People & Human Resources

Six classic tell-tale signs of a bully and what to do about it

Eve Ash /

You feel sick, but you can’t take any more time off. Your neck hairs hackle while you stare fixedly at a really important email on your screen. You experience that “pretend-there-isn’t-but-there-is” frisson of tension when he or she enters the room. 

Maybe you have someone in your team you think of as Princess Pushy, or Mr Selective Invites (Hey, everyone come to lunch – except you). Being ignored is often more hurtful than outright bullying.

You see them walk in ready to unleash misery wherever they glance. You pretend this person does not impact on your life, but you know that they do. How did you end up in this degrading work scenario? You are hardworking and clever and used to always be task-ready, with a cheery disposition and positive self-assertion. Now you’re almost paralysed by a desire to stay home.

Despite international and official recognition of the damage they cause to companies (to the annual tune of $13 billion in litigation), bullies remain at large and swoop at the least opportunity. Bullies generally and deliberately mask their personal inadequacies and frequent sub-par performance by the following classic tell-tale signs:

1. Lack awareness and empathy

They seem to be oblivious of others’ feelings, so in saying cruel comments or hearing it from others, they see no wrong. They are happy to invite everyone to lunch and not you, knowing you will be left out. It doesn’t register anywhere as something to fix, something not right. In some awful, evil cases they like the reactions they create. It could be they have done this since childhood, verbally torturing friends, siblings or even parents. They become masters or mistresses of the stinging phrase or putdown, (“cheap thrills for the bully”) as it gives them a psychological advantage over others.

2. Brazen effrontery

Bizarrely, nobody’s fooled by their bluff and bluster, yet no one seems to care either, so no one gives feedback and they continue. They know enough jargon and hype to divert attention. They may bluff their colleagues plus management about what a situation really requires.

3. Micro-managing and over-delegating while not doing their share

You may have even seen them wasting time on Facebook, solitaire or personal calls. And thus they manage to deflect any potential criticisms of their own work but they are happy to dump on others.

4. Threatening

Perhaps it is loss of job, perks, projects, or working in a lesser role. They remind everyone that the guillotine with their hand on the lever is never far away (i.e. you’re out if you cross his/her line).

5. Deliberately play off favourites

They may endorse others’ achievements while undermining your performance (the old divide and rule mantra).

6. Unmanaged

Above all, Princess Pushies and Mr Ostracisers typically exist because there is someone weak, incompetent, absent (or a bully themselves) to whom they report. They deftly ensure they remain unaccountable, whilst looking accountable.

What can you do about this toxic state of affairs? 

It is sad but true that many anti-bullying policies are fine in principle, but lacking in practice. What sometimes happens is that the onus is on the victim to change. They are exhorted to “develop more resilience” or “modify their behaviours”. 

Litigation is touted as a last resort and (usually) proves more damaging to the victim than the bully (or the company that enabled the bullying to continue). Even if judges find in the victim’s favour, it is often too late for that person, who experiences trauma for years to come. 

There are nevertheless some useful steps you can take.

1. Know the difference between a bully and a boor

Is this person really a bully or a colleague that you don’t get on with? A difficult co-worker is not necessarily a bully, but a person you need to sit down with (see “Making Peace with Someone You Hate at Work”). A bully doesn’t just react – they are highly proactive, using putdowns and ostracism to make their views and intentions clear. Study them like you would a strange insect, and note their behaviours for a defined period before moving to step 2.

2. Call the bully’s bluff?

You can call a bully’s bluff by meticulously noting the date and time of key words and exchanges, how these do not tie in with your task requirements, and summarising the lot in a report to HR/senior management, requesting that this be dealt with promptly. 

The test of the HR/senior management’s mettle will be how they respond, ensuring peace and better work practices. If you are politically astute, ask yourself whether documenting the bully’s actions is a smart thing to do – in this company. If you are candid and the answer is “no”, you may in fact need to ask yourself why you are still working for this group of people.

3. A little self-preservation goes a long way?

OK, you’ve decided to stay and stare the bully down. What about pushing a few of this bully’s hot buttons in return, albeit within reason and with humour? Get your supporters working with you – there are ample opportunities for comedy (not revenge) – bullies are often up-tight, pumped-up people who have not received any constructive feedback or fair response about their bullying. Dishing it back is tricky, but you need to compartmentalise your anger and get that reduced self-esteem practising a few boxing moves.

4. Take things up with HR/management

It may be a dog-increasingly-eating-dog world out there, but companies have a legal duty of care to their employees, and this includes ensuring a viable, pleasant work atmosphere. 

Workplaces cannot achieve goals with demoralised employees, so management may need you to point out the problem. If that goes nowhere and you feel you must quit, state clearly at the exit interview that bullying was the reason for your departure, and ensure you have a paper trail that documents objectively the when, the how, the who and the what. 

It is your life at the end of the day, not the company’s. Make it their loss, and not your own.

Take action sooner than later. Do not suffer in silence. Your health and self-preservation is more important than this person.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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