The Toxic Workplace
He bullies, he harasses, and it’s been going on for years. Valuable employees have walked away from their jobs because of him. But there he is, still in the workplace, and nothing seems to change.
Here’s an inside look at what’s going on with this highly dysfunctional scenario where the workplace bully appears to have everybody at work, including the supervisor, wrapped around his finger.
Note: Although the pronoun "he" is used throughout this article, the office bully may be male or female.
What Drives the Office Bully?
Insecurities. In most cases, the harasser has deep rooted insecurities about himself. Having been laid off in the past has shaken his confidence. Or he feels that his job security or his image in the workplace is threatened by a new employee with fresh ideas, or by the influx of younger, more energetic or tech savvy employees in his company.
Anger. Often the abuser holds grudges against previous or current employers and/or coworkers. He feels he's been treated unfairly, such as when he lost his job a few years ago to somebody else, or wasn’t promoted when he thought he should have been. Or he believes he doesn't receive the recognition he thinks he deserves for his accomplishments or contributions in the workplace.
The office bully’s insecurities and anger do not necessarily stem from work-related experiences. They may come from his childhood or other unresolved issues in his life.
The workplace bully takes out his anger and insecurities on anybody in his workplace he thinks jeopardizes his job security or image, or makes him feel less than competent, even if that person had nothing to do with what happened to him in the past.
The office bully’s intent is to intimidate and derail his targets so that they can’t perform their work to their best ability. He wants to debunk their confidence and weaken their defenses. His ultimate motive is to control his targets—to cause them to react and behave the way he wants them to.
Charisma. The workplace bully is often highly charismatic and sociable, initially offering help to the new employee in the office or engaging in pleasant conversation with his colleagues in the office lounge. Don’t be fooled. Behind his charismatic persona, the office bully is a master manipulator.
Strategy. The office bully is very strategic in who he targets as well as in how and when he targets. His primary targets are often women, younger colleagues, new employees, and those who are more sensitive and soft spoken because he thinks these targets are less likely to stand up to him or to report him.
He gets to know his targets—their habits and vulnerabilities—so he knows how to harass them.
For example, if he knows a specific coworker is highly organized, he may intentionally displace an important file in her office or walk away with her original copy from the copy room, claiming it was a mistake and even apologizing later for what he “accidentally” did.
He'll often harass his targets in subtle ways so as to go unnoticed by others, or attack when nobody else is around so there won't be witnesses.
Regardless of how bullying is manifested –either verbal assaults or strategic moves to render the target unproductive and unsuccessful—it is the aggressor’s desire to control the target that motivates the action.
— Gary Namie, PhD
Intimidation. The office harasser may yell at his target in an effort to intimidate and establish dominance over him. Or he may ask his target questions he knows he’s unable to answer, often in front of other colleagues, with the intent to make him feel inferior or inadequate.
Ridicule. If a coworker confronts him about his bully behavior, the aggressor may laugh or otherwise make light of the situation, implying that the coworker misunderstood him or read too much into the incidents. The harasser may also make derogatory comments, sugar coated with humor, in an effort to belittle his targets.
Humiliation. The workplace bully will magnify small mistakes or oversights his target makes by bringing them to light in front of the supervisor or coworkers. He may make cynical or critical comments to other colleagues about his target’s work habits or work performance.
Ostracism. The office bully may deliberately exclude his target from office conversations or fail to make eye contact with him during important business meetings in an effort to make him feel inferior. He may frequently “forget” to include his target as a recipient in important e-mail messages he sends out or in important work-related information he distributes.
Work Shouldn't Hurt!
- Workplace Bullying Institute - WBI - Help, Education, Research
Work Shouldn't Hurt!
Why Is the Workplace Bully Still There?
Most workplace harassers did not become bullies overnight. They have been enabled for years by the supervisor seemingly turning a blind eye to their ongoing bully behavior. Why does this happen?
1. There are no federal laws against workplace bullying. This is the primary reason it’s so easy for workplace bullies to get away with their behavior in the U.S. Although many workplaces have anti-bullying policies, they’re often not enforced and clearly don’t carry the same weight as state or federal legislation against workplace bullying.
2. The bully makes an important contribution to his place of employment. He is successful at increasing sales, bringing in new clients, or enhancing the image of the business in some way. Even if multiple employees have filed complaints against the harasser, the employer is reluctant to let the office bully go if he thinks that doing so would significantly impact the company's image or bottom line.
3. The supervisor is lazy. The thought of having to confront the aggressor about his behavior makes the supervisor uncomfortable, so he chooses to ignore the problem. He justifies this by saying or implying that employees who complain about the office bully are probably overly sensitive and need to grow up or suck it up.
4. The supervisor doesn’t have sufficient documentation against the office bully. Employees who have been bullied in the workplace often choose not to file official written complaints because they’re concerned it will backfire. They fear retribution from the harasser or being looked upon as the office whistleblower.
They may even worry that reporting the bully will negatively impact their work performance evaluation because it will make them appear as if they can't get along with others, particularly if nobody else has reported the bully in the past.
Or if the targets have filed official written complaints, they’re not sufficiently objective or specific and therefore aren’t considered valid forms of documentation against the workplace bully.
5. The supervisor is afraid of the office bully. In some cases, the supervisor knows the workplace bully has caught him engaging in unprofessional or unethical behavior, such as arriving late to work regularly or drinking on the job. He fears that if he confronts the abuser about his behavior, the abuser will retaliate and expose him.
The supervisor may fear other forms of revenge from the office bully in exchange for confronting him about his behavior. For example, he may worry that the harasser will file a lawsuit if he’s dismissed, especially if he has already threatened to do so.
6. The supervisor is friends with the workplace bully. They're lunch buddies or they hang out together outside of school. The supervisor’s perspective is already clouded because he has an emotional connection with the aggressor.
7. The supervisor IS the workplace bully. A supervisor who misuses his position of authority to harass an employee poses a particularly difficult situation for the target, as the target knows that reporting the bully will in this case more than likely jeopardize his (the target's) job security.
If you are the target of an office bully, it’s important to document all incidents of bullying in an objective and specific manner.
Whether or not you decide to file an official written complaint, it’s important to consider what that entails as well as the repercussions it may bring on you.
In the end, you need to weigh the cost of staying in your current work situation against the cost of leaving.
In some cases—and particularly if the bully is your direct supervisor—the best thing to do may be to remove yourself from your toxic work environment and find work elsewhere.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Geri McClymont
She-Ra from U.K on January 26, 2020:
It would certainly appear that certain people are regular targets and that bullies see something in certain people that single them out as someone to bully.
Especially so when the target has high standards and integrity- yet these are what are constantly questioned to the extreme, on top of constant questioning about everything else. Being kind and patient is certainly seen as being weak.
It’s been useful to consider that the bullying is to essentially control the target- in all regards, not just some. They want to do what they want, as they have done for a substantial length of time without challenge.
I’ve also wondered about overwhelming work load (Through completely ignoring reasonable instructions to complete work, through not following through on their managerial responsibilities and general poor performance) when it is subordinates mobbing/ bullying their line manager. This feels like bullying but this is the first place I’ve had this validated.
(Poor performance process has been ongoing in the background but is disproportionately lengthy because I am being overwhelmed with the bullying and workload).
Alice on January 18, 2020:
My coworker is a bully. She has singled me out and has used tactics such as yelling and intimidation to make me feel like I’m not doing my job. I have documented each occurrence and brought it to the attention of my supervisor, but nothing has been done. I’m at the end of my rope. Best thing for me to do is quit.
anon on March 29, 2019:
Yup, all helpful, charismatic, smart but extremely manipulative, mean, and a narcissist. Office managers watched him openly devalue, criticize and mock a new employee over note taking causing the notes to be extremely brief and questions unanswered so then they could mock when questions were asked that were not in notes. Sabotage, then probation all while the saboteur gloats.
Geri McClymont (author) on June 18, 2017:
Thank you for your comment, Amy. Bullying in the workplace is unfortunately becoming increasingly common.
Amy from East Coast on June 18, 2017:
I loved this article! It was simple and spot on. Thank you so much for the info.
Geri McClymont (author) on November 24, 2016:
Thanks for stopping by and for your comments, online_one. I think that many would concur with you.
online_one on November 21, 2016:
Document everything, tolerate nothing!
Geri McClymont (author) on March 12, 2016:
Thank you for your great comments, Bill. I too agree that things will change soon. Several U.S. states have introduced workplace anti-bullying legislation--I think it's just a matter of time before they pass and other states follow their lead.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2016:
A very important topic. Remove oneself from the environment is obviously the simplest and best solution, but unfortunately many cannot afford to do so. The fact that there is no law against workplace bullying is amazing in today's social climate. I expect that to change soon.
Geri McClymont (author) on March 09, 2016:
Thank you for your comment, BlossomSB. Yes, it is sad that many know about it only too well.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on March 08, 2016:
Thanks for a very interesting hub on a subject that many of us know about only too well.