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Workplace bullying: No fun for anyone!

on Thursday, 25 April 2013. Posted in Mental Wellbeing

Bullying at work sized

Bullying a problem in many workplaces and appears to cross all industries and occupations. For instance, in a recent study, 18% of the 1728 New Zealand workers studied reported having been victims of bullying a work. So, how can you tell if you are being bullied? Or worse still, how can you tell if you are being a bully?

How can you spot a work bully?

Professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University outlines two tests that you can apply to tell if you suspect someone is acting like a bully:

  1. After talking to the person do you feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized or belittled by that person? i.e. do you feel worse about yourself after your interaction?
  2. Does this person aim their venom at people who are “less powerful” rather than at those people who are more powerful?

Not all bullies do their damage through open rage and arrogance. Other tactics can also include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone
  • Copying emails about someone to others who do not need to know
  • Overloading someone with work
  • Making threats about job security
  • Exclusing, victimizing or any unfair treatment
  • Invading another person’s “personal territory”
  • Uninvited physical contact
  • Treating people as if they are invisible

Most of a bully’s attacks are directed at their subordinates (50% – 80%), or in some cases at their own co-workers, but very rarely at their superiors. Sutton also found that both men or women can be bullies. However it was clear that men were more likely to bully both men and women, whilst women were more likely to bully other women.

What damage can a bully create in the workplace?

Bullies can have a devastating effect on the workplace, especially staff morale. Put simply, being bullied is no fun. The following outcomes are consistently found in work environments where bullying is evident:

  • The surrounding people are sapped of their energy and self esteem
  • Higher rates of resignation are noticed
  • There is often a greater conflict between work and family life for those being targeted
  • Higher than normal levels of absenteeism are experienced
  • A decrease in the commitment to work by staff
  • Staff are less likely to report mistakes out of fear of being further bullied
  • Staff are less willing to do extra work to help their organization when it is needed
  • Staff are tense and therefore unable to relax, enjoy their work or have fun at work

Can we be part of the bullying problem?

When we are placed under pressure, or our work environment encourages us to be the “best” and “most powerful” sort of people, then each one of us have the potential to be a “bully for a day.” We probably have all behaved that way sometimes and then regret the incident afterwards. We may even go as far as apologizing for our outburst. However if this behaviour becomes a habitual way of dealing with others at work, then we too may be on the way to becoming a work-place bully.

How can we stop ourselves from becoming a workplace bully?

Next time we engage with any of our subordinates or co-workers we could try the following two strategies:

  1. Imagine the subordinate or co-worker being the son, daughter or spouse (whichever is most appropriate) of your companies CEO. Then think how you would treat them.
  2. When the interaction is over ask yourself: “Will this person have gone away feeling better or worse about themselves?”

At the end of the day, the old Biblical golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” still applies, even in the modern business world.


Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.


Bently, T., Catley, B., Cooper-Thomas, H., Gardner, D., O’Driscoll, M. & Trenberth, L. (2009, December). Understanding Stress and Bullying in New Zealand Workplaces: Final report to OH&S Steering Committee. Massey University, The University of Auckland, The University of Waikato, Birbeck University of London.

Sutton, R. (2007). The No Asshole Rule – Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Warner Business

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