia, schizophrenia, and delusions.

But not so with psychiatric injury where the person will typically exhibit symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, hypersensitivity, obsessiveness, irritability, fatigue, and sleeplessness. 

By the time a bully target is showing outward signs of '
prolonged negative stress', such as depression, many workplace bullies will label the target as ‘mentally ill’. Workplace bullies go to extraordinary lengths to evade accountability for the consequences of their actions on others, and will even blame the target for their own deterioration. Coincidentally, this tactic of ‘blaming the target’ is a well-documented bully defence.

The difference between '
psychiatric injury' and 'mental illness' is crucial, because many HR personnel, senior staff, and other workplace bully followers, enablers, and protectors, will erroneously believe the bully’s assertion that the target is mentally ill. It is imperative HR personnel and others understand that psychiatric injury health-related problems do not exist prior to a bully attack—but manifest after the workplace bully ‘singles out’ the target.

Further, failure to consider an assertion of a target’s mental illness as no more than a ‘bully defence’ could result in HR personnel and others being implicated as co-defendants in subsequent legal action that may arise.

A few final words for companies and organisations…

  • The Know Bull! Extent and Effects of Workplace Bullying survey indicates the actions of a workplace bully has the potential to reduce the performance of their targets by 50-70%, and other employees up to 40%. 

  • 9 out of 10 employees will feel the added ‘stress’ created by a workplace bully, while 7 out of 10 will leave as a direct result. And bear in mind the ones leaving will be the more dedicated, experienced, and highly professional employees. Essentially, workplace bullies ‘dumb down’ organisations. 

  • Innovation, creativity, and the ability to continue competing in ever-changing markets will increasingly diminish. 

  • If your organisation is one that has no enforceable policy or procedure in place that provides employees with a means to tackle bullying and harassment—you could find yourself in court defending a contractual breach of the duty of care. So too, if an anti-bullying policy exists, but is not enforced.

  • In short, no organisation can afford to keep a workplace bully. Period.

An example from our 'bully files'

On the website we have an
article was derived from an interview with workplace bully 'target', that took place after the receipt of a package of 'proof'. It involves the details of a (female) executive, who was subjected to workplace bullying by the CEO (male), an Admin Assistant (female), and various bully supporters and enablers.

The CEO spent his day viewing pornographic material (mainly involving animals, young children and teenagers) on his computer, long visits with his mistress in his office, and ingratiating himself with a local political party for his own personal persuits. He also instigated the theft of a competitor's intellectual property.

It was 'expected' that office staff would 'cover up' this CEOs constant indiscretions...including side-tracking his wife if she happened to visit the workplace while the mistress was with the CEO. Being a person of sound moral virtues...the (female) executive
declined to do so, and the workplace bullying began in earnest.

We've included this article because there are strong messages and questions that arise from this example that business owners need to heed. It's not just the workplace bullying companies need to be concerned about. It's the fact that where bullying too will other deviant behaviours...the type of behaviours that can literally ruin a company financially. And while the workplace bully remains in the workplace that ‘risk’ will never go away.


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