What is Workplace Bullying and How Does it Affect People?

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Date Published July 04, 2013

Workplace Bullying/Academic Mobbing & What To Do About It

Workplace bullying is like bullying on the playground except that it occurs in the workplace. It usually involves verbal comments and incidents that are intended to hurt, harass, isolate, intimidate, or humiliate a person. It is not new but has become what some have called a silent epidemic because it is happening frequently but isn’t always reported. It is estimated that as many as one in every six workers is bullied at work and it occurs more frequently than sexual harassment. Bullying creates a horrible, hostile and poisonous work environment that leads to severe problems.

Bullying can be obvious and subtle and may take the form of any one or more of these behaviours:

• spreading malicious, untrue rumours, gossip, or innuendoes
• excluding or isolating someone
• intimidating a person
• undermining or interfering with a person's work
• threatening
• restricting former responsibilities
• changing work requirements
• setting impossible deadlines
• withholding information
• providing erroneous information
• making offensive jokes
• pestering, spying or stalking
• not providing sufficient work
• swearing, yelling or being rude
• constant unwarranted criticism
• blocking applications for training, leave, awards or promotion

It is very important to understand that the people who are bullied are not to blame. The victims or targets are usually highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular. The reason why they have been singled out for this upsetting and unfair treatment is due to the needs and personalities of the persons who are doing the bullying.

Ken Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo is a survivor of academic mobbing (bullying in universities) and has become a recognized expert. He has developed this checklist of indicators.

1. By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average.

2. Rumours and gossip circulate about the target’s misdeeds: “Did you hear what she did last week?”

3. The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self.

4. Collective focus on a critical incident that “shows what kind of person they really are”.

5. Shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment, “to be taught a lesson”.

6. Unusual timing of the decision to punish apart from the annual performance review.

7. Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications.

8. Formal expressions of collective negative sentiment toward the target. A vote of censure, signatures on a petition, meeting to discuss what to do about the target.

9. High value on secrecy, confidentiality, and collegial solidarity among the bullies.

10. Loss of diversity of argument, so that it becomes dangerous to speak up for or defend the target.

11. Adding up the target’s real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.

12. The target is seen as personally abhorrent with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.

13. Disregard of established procedures as the bullies take matters into their own hands.

14. Resistance to independent outside review of sanctions imposed on the target.

15. Outraged response to any appeals for outside help the target may make.

16. Bullies’ fear of violence from target, target’s fear of violence from bullies, or both.

How Does It Affect People?

The target of bullying may suffer from or experience a great number of symptoms all of which result from his or her treatment at work. The events taking place in the workplace are bad enough and very upsetting, but they can also lead to a number of physical, mental, emotional, social and financial problems. Don’t be alarmed by the list that follows. Victims do not suffer from all of these things but they could encounter any of them.

• Weight gain
• Cancer
• Heart attacks
• A stress-induced illness
• Inability to concentrate
• Low motivation
• Memory difficulties
• Learning difficulty
• Increased fear
• Panic attacks
• Anger
• Desire for revenge
• Depression
• Anxiety disorders
• Loss of confidence
• Posttraumatic stress disorder
• Career loss
• Social difficulties
• Social isolation
• Separation
• Divorce
• Lowered sex drive
• Suicide
• Shock
• Increased feelings of frustration
• Feelings of helplessness
• A sense of vulnerability
• Loss of appetite
• Sleep disorders
• Headaches
• Stomach upsets
• Family tensions

How Do People Respond When They Are Bullied?

When people are bullied it often takes a while for them to understand what is happening to them. It is only when they realize that there have been several incidents that they begin to see that something bizarre is occurring and that they are victims. Normally this is an unexpected turn of events and something that the person has never encountered before and they have no idea what to do about it. It may be comforting to know that this is not unusual and that we know a great deal about crisis situations and how people react to them.

When I talk about a crisis here, I mean a situation that is so different from anything you have experienced before that your normal ways of responding aren't adequate. If you are confronted with a crisis, you may find yourself in a state of turmoil, confusion and distress. You may experience fear, intense emotions, or anger and be unable to deal with the event. For our purposes here, we will be using crisis to mean a problem that you cannot handle without the help of someone else. That is, you need someone to assist you to find a solution. You may not be able to handle it because you have never encountered it before; because you don't have the skills to deal with it; or because you are so upset that you can't see how to apply the skills you already possess.

We know a great deal about crises, what causes them, the stages that people go through, what is normal, what is abnormal and most importantly, how to deal with a crisis when it happens. This has obvious relevance where someone is being bullied. What I want to do here is to help you understand what happens to you during a crisis. There are four major phases in most crisis situations.

The four phases of a crisis

1. Shock
2. Denial (also known as defensive retreat)
3. Acknowledgment
4. Adaptation

Shock - This is a period of intense stress since you see the event as presenting some kind of threat. The situation is overwhelming and you may feel anxious, helpless, and even panicky. It is natural not to be able to think clearly and to be unable to organize, plan or to understand someone who is trying to reason with you.

Denial - In this phase, your subconscious takes over and tries to block out the threat so that life can go on as if this event had never taken place. At this point, you are blocking out reality, engaging in wishful thinking, and using the normal defense mechanisms of denial and repression. You may be thinking that this can’t possibly be happening to you, that you must be mistaken in how you are interpreting events. This is particularly dangerous if you are being bullied as it simply delays any actions you may take to defend yourself or to deal with the bullying.

Acknowledgment - Reality asserts itself during this phase and you face up to what has actually happened. However, this causes an increase in stress as you now have to confront the truth. This can lead to feelings of depression, bitterness, mourning, extreme anxiety and even suicide. It is not unusual to feel completely overwhelmed and to think that there is no way out.

Adaptation - In the final phase you come to grips with what is happening, begin to understand what has happened and why and decide on a course of action to relieve the stress you are feeling. This may take a long period of time especially if the bullying has been severe and is causing you career, social, marital and financial problems. In other words, the more difficulties you have to deal with, the longer it will take.

There are certain factors that lead to successful coping and others that do not resolve the crisis and only make it worse. How you react to it to the problem determines whether you can handle it easily, or not at all. The following model shows how this works. (This article may be viewed with the chart here

Let’s take two examples and see how this model works. In both cases Sam and Beth are being bullied at work. First of all, we’ll deal with Sam and see how he fails to cope. We’ll go down the left side of the model for this.
Sam is having a dreadful time at work and comes home and tells his wife about it. But he can’t accept that this is happening to him and denies the reality of what is going on. He tells his wife that he is well respected and valued and that everything will work out in the end. He is in denial and doesn’t accept the reality of the situation. His wife tells him that it is probably his fault anyway because he is such a perfectionist and hard to get along with. She is no help to him and doesn’t understand or support him during the bullying. Sam has no idea about what to do or how to cope so he just continues to go to work, take the abuse and gets more and more depressed. He doesn’t take any action other than to argue more and more loudly as the bullying escalates. The problems continue, the attacks come more often and Sam gets more and more upset and finally resigns from the company.

Now let’s go down the right side of the model with Beth and see how she deals successfully with the bullying. Like Sam, she is bullied at work and can’t believe that this is happening to her. Initially she is in shock but quickly realizes that she is indeed being bullied and although it may be unfair and unwarranted, that is what is happening. So she has passed through the stage of shock, but is not in denial. She tells her husband about it, speaks to her best friends and co-workers. They are sympathetic and assure her that she is not to blame and that they believe in her. In other words, she has a group of people who support her, but she doesn’t yet know what to do about it.

Beth embarks on a process to find out as much as she can about bullying, why it happens and what bullies are like. She reads about other people who have been bullied and finds out how they handled the situation. She also consults her lawyer. By doing this, Beth learns new coping skills. She develops a plan of action, changes what she is doing, how she is reacting and puts the plan into play. Eventually she resolves the problem and she is no longer bullied. Now please note that I didn’t say what she did or how long it took her to do it. All of that will depend on what kind of bullying she is getting and what she does about it.

Bullies and How to Deal With Them

Bullies can be anyone. They vary from ordinary people who bully instinctively and want to achieve personal goals, strive for promotions, impress their managers or put you down because they see you as a threat. On the other hand they may be psychopaths, sociopaths or people with anti-social personality disorders. Bullies want to control, manipulate, intimidate and control others. They are clever, subtle, devious and treacherous. They usually pretend to be good managers and take pains to profess having the best interests and values of the organization at heart.

They are power hungry and are skilled at distorting, fabricating events and character assassination. These people are self centered, narrow minded and use people to further their own interests. They are motivated by a desire for power and to be seen as lords and masters of everything and everybody. You must understand this and the fact that there is very little that you can do to change a bully’s mind or behavior. Be very careful when dealing with them as they can be very vindictive when challenged. It is simple minded and fruitless to politely ask them to stop bullying. Resistance from you will likely lead to renewed attacks.

What can you do?

You must not be a willing victim and take whatever is dished out to you. This means that you must understand what is happening and that it is not your fault. You should plan, take action, resist and be self reliant. This is very hard to do when you are in turmoil.

Knowledge is power and you should learn as much as you can about bullying and how others have coped with it. You are not alone. Read accounts by other people who have been bullied.

I was a victim twice and survived. My experience involved beatings, sabotage, organized protests, sit-ins and death threats. Some of the bad people involved were professors, priests, pedophiles, religious fanatics, Marxists, and stupid unions. On the other hand, some of the good people included brave colleagues, my lawyer, an Arch Bishop, a university president and the current Governor General of Canada. I wrote a book about it explaining what happened, naming names and telling what I learned and how I survived. It is entitled “How to Cope With Workplace Bullying”. Writing it was a cathartic experience. There are lots of stories out there that should be read by victims and by those trying to help them.

Here are some suggestions for how to cope with bullying.

1. Try to avoid it. You are unlikely to win, be exonerated or receive justice. It does happen, but the costs are high physically and financially.

2. Recognize that you are not alone and many others have gone through this.

3. Read stories about other victims and share your case with them if you are up to it. There are many good books and online sites for this. The more you know the better.

4. As soon as possible educate yourself about your legal rights and consult the best lawyer you can find. Be sure that you find one that is experienced and aggressive. Things can get very messy very quickly.

5. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are paranoid, or crazy. You are not. Things that are occurring happen all too often.

6. Don’t expect that right will prevail, that the truth will come out and be believed, that there will be justice or forgiveness or re-instatement. It can happen but it will take a huge amount of time, effort and the cost will be great.

7. Don’t expect all of your friends or colleagues to stand up for you and support you. You will become a pariah and most will treat you as such.

8. Realize that administrators can seldom be embarrassed and will ignore allegations that they are wrong, wilfully ignoring rules, doing anything bad or underhanded. They don’t care what people say about them.

9. Go to the media as soon as possible. Don’t come across as a whiner. Take the high road and tell everything. If you delay, the opposition will get there first, say the most appalling things and people will tend to believe them given who they are. Don’t expect the media to be impartial or fair. They are only interested in attracting readers or listeners. The facts will only get in the way. If you win, be prepared to have news about that relegated to a back page as it will no longer be news.

10. Don’t agree to keep anything confidential. They certainly won’t so why should you? Openness and transparency are your best defences.

11. Think about whether it is worthwhile to win and especially to win at all costs. If you win and try to stay on, what will you be getting yourself into? You will still be unpopular, a target and probably not very happy. Defeating them even a little bit will make them crazy and they will be only too determined to carry it on.

12. At the end of the day, it may be better, easier and wiser to leave. But if you do, go on your terms. Remember they want to get rid of you, so make them pay and pay and pay to get their wish. Demand a large financial settlement, or leave or benefits or anything you can get. A public apology will NOT be part of it, but you can often obtain a good set of references detailing your skills and abilities. They will be very careful about giving you anything in writing that will give you grounds for wrongful or constructive dismissal.

13. Understand why bullying happens and why it has happened to you. Something triggered this and you need to be clear about what it was. You may be completely blameless, but you must recognize what has led up to the situation.

14. Realize that this is a crisis and unless you have been through it before, it is a situation you don’t know how to handle no matter how clever you think you may be. You will need help to get through this and you cannot do it alone.

15. Don’t let yourself become emotional. The bullies would love to see this happen.

16. Develop a support network. The more people you have who are behind you, the better. However, recognize that this may make them targets too.

17. Keep records and a journal and document everything. Be careful that you don’t leave this where you work or in a spot where anyone but you has access to it.

18. Maintain your physical and mental health. Beating a ball against the wall in a squash court while you think of it as the bully can reduce some of your stress. But take care of your mental state too. People being bullied often think they are losing touch with reality and it may be useful to talk to a counsellor.

19. Don`t expect that you or anyone else will be able to change the way the bullies think and behave. Nothing short of a frontal lobotomy will change their minds or attitudes.

All of this may sound pretty negative and it is. Can you win? Yes, but the cost psychologically, socially, career wise and financially may not be worth it. To be sure there have been successful legal challenges but they may take years and extract a heavy toll. Be prepared to reconsider your goals and career. Whatever job you have is not the only occupation in the world. You might be happier and more fulfilled doing something else. Look on this as an opportunity. The best revenge you can possibly have is to be outstanding and fulfilled elsewhere.

It is possible to fight back but you must be careful what you do and how you do it. Striking back or retaliating may simply lead to more bullying and damage to you. Consider your options carefully and understand that you may not be able to defeat the bullies in court, hearings or tribunals and appearing in any of these venues may damage your case.
There is a lot of foolish and unworkable advice out there so be careful about who you are listen to for advice. Suggestions to go to the bully and have a pleasant chat or appealing to your union or the company HR department probably won’t work.

Can you win?

It all depends on how you defining winning. It is unlikely that you will be successful in trying to set the record straight, publicizing your side of the story or seeing to it that the perpetrators are found out and punished. Nor is it likely that you will be able to stay on in your position. Refusing to be intimidated and continuing in your position makes the bullies crazy and they will likely renew their efforts to ruin you. The best thing you can do is to get the better of them by moving on to a different organization and being successful in a new job or even a new career. Your main task will be to become successful somewhere else.

This doesn’t resolve the desire for revenge nor does it deal with your concerns about what other people think. There is relatively little that you can do about either of these things except to understand that no one really cares about what has been said about you and the people closest to you know the truth anyway.

The best thing you can do is to get over it, put your bullying experiences out of your mind, and resist dwelling on what is past. Refuse to allow this to ruin your life. Move on. This will be far better than thinking about the bullying and how dreadful it was. If you do that, the bullies will have won.


A note from the author

I want to help as many people as I can so I am offering this paper free of charge on my blog. Feel free to distribute it to anyone you think might benefit from it.

My book How to Cope With Workplace Bullying is available online.


By John O. Towler Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Emeritus Renison University College, University of Waterloo. Author of How to Cope With Workplace Bullying

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.