Much attention has been focused in recent times on workplace
violence, whistleblowing and stress at work, but relatively little
has been said about the links with bullying. In fact, it is only in
the past few months that people have begun to take bullying
Workplace bullying is usually not mentioned by name, so employees
wishing to find out about procedures in place to deal with it may
have to refer to harassment policies, which do not mention actual
bullying. Yet bullying is common in the workplace, including in
social work education and social care settings. We should be
shocked since all of us employed in such settings are supposed to
be committed to the highest integrity, including vigilant
The problem is that people are reluctant to talk about it. There
are several reasons for this. First, for an adult, complaining
about the bullying behaviour of a colleague looks like “sneaking”
(the ethics of the school playground). Second, if bullying
behaviour is reported to managers it is re-framed as
“so-and-so-and-so don’t get on” or “it’s a personality clash”.
Other colleagues mainly keep quiet. Relieved that they are not
victims themselves, some will overtly or covertly support the bully
because they wish to align themselves where the apparent power lies
and distance themselves from those perceived as less influential.
Third, the person being bullied feels inadequate since past school
and present workplace cultures have led us to think that we ought
to be able to deal with such events ourselves.
Try an experiment. In whatever group you find yourself, mention
that you have had an experience of being bullied. You will be
surprised by how many people – and what kind of people – admit to
the experience. Very often, people will tell their stories: how at
first they were in a state of disbelief; how it affected their
health and family life; how it undermined their confidence; how
reporting made it worse because then the bully stepped up his or
her behaviour; and how the only solution was to leave when the work
situation became unbearable.
In one case a woman was forced to leave her job after a 10-year
campaign by a resentful and envious colleague. She had never been
bullied before, always having enjoyed good working relationships.
In a few lucky cases, the bully leaves, usually for promotion. We
know that bullying does not stop until the bully or the bullied
leaves, or the bully is dealt with and removed to another section:
a rare occurrence.
People who are bullied are not sad or odd or “victim types”.
Studies have found that they are typically good at their work and
popular and do not, in the main, have a victim’s history. Why,
then, should they become victims? These are some of the reasons,
often in combination.
- They stand in the bully’s way. Bullies like power, are
ambitious and therefore single out their “obstacle” for attack,
although the bully’s “difficult behaviour”, as it has been
euphemistically called, may well occur with other colleagues.
- They are envied for abilities not possessed by the bully, such
as successful work relationships, and being liked.
- They are in a higher organisational position which the bully
resents and envies.
- They are in a junior or peer position and seen as easy
As with most kinds of abuse, bullying is associated with male
behaviour, and victims with females. It is true that women in
general are less aggressive and more likely to be victims than
perpetrators, but women can and do bully. Female bullying may take
different forms. “Spiteful” behaviour may stereotypically be
associated with women but it is used by men, too, although some
literature emphasises the difference in gendered bullying
Bullying takes many forms. Some of the literature lists pages of
its different manifestations. It may be physical aggression
(pushing or slapping), it may be close, threatening, physical
proximity and banging on the desk with fists – which comes very
near to actual violence. It includes shouting, belittling and
undermining behaviour like disparaging a colleague’s work efforts,
taking away authority, isolation, spreading rumours, withdrawing
resources, intercepting information, and making derogatory remarks
Books and information guides provide long lists of effects,
including having to move jobs, stress, and ill-health, loss of
confidence and self-esteem, sleeplessness, feeling vulnerable,
fragile and traumatised, and being frightened of what will happen
next. Work suffers.
Most of us fear bullies. Many of us, if not directly a target, do
not get involved. Managers have more important things to think
about. Most literature about adult-to-adult bullying is written by
victims and often reads like therapy for the author which, in part,
it is. Very little is written by a bully (bullies are not brave and
deny their bullying to themselves as well as to others). However, a
number of academic studies are now taking place, which are likely
to increase in number as bullying becomes accepted for the damaging
experience it is and its long-lasting effects.
Bullying must be treated as dangerous behaviour, particularly when
occurring in the helping professions. Bullies only continue
bullying because their past actions have brought success, not
censure. Colleagues and managers must be clear that the human
targets of aggression need to be supported. The available evidence
informs us that the bullied seek help away from the workplace
through talking to friends, counselling and attending seminars.
Unions are recognising the need to address bullying and it is
currently being discussed, often under the umbrella of equal
opportunities, as something on the rise in higher education
Since bullies rarely appear to seek help (why should they, if their
behaviour brings success?), senior managers in organisations will
need to direct them towards appropriate counselling and anger
management training as a condition of continuing employment.
Employees who report bullying, often after trying to cope
unsupported, are in this day and age more likely to be listened to.
Also, an increasing amount of attention is given to the subject in
Recently, Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 asserted that bullying must
be classified and treated as violence. It is covered in the
broadsheets’ financial and business pages, where it is argued that
those who employ aggressive tactics to gain advancement may no
longer be considered entrepreneurial and admirable, but an
impediment to teamwork, productivity and workplace harmony. Also,
websites offering support and information are now well
Bullying is now recognised not as just a private matter of two or
more individuals allegedly “not getting on” but as a considerable
obstacle to attaining organisational goals. Bullying is a breach of
the trust and confidence of employment contracts, and so if
employers do not take action to stop it, they leave themselves open
to cases of constructive dismissal. It is related to stress and
upsets the work of teams. For those who are forced to resign or
move to other jobs, it adversely affects their pockets. And,
perhaps most important of all, bullying seriously damages
Katy Cigno is a former university academic and currently
a practice teacher in social work. She writes in a personal
Sources of information and help
1 A Drew, “Equal opportunities: a view from the real
world”, in Autlook: Bulletin of the Association of
University Teachers, 216, 2002
2 T Field, Bully in Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge
and Combat Workplace Bullying. Overcoming the Silence and Denial by
which Abuse Thrives, Success Unlimited, 1996
3 P Randall, Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims,
for an information guide and resources.
for help for “victims” to understand why they
Deals particularly with injury to health caused by bullying