Erica Pinsky

Is There a Bully in Your Workplace?

This article appeared in HR Voice, the e- newsletter of the B.C. Human Resources Management Association, on September 14, 2006, and again on September 13, 2007.



These days we are all hearing a lot about bullying in schools. If you have kids, you may be learning about the steps your child’s school is taking to deal with bullying. You may remember having been bullied, or having witnessed bullying when you were at school.


Have you ever wondered what happened to all those schoolyard bullies when they grew up and got out of school? Unfortunately, they are alive and well - and may, in fact, be in your workplace.


Your first response may be, "I think I would know if I had a bully in my workplace." However, the relevant question is how would you know? Would you recognize the signs of workplace bullying? Are your employees likely to tell you that they are being bullied? My experience, which reflects research in this area, shows that the surprising answer to these questions is … probably not.


How do you recognize workplace bullying? It is rarely about overt physical violence or threats, public taunting, yelling or screaming. Workplace bullying tends to be much more subtle and covert. It is generally about power and control. It is often embedded in corporate culture, a legacy of the power based command and control model which has dominated the military and competitive sports for generations.


Take the case of Helen Green, a former executive at Deutsche Bank AG. Ms. Green was awarded more than $1.7 million Cdn in damages after claiming that her ex-colleagues bullied her. Miss Green, who worked in the firm’s secretarial division between 1997 and 2001, said that she suffered psychiatric injury because of "offensive, abusive, intimidating, denigrating, bullying, humiliating, patronizing, infantile and insulting words and behaviour." 1 Ms. Green claimed that Deutsche bank knew about the bullying, particularly after she was forced to go off work due to a nervous breakdown, but did nothing to stop it.


The High Court described the behaviour complained of by Ms. Green as "domineering, disrespectful, dismissive, confrontatory and designed to undermine and belittle her in the view of others." 2


Workplace bullying may involve intangibles like constantly changing work responsibilities, deadlines or priorities. It may involve someone taking public credit for joint projects. It may involve asking for input and then ignoring it. In some cases there may be embarrassing scenes in front of co-workers, or being spoken to in a condescending or belittling manner. The intention, and it is an intention, is to slowly undermine the target’s self-esteem and self-confidence.


Why won’t you hear about an employee that is being bullied? There are a number of reasons that most complaints of bullying go unreported. According to the results of a research study by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie,3 in over 80% of incidences of bullying, the bully ranks higher than the target. This means that in most cases, the bully is in a position of power. This power dynamic alone is often enough to stop any employee from raising concerns.


The Namies’ research further suggests that while men and women appear to be equally likely to be bullies, female bullies target other women 84% of the time, while male bullies target women 69% of the time. Therefore, in around 75% of incidences, the person being bullied (the target) is a woman, and often a bright and competent one, like Ms Green, who was promoted twice before suffering a nervous breakdown due to the bullying behaviour.


This is another distinguishing factor in workplace bullying. Surprisingly, the targets tend to be bright, good at their jobs, popular with co-workers and highly educated (university degree or higher). They are not "nerds" or "geeks," or social outcasts that are often the victims in schoolyard bullying.


Quite commonly, when these women are targeted at work, they often fail to realize what is happening to them, or they mistakenly assume that what is happening is their fault. There is a lack of awareness in most workplaces about the phenomenon of workplace bullying. Combine this with the general tendency of women to accommodate and avoid conflict, and the fact that the person they are in conflict with may be their boss, and you have the basic recipe for a "put up and make the best of the situation" approach.


And how come you can’t figure out who the bullies are? Like their targets, they are often competent and efficient at work. They tend to be bright, controlling and manipulative. They often display inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour. They may fly into a rage or have temper tantrums, but only in front of select audiences, only in front of subordinates, and never in front of their superiors.


In some cases, bullies may be ambitious individuals that have picked up on a workplace culture that encourages and rewards competitive behaviour. In other instances, bullies may be supervisors or managers that have found that management by intimidation is an effective way to increase production. And in many cases, bullies may be individuals interested in inventing flaws in others rather than deal with their own feelings of personal inadequacy, insecurity or self loathing. In my consulting practice I have also encountered bullies disguised as victims; individuals that have discovered the covert power that victims often wield.


As was the case with Ms. Green, the bullying behaviour tends to go on for months or years. The target’s work may suffer and her physical and psychological health may deteriorate. Ms. Green suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the bullying behaviour she suffered at work and was ultimately terminated by her employer.


As with schoolyard bullying, workplace bullying behaviour affects not only the target, but the bystanders as well. Co-workers that witness the ongoing bullying behaviour may also become uncomfortable, fearful and/or traumatized due to the psychologically unhealthy work environment. The bullying really starts to hit the employer’s bottom line when the whole team’s productivity declines. Costs go up as lost time, absenteeism and employee turnover increase.


So, what is an employer to do? The first step is to acknowledge that workplace bullying behaviour exists, that it is a serious problem, and that it must be dealt with. Employers need to take a good look at their workplace culture and ensure that it is not, as the High Court found in Ms. Green’s case, "a culture of bullying."


The next step is to clearly define what constitutes workplace bullying behaviour and to advise all employees, in particular those in positions of power, that workplace bullying is unacceptable behaviour. This means adopting an anti-bullying policy that clearly defines bullying behaviour, states that workplace bullying is unacceptable and outlines consequences for engaging in it. The policy must also have a safe and effective avenue for targets to access if they believe they are being bullied at work.


The next step is to ensure that all employees are aware of the new policy. A clear message must be communicated, in the form of information, awareness and/or training sessions about workplace bullying. Ongoing monitoring of workplace behaviours and effective management of bullying complaints must take place, with appropriate remedies for targets and corrective penalties for the bullies.


In June 2004, the government of Quebec followed the lead of Australia, Great Britain, France and Scandinavia and passed legislation prohibiting "psychological harassment" - which is, in effect, another name for workplace bullying. It creates a positive obligation for employers to manage this behaviour at work, in a manner similar to the statutory liability for employers created in human rights law to maintain a discrimination and harassment free work environment. In 2007, the province of Saskatchewan introduced Bill 66, an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which recognizes harassment, broadly defined to encompass workplace bullying, as behaviour which can constitute a threat to the health and safety of a worker.


The case law is clearly signaling that workplace bullying is no longer to be tolerated in Canadian workplaces. Employers in today’s tight labour market no longer have the luxury of waiting for a complaint to find out that there is a bully in their workplace. Workplace bullying affects an organization’s bottom line, and its ability to attract and retain the best and brightest employees.


BC Business Magazine included an article on workplace bullying in it’s December 2006 issue entitled Bad Boss, Bad Boss. This article elicited such an overwhelming response from readers, the magazine did two follow up articles, one in May 2007 and another in June 2007.4 Those articles confirm what I have experienced in my consulting practice; incidences of workplace bullying are on the rise. One major reason for this increase is the increasingly diverse, multi-cultural composition of our workforce, which is creating new challenges for employers and for existing workplace cultures.


Don’t wait until you get a complaint to find out that you are harbouring a bully. Decide whether or not workplace bullying has a place in your organization. Take proactive steps to define workplace bullying as unacceptable behaviour, and then monitor and manage your workplace culture.



1 London Times, ₤800,000 Payout for Bullied City Secretary. Adam Fresco, Tuesday, August 1, 2006

2 Vancouver Sun, Bank Owes Bullied Employee $1.7 Million. Megan Murphy, Wednesday August 2, 2006 D8

3 The Bully at Work, Gary Namie Ph.D & Ruth Namie, Ph.D, 2003

4 BC Business Magazine, Bad Boss, Bad Boss, Vicki O'Brien, December 2006, Battling the Bully, Sara Tyson, May 2007, Mob Mentality, Vicki O'Brien, June 2007

"Our company recently implemented a Respectful Workplace training program. While researching and developing the program I discovered Erica’s book Road to Respect: Path to Profit. After reading it I realized that the information and guidance contained in the book would provide real value to our organization, so I distributed copies to the entire leadership team. For those organizations committed to building a respectful workplace, Road to Respect: Path to Profit is a must read."

Pauline Johnson
Envirotest Canada