ARTICLE: The 'Why' and 'How' of Workplace Bullying - Know Bull! Australia :: Workplace anti-bullying website

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ARTICLE: The 'Why' and 'How' of Workplace Bullying

Dated: 03 June 2010 (Updated Apr 2014

How workplace bullying occurs…

The two most compelling questions that workplace bully ‘targets’ ask us is:

  • Why was I chosen as a bully target? and,

  • How did this happen?

A workplace bully can't 'bully', without having a 'target'

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 threateningsuch 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.

Anyone can become a target
If you think that 'laying low', or keeping a 'low profile' in the workplace will prevent you from becoming a bully 'target'—think again. Anyone, absolutely anyone—can find themselves as a 'target'.

The workplace bully is methodical, predatory, and  opportunistic. Once they've removed the more immediate threats from the workplace, they don't stop—they choose  not to stop. It's only a matter of time before the bully turns their attention to 'low profile' staff. This has particular relevance for witnesses to workplace bullying—the one's who see what's happening to a bullied co-worker, yet turn a blind eye, or withdraw their support from their bullied colleague.

A lone 'target' cannot  successfully battle workplace bullying on their own. There's many reasons why, but suffice to say, the 'health-harming' effects of workplace bullying—both emotionally and physically—prevents them.
The only viable way for organisations and companies to deal with a workplace bully is to remove them from the workplace—and this requires concerted effort by management, boards, and staff. The old adage: there's strength in numbers, holds true when it comes to tacklng workplace bullying. And this is also why we cannot condone the continued 'watering down' of Unions in Australia. Granted, there's been a couple in the past that have gone a little 'rogue', but predominantly, the core value of the Union movement remains the same—the protection of workers' rights. When a bullied 'target' finds themselves on their own, deserted by their co-workers, trying to keep their job and  facing the workplace 'bully' and their supporters/protectors—their Union is often the only means of support. Dr Gary Namie, from the US-based Workplace Bullying Institute  addressed the topic of Unions and their role in supporting bullied 'targets' in organisations. You can view the video clip here (4 mins 12 secs).

The starting point for workplace bullying is  the workplace
The second question: How did this happen? —Although a little more complex is still answerable.

First—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.

Second—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.

Third—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.

Fourth—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.

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.

How the 'bully' operates...the 'phases/stages' of bully's plan
For those companies that have investigated a workplace bullying claim, or asked a workplace bully to explain their behaviour—only to be informed by the bully that the investigation was frivolous, designed to injure them professionally, and baseless—the following may cause you to think twice.

Workplace bullying doesn't just happen—it's calculated and deliberate—and that means there's a plan involved. And that plan has various aims and goals—which are delivered throughout 3 different phases. And these phases consist of the bullying behaviours appropriate  for each particular phase. The 3 phases of the workplace bully's plan are:

  • Isolation,

  • Control and Subjugation, and

  • Elimination.

And while certain bullying behaviours (read as 'tactics') are appropriate for a specific phase—some bullying behaviours are used across multiple phases.

Recognising the phases...the benefit for workplace bullying investigators
The benefit for those called on to investigate workplace bullying claims—is that by recognising  a group of bully 'tactics' and attributing them to a specific phase—the investigator should be able to guage what phase the bully is at, and the bully behaviours that are likely to follow. It's worth remembering that a genuine case of workplace bullying, is an ongoing pattern of abuse exacted on a 'target'. And this pattern  of abuse is perpetrated on target—after target—after target. And within this pattern of abuse—exists a pattern of identifiable bullying behaviours (tactics)—all of which is couched in a plan, that consists of different phases.

By now, you should be getting a clearer picture of how complex workplace bullying is. But, the workplace bully doesn't stop at devising a plan to carry out. They also busy themselves with gathering their support network... by ingratiating themselves with superiors and others; and with maintaining the 'smokescreen'. They pit staff member against staff member via manipulating and coercing—plus they'll be involved in other 'deviant' behaviours as well such as: viewing porn on workplace computers, intra-office or extra marital affairs, sexual harassment, drug or alcohol addiction, or misappropriating company funds.

It takes a huge amount of time and dedication to be a workplace bully. Which begs the question: When does the bully get time to do the work they're meant to do? The short answer is: They don't.  While they make outward signs that they're incredibly busy (a.k.a. the 'con')—at best they barely complete superficial tasks like making phone calls, or taking meetings. The rest of the time they lie. They simply don't have the drive, the 'smarts', or the time to complete the tasks requiring substance—which is why they steal the work of others.

The bullying behaviours and tactics associated with the 3 phases
As mentioned earlier, the workplace bully's plan consists of 3 phases. Now we'll take a look at behaviours associated with each of the phases, based on information by Tim Fields from

The target is subjected to:

  • Constant nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism of a trivial nature. The triviality, regularity and frequency of nit-picking is a hallmark of bullying. Often there is a grain of truth (but only a tiny grain) in the criticism, so as to fool others (including the target) into believing the criticism has validity—which it doesn't. The criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or fabrication.

  • In conjunction with the criticism, is a persistent refusal to acknowledge the contributions and achievements of the 'target', and the recognition of their existence and value to the organisation.

  • Constant attempts to undermine the 'target' and his/her position, status, worth, value and potential—especially when the 'target' is in a group situation, such as a team meeting.

  • Isolation and separation from co-workers, excluded from what's going on, marginalized, overruled, ignored, and left out of 'the loop'.

NOTE: The above can be done with, or without the cover of a formal disciplinary or performance review procedure.

Control and Subjugation
The 'target' will:

  • Be singled out and treated differently; for example, everyone else can use their mobile phone at work, but not the 'target'. The moment the target puts a foot wrong—however trivial—action is taken against them (NOTE: you can read examples of this in the 'bully' stories submitted to Know Bull!).

  • Be belittled, demeaned and patronised, especially in front of others.

  • Be humiliated, shouted at and threatened—often in front of others. They'll be overloaded with work, or have all their work taken away and replaced with either menial tasks (such as filing, photocopying, or cleaning), or no work at all. Where the 'target' is overloaded—they find the credit for their work is 'stolen', and their fruits of their efforts— plagiarised

  • Have their responsibilities increased, but their authority removed.

  • Have their annual leave, sickness leave, and (especially) compassionate leave refused

  • Be denied training necessary to fulfill duties, or tools and resources to complete their work

  • Have unrealistic goals set, which change as they approach. Deadlines also change at short notice, or no notice at all, and the 'target' only finds out when its too late to do anything about it (a.k.a 'moving the goal posts').

  • Be the subject of gossip intended to damage the 'target's' reputation.

The 'target' finds:

  • That everything they say and do is twisted, distorted and misrepresented.

  • They are subjected to disciplinary procedures—with verbal or written warnings imposed for trivial or fabricated reasons— without proper investigation, or with a sham investigation.

  • They are coerced into leaving their job through no fault of their own—by constructive dismissal, early, or ill-health retirement, etc.

  • They are dismissed following specious allegations of misconduct, or incapability— which have just a 'grain of truth' to give superficial legitimacy to the dismissal. Incapability accusations arise when:

* the overworked 'target' is unable to complete the extraodinary volume of work dumped on them (often at last minute notice by the bully);
* the tools and resources to do the job, are removed or aren't provided;
* deadlines are continually brought forward with little or no notice— always when it's too late to do anything, and
* deadlines are omitted/avoided/not clarified/withheld— until the last moment, when it's too late to complete the task

NOTE: The above is where the 'grain of truth' comes into the accusations of a target's incapabilty. Under these circumstances, 'targets' can and do fail. These particular workplace bully tactics are known as
job sabotage. And job sabotage (engineering circumstances so the 'target' has no chance but to fail), is vital  to removing the 'target' from the workplace.

Another way the workplace bully eliminates the 'target', and simultaneously conceals the bullying is by having regular or continuous 'reorganisations'.

In these situations:

  • Targets are 'organised out'. This applies to anyone who has identified, complained about, or challenged problems with the status quo (i.e. those staff the workplace bully views as a 'threat'). Targets are labelled as "no longer a good fit for the organisation", "not being aligned with the 'new' direction of the company", and other similar statements. The workplace bully will preface these statements to senior managers and board members with: "I have a legitimate  concern about Ms X". Unaware this is a bully tactic, senior managers and board members erroneously believe that the bully has legitimate concern for the welfare of the company...and that the concern is  legitimate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • If the 'target' is not 'organised out', their roles are 're-graded', or 're-defined' (Know Bull! defines this as 'target neutering')

  • Once the 'target' has their job 're-defined', and to ensure the 'target' remains permanently 'neutered'— the workplace bully appoints and promotes their allies and political pawns into positions of influence.

  • Where a re-organisation seems pointless or counter-productive, or if it involves a disproportionate amount of disruption in relation to the perceived benefit of the change— what's occurring is known as a 'smokescreen'.  A smokescreen is both  a tactic of bullying, and used to conceal bullying. In smokescreen situations, people are so busy coping with the chaos that workplace bullying goes unnoticed. At the same time, the person responsible can claim to be reorganising in the name of efficiency, thus earning him or her the respect of superiors.

A few salient points for owners and stakeholders of businesses and companies to remember

  • The workplace bully creates chaos.

  • Chaos is a by-product of bullying, and often used as a form of concealment.

  • If you have an active workplace bully in your organisation— the bully will be engaging in bullying behaviours plus  other deviant behaviour.

  • The deviant behaviour will either be of a lewd/sexual nature, or  a financial nature.

  • Deviant 'financial' behaviour includes: fraud, corruption, misappropriation of funds, etc.

  • Either way, the organisation will  pay dearly for keeping the workplace bully. Either through protracted and expensive litigation, or having the financial health of the organisation seriously compromised.

  • Bullied 'targets' and their organisations always  bear the cost of a workplace bully— 100% of the time

  • If you care about the financial health of your organisation— if you don't wish to see your organisation being dragged into ongoing, protracted and expensive litigation— you have only 1 option: Remove the workplace bully from the workplace.

Why does the workplace bully project their inadequacy onto others, or create a 'smokescreen' to hide it?

  • One reason, is to avoid facing up to their inadequacy—and then having to do something about it. It's a combination of feeling 'entitled', and plain 'laziness'

  • Another reason, is to dilute their own fear of being seen as weak, inadequate and incompetent; and

  • To divert attention away from being discovered as weak, inadequate and incompetent.

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