How to … beat the bullies

by 07 Jun 2007

If you’ve been bullied at work you’re not alone. Of 800 HR professionals who responded to a recent survey by Personnel Today and anti-bullying charity the Andrea Adams Trust, 75 per cent had been bullied. Of these a quarter had been bullied in their current job and half in a previous job. Aside from the obvious damage to organisational reputations, harsh and unfair treatment can wreck your job, your home life and even your career. There are, however, practical steps you can take to deal with the situation.

How can I tell if Im being bullied?

Bullying and harassment can take many forms. As a result, it isn’t always easy to define, particularly in organisations where a tough management style prevails. Kevin Friery, director of counselling at employee well-being specialist Right Corecare, describes it as offensive behaviour intended to undermine or humiliate the recipient. “This covers acts of commission – doing or saying something that negatively affects another – or omission –withholding information, material or access to support in a way that leaves the victim demoralised, hurt and unable to complete unnecessary tasks,” he says.

Behaviour that qualifies as bullying typically includes constant fault-finding, setting impossible deadlines and/or unreasonable workloads, being assigned meaningless tasks, blocking promotion, and deliberate exclusion from social events as well as the more obvious verbal abuse, threats and intimidation.

What should I do if Im being bullied?

Don’t suffer in silence – the sooner you face up to unacceptable behaviour, the less likely it is it to escalate. If the problem has only recently begun, it may be possible to resolve with an informal chat. Let the perpetrator know how their negative behaviour is making you feel and what you intend to do if it continues. If you can’t confront them, talk to someone in authority with the appropriate experience and training to investigate your claims thoroughly. Try to present your case objectively and dispassionately as this is less likely to leave you open to accusations of malicious allegation. If no mechanism for complaints exists or you feel you can’t trust anyone internally, you may have to seek advice from your trade union or a lawyer about going to an employment tribunal.

Gather evidence

When going through any formal complaints procedure, it’s important to have as much supporting evidence of your experience as possible. Keep a detailed record of incidents including times, dates, witnesses, exactly what was said and how you felt. Also hold on to bullying e-mails and memos. This will contribute to a broader picture of the perpetrator’s behaviour patterns and be more convincing than an imprecise recollection of events several weeks or months later. Request an assessment of your work performance from another manager to further validate your complaint.

Build a support network

Often, others will be undergoing a similar experience to your own. Making a collective approach to senior management can be less of an ordeal and is likely to lend more weight to your complaint, particularly when the undermining is subtle or takes place in private. Remember that bullying is not your fault, so don’t be ashamed to go into what is happening. Tell your family and be sure to maintain regular contact with friends outside work. If the situation persists, seek counselling.

Take extra precautions

Consider signing up for stress management and assertiveness training courses. It will boost your self-esteem and give you confidence to dispatch any future bully.

Second opinion on dealing with bullying in the workplace

Kevin Friery, director of counselling, Right Corecare

What advice would you offer anyone who is not quite sure whether they are being bullied?

Talk to somebody. There is a difference between robust management and bullying - gaining another perspective may help clarify what is going on. If you find yourself dreading going to work, or you are angry and frustrated about work, it is worth considering whether you are being bullied. Remember that bullying is not always from the top down.

Is it on the increase?

In 2000, a European survey showed 9 per cent of staff had experienced bullying in the previous year. Current evidence suggests this figure is conservative, and rising. In tougher trading times, businesses focus more on outputs and invest less time and money in staff development. Managers are squeezed to produce results, but don't always have the resources. Sometimes they revert to old-style behaviours, creating a bully culture in the workplace.

What should you avoid doing?

Don't become engaged in a secret battle of wills with a bully - use your support networks to ensure others are aware of what is happening and that you are not fighting alone. Don't retaliate in kind - there is no value in you becoming a bully yourself. And remember that bullying is caused by the bully, not by you.

Has the perception towards bullying at work changed?

It has, but this hasn't always led to a change in behaviour. Certainly there are more public statements from employers' organisations, staff representatives and the government, demanding a reduction in the amount of bullying occurring in the workplace. Employees are now more aware of their rights, and are less tolerant of abuse. Yet there are still large numbers of staff facing individual bullies in the workplace, who don't know where to turn for help because the organisational bullying policy carries no weight outside the boardroom..

For more information

Book: Dealing with Bullying at Work in a Week, Ruth Wheatley, Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 034074751X

Websites: Andrea Adams Trust: non-profit organisation established in 1995 to help victims of workplace bullying:

Trades Union Congress: features a series of free booklets covering topics such as what is workplace bullying and what to do if you are being bullied:

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service:

Bullying and harassment at work: guidance for employees:

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.