Overt bullying may be easier to tackle because the evidence for
it is clear. The subtlety of the other sort is more damaging and
insidious, and much trickier to address. Recipients with no
previous experience of bullying may begin by feeling puzzled by a
vague sense of unease but find it difficult to pinpoint where the
problem lies.

In a busy social work office the temptation may be to dismiss
what seem to be unsettling incidents. For those who find
confrontation over apparently trivial incidents tiresome, the
temptation is increased. Inaction is fatal, however. Bullying
behaviour feeds on the passivity of its victims. By the time you
recognise something is seriously wrong you will have been so
undermined that your confidence has suffered. Yet, subtle bullying
provides no clear-cut evidence that you can put to a senior
manager. You fear your complaint will sound lame and you will be
thought of as over-sensitive. If your persecutor has a good
professional record and is valued by management you are further

My own experience and that of my co-victim was of this sort of
gradual persecution. The signs of this style of bullying will be
recognised by other victims – picking up on minor points for
criticism is the starting block. On one occasion my
colleague-victim was repeatedly interrogated about who had uttered
a particular sentence during a mental health assessment, when it
had no significance for the outcome. The raising of such issues was
always justified by the claim that it “might be a disciplinary

There was one statement from the bully that they “could not wait
for you two to leave”. It’s difficult to overstate how devastating
this comment was, but it was claimed to be reasonable in that it
would give scope for better team organisation. The realisation,
after a previously fulfilled career, that one is so undervalued is
a blow from which your confidence never recovers fully.

For my colleague-victim this persecution was the final blow and
she retired on ill-health grounds. I was luckier. I got out to a
new job with a supportive cohesive team and recovered confidence,
although never at the previous level. This positive experience
highlighted the unhealthiness of my earlier situation.

If there is a lesson, it is that the moment you begin to sense
this sort of unease you need to address it pronto. Some
sophisticated persecutors find that confrontation makes their life
more interesting. A victim’s unwise choice to gloss over the
bullying will be perceived, consciously or unconsciously, as
weakness, and persecution will escalate. Eventually, you will be so
undermined that your confidence will have plummeted, and you will
feel the fault must, somehow, be yours and you will have to get

Ann Oliver is a social care professional

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