The 5 Faces of Workplace Bullying

Welcome to this HR blast. In recent months, we have been supporting a wide variety of clients with numerous disciplinaries and grievances relating to bullying. We have never experienced so many claims, so we thought the time was right to use an HR Blast to look at bullying in more depth, to help you avoid these claims in the future.

The Workplace

Before we look at the 5 Faces of Bullying lets take a few moments to think about how you might know there is a bullying going on in your workplace.

The obvious indicators:

  • Grievance/s are raised claiming bullying
  • Exit interviews identify issues of bullying
  • One day/short term absence rates increase for one or more individuals with claims of stress, stomach aches, migraines etc.
  • Social media comments published by current and/or ex members of staff hinting at or talking openly about bullying
  • The ‘word on the street’ clearly indicates who in your organisation is seen as a ‘bully’
  • Your social welfare/employee helpline reporting identifies issues relating to bullying

The less obvious indicators:

  • Exit interviews identify high numbers leaving for ‘personal or family reasons’ – the biggest excuse in the book if you want to leave without creating waves.
  • Retention rates impacted by staff leaving without giving clear reasons why
  • Staff too frequently ask for a transfer out of a particular section or department
  • Previously engaged staff turn down opportunities for work social events

“The words they say make bruises that don’t fade away”

Why bother?

But more importantly, why should you bother trying to identify if bullying is going on? Why take it seriously?


  • Most organisations are keen to keep legal costs down – we estimate that every claim of bullying costs around £2-5K simply to investigate and meet with the various parties. Add in company solicitors and your costs soon start rocketing to £5-10K – and that’s if you’re lucky!
  • How much value do your shareholders place on your ‘brand’? Your brand is critical for sales, but it’s just as critical for recruitment too. A bad brand and you will find your talent pool severely restricted. Can you afford for badly managed staff or a bullying culture to damage your brand?
  • All time is valuable but complaints of any sort soon rack up management time. If you reduce bullying, you are likely to reduce the huge amounts of management time spent on grievances and other similar claims. We estimate that every grievance raised takes at least 50 hours of management time from beginning to end – 100 hours for a complex claim. Can you afford that?

Morale and Staff Engagement

  • Losing good and loyal staff carelessly simply because you don’t look after their welfare is seriously negligent and will cost you a lot of money. How hard is it to find good quality new staff but how easy to let good quality existing staff walk out the door because they don’t like they way they are treated?
  • Reducing bullying will reduce your sickness absence spend, plus you will benefit in numerous ways from having high staff attendance – productivity, quality, reduced temp agency billing etc.
  • Bullying damages morale, but in contrast, cultures where staff are treated well often experience high levels of engagement and that has numerous positive results for organisations.

Now onto the 5 faces of bullying

Face 1. In Your Face Bullying

“If people are trying to bring you down, it only means that you are above them”

This is physical bullying in the workplace. It’s not so often about ‘push and shove’, although that does still occasionally happen, but more often than not this kind of bullying is about demanding excessive overtime working, refusing to support a promotion, forcing staff to drive longer distances without breaks or outside of working hours, giving staff work to do that their line manager knows they physically cannot do (for age, health reasons etc.), cancelling holidays or interrupting rest days.

But don’t be fooled, this kind of bullying is not just the domain of supervisors, managers and directors, as employees (colleagues) can physically bully too. In these instances, it’s often physical bullying that we might more often associate with children…

  • Locking out of, or in to, rooms or buildings
  • Knocking someone over
  • Stealing food
  • Hiding important files
  • Spilling drinks over keyboards or personal property etc.

Face 2. Public Humiliation Bullying

“Taste your words before you spit them out”

We are all familiar with someone knocking someone else in order to make themselves look big. This is often the case with those who love a bit of Public Humiliation Bullying. Perhaps they like shouting so the whole world knows how important and ‘big’ they are, or otherwise they like to identify work errors in front of all your colleagues, speak over you in meetings to undermine or belittle you, ignore your presence when it suits them etc. Essentially, your misery and subordination makes them feel powerful and successful. How sad is that!

It’s interesting that some of these bullies though were, in fact, bullied themselves when younger. This can be their way of holding on for dear life to the power they have since gained – just a shame they can’t see who they have become.

We also find that those who go in for Public Humiliation Bullying sometimes justify their actions to themselves (and to us when we go in to do an independent investigation) by saying that they are not a bully, but simply the other person is weak or under assertive. How often, we wonder, do bullies actually recognise that they are bullies? Often they simply don’t see or accept it. Such is their ambition and focus on getting to the ‘top’ – wherever the ‘top’ may be!

There is, of course, a fine line between assertiveness and aggression. And the line is drawn in different places in different cultures/organisations.

One other challenge we come across is that behaviour that was acceptable workplace behaviour ten years ago, is no longer acceptable workplace behaviour. Bawling someone out in public is one example of this. So you weren’t a bully 10 years ago, but today you are. Your behavioural style hasn’t changed, but the world around you has. It’s a complicated world we live in, but all of us have to accept that we all have to continually learn and adapt as the world around us changes.

Face 3. Team Bullying

“Do not be a bystander, if you see something, say something”  

It’s easy to say that it’s only managers who are bullies. That is so not correct. We have witnessed numerous instances of team bullying.

Within the team that is bullying one individual there is often no one particular perpetrator, no one leading the pack. Its almost as though there has been implicit agreement that the team will work together as a pack to drive out the one who doesn’t ‘fit’.

And what makes someone not ‘fit’? Well, sometimes they have a different educational background, personality type, accent, wrong gender, skin colour, age or be an ex-offender etc. It could be anything that for some reason or another, the wider team decides they don’t like. Plus teams can react badly when new members arrive who appear to threaten the status quo or upset the equilibrium of the group. So individuals are bullied out by individuals who would never in a month of Sundays consider themselves bullies but in this instance, they are bullying.

Laura Liswood in her book The Loudest Duck talks about the concept of organisations ‘recruiting for diversity, but dismissing for difference’. It’s exactly the same in teams. Team members often say how they love and welcome diversity and the opportunity to work with different people, but the minute those ‘different’ people join a team, the team then all say how they hate people who are ‘different’ and in being different upset the balance.

Typical behaviours that we see from a team bullying someone out include:

  • Internal texting/messaging across the office or factory with those sending and receiving messages making it clear that they are part of a ‘secret’ communication which some are excluded from.
  • Leaving people out of lunch or break arrangements
  • Constant criticism and repeatedly pointing out that one person does not work or behave as others do
  • Leaving one person out of social events or organising them at a time when everyone knows the one person will not be able to attend.
  • Team banter that is overly personal and therefore is no longer banter, but bullying
  • Reorganisation of work space so that one person is left isolated

Face 4. Playground Bullying

“She got quieter, her nights got longer, her blades got bigger, her sleeves got longer, her meals became smaller, she became skinnier, her music got louder, but no one noticed.”

Not so dissimilar to Team Bullying is Playground Bullying. Here we see behaviours in the workplace that are just the same as we saw in the playground. i.e. things like out of working hours cyber bullying, not being invited to BBQ’s, parties etc. put on by individuals, passing someone’s work off as your own, belittling someone in public, being mean about someone behind their back, banter that is not banter at all but downright bullying, mockery of clothing or style etc. The list goes on and on and really it is just adults who are extremely insecure or who have yet to grow up, plus managers who quite often just don’t step in early enough or hard enough to put a stop to it.

Its interesting to see which managers feel they have the competence (in respect of understanding the law and procedure) and confidence to know how to step in when they see bullying. How confident and competent are your managers?

Face 5. Corporate Bullying

“The boss that is a bully is a horrible leader, a failing manager and a toxic person”

Sometimes when we begin to investigate an allegation of bullying, what becomes apparent is that whilst one person might consider what they are experiencing as bullying, the reality is that those behaviours are entirely normal in their workplace. Essentially they work in an organisation with a culture of bullying. Bullying suppliers, bullying staff, bullying anyone who gets in the way of what they want. Therefore, the person who is being accused of bullying may well answer in one of the following ways:

  • If I didn’t behave like that here I would have no credibility and I have to behave like that to climb the ladder here
  • If I don’t behave like that then my manager will see me as failing or not up to the job
  • If they can’t cope with a bit of shouting, then they shouldn’t be working here
  • This organisation has no time for people who are weak, oversensitive or who have no backbone
  • Bullying is what happens in life. This is work, not school and they need to learn to toughen up
  • Its only bullying to someone who lacks confidence or who has low self esteem – and that’s not my problem
  • You have to be tough in business – business is a constant fight, a battle and that means we can’t let up for a minute.

‘Houston we have a problem’! The culture might accept bullying, but employment laws don’t! Beware and don’t sit idle waiting for someone to prove us wrong!!

In our experience, bullying cultures spread from the very top down and if your ‘very top’ is not interested in how much it is costing your business (in reputation and money) then we suggest you will be wasting your time and energy trying to tackle bullying. You might also dust off your CV as companies with a bullying culture are rapidly being left behind when it comes to what makes a successful business in the modern world.

So… the Five Faces of Bullying and to conclude here is our 5 Question Quiz to get you thinking….

  1. Who in your organisation is mostly likely to be referred to, or is most frequently called, a bully?
  2. What behaviours do you yourself exhibit from time to time that others might consider bullying?
  3. What department or function in your organisation is most at risk of a claim of bullying?
  4. Is it better to keep Jaluch and the lawyers busy with independent investigations or to train up your line managers in how to spot and manage bullying?
  5. What is the likely level of productivity (on a scale of 1-100) of someone who is being bullied at work?

How can we help?

Need a policy on professional behaviours at work or anti bullying? Call us!

Need to review your employment documentation and policies? Call us!

Need some training on diversity and inclusion to address various issues including bullying? Call us!

Need some support with an independent investigation or a formal meeting? Call us!

Jaluch is here to help with all your L&D and day to day staffing issues. No complex contract, just a straight forward friendly service delivered in plain English and with a high degree of pragmatism. Call us!

Click here to get in touch.

The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.

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