02 April 2010

To Catch a Sneaky Bully - 'Covert bullying is now far more common than overt aggression'

'Workplace bullies' by Chris JohnstonThe growing awareness and legislation around bullying has had an unintended consequence: many workplace bullies have simply become sneaky.

Covert bullying is now far more common than overt aggression. The modern workplace bully debilitates with a thousand subtle cuts; sarcasm, innuendo, sabotage, exclusion, criticism, overloading, discrimination. It's delicate but deadly psychological warfare, difficult to detect, tricky to explain and hard to report. Indeed, when it comes to psychical damage, the poison of workplace bullying is usually worse than its bite.

Norwegian researcher and psychologist Stale Einarsen's long-term research showed that 75 per cent of workplace bully victims displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even five years after the bullying, 65 per cent still had nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks and anxiety. An even higher proportion felt the bullying had a long-lasting and negative impact on their friendships, leisure time, familial and sexual relationships.

Social psychologists tend to understand the effect of severe bullying as a breakdown of 'core cognitive schemas'. These schemas are the fundamental beliefs about our world (such as seeing yourself as a person important people will like, and believing that hard work will be rewarded) that make our lives meaningful. A breakdown of these assumptions can make the world seem unsafe and unstable, often resulting in high psychological distress.

Some people are able to take the devastating new experience to create new 'schemas'; they may become wiser and tougher. For many others, there is nothing but pure mental breakdown, sometimes with fatal consequences.

We had a wake-up call to the consequences of bullying with the death of 19-year-old waitress Brodie Panlock, who took her own life in 2006 after enduring persistent bullying by three of her colleagues. The cafe operator was fined $220,000 and there were calls for the perpetrators to be charged criminally.

As a result, the Victorian Government announced 40,000 snap inspections of bullying in the workplace. This is not an unreasonable response. A government or industry-sponsored awareness campaign around what is and is not bullying would be an effective partner to the investigations. The biggest limitation to any effective inspection is that people are reluctant to talk about it — bullying is massively under-reported.

While the Productivity Commission says more than 2.5 million Australians have been bullied in the workplace, it's thought that less than a third ever complain about the bullying. One reason is that one psychological effect of bullying is a strong sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Another is simple pragmatism; people want to protect their careers.

Even with bullying procedures in place, most workplaces are made up of complex and informal networks, empires and factions that can aggressively protect powerful managers accused of bullying. Often victims are bullied more after they make a complaint, often with an abuse of performance management so the victim is made to look incompetent or disgruntled, or the actions somehow justified.

It's not uncommon for co-workers to turn against people who make complaints to protect and even advance their own careers. In my experience, it is often the victim who leaves the workplace with a career in tatters, while the bully gets slapped on the wrist and is eventually promoted once again.

Adelaide psychologist and bullying expert Moira Jenkins says the issue of under-reporting is further complicated because often those who do report bullying aren't actually victims. Rather, they have mistaken reasonable management action for bullying.

The meaning of the term 'reasonable' is battled out every day in workplace bullying cases across the country. Part of the problem is that there is no simple definition to mark the point where management action ends and bullying begins. Legislators and anti-bullying advocates need to come up with a sharper and better-promoted definition so that 'bullying' becomes an adequate prescription of behaviour in the workplace.

Earlier this year the Productivity Commission released its draft report on Occupational Health and Safety stating that only two states in Australia have specific legislation on workplace bullying.

The two states, Queensland and Western Australia, have had a significant decline in worker compensation claims related to bullying since the introduction of bullying specific codes of practice. Queensland has reduced the number of bullying claims from 265 to 130 over five years, while Western Australia had just 20 claims in 2008. Victoria, by comparison, has the highest number of bullying claims — 595 in 2008 alone.

Not all is hopeless. This very debate might be starting to swing. Bullying is costing money, with many bullying victims getting significant payouts to avoid allegations going public. Worksafe has had a massive spike in calls since the Panlock case hit the news, Panlock's Facebook page has over 5000 members, and people are starting to identify the behaviors of their managers as clear cases of bullying.

Perhaps it's time bullies started to lie awake and worry about what will become of them if their career comes to an end. Perhaps it's time bullies started to feel they are being watched.



  1. "Perhaps it's time bullies started to lie awake and worry about what will become of them if their career comes to an end. Perhaps it's time bullies started to feel they are being watched."...that all depends. If the bully is a sociopath, it won't make a bit of difference. They'll just become more covert, creating impossible to prove "he said-she said" situations with their targets.

    I worked for a large university and was the victim of a sociopathic bully whose tactics included threats of violence. The HR department refused to deal with this person in any meaningful way, and one person even told me I should learn to live with it because if they tried to do anything to stop her, things would only get worse. The top level of this university was clearly afraid of her. She knew she could get by with anything and no one would hold her accountable. I ended up leaving a job I loved and did well because of this person. She continues to terrorize staff and students at will with no consequences.

  2. I spent 30 years dealing with these types of bullies. The psychos are easy to deal with. I've studied martial arts and I'm a former US Marine. The psychos are like candy to me. Unfortunately, to deal with these people you have to be willing to be a little crazy yourself. I working on a book now legal, nonviolent methods that do not involve "conflict resolution", "team building", or HR. HR will only protect the company from you, not you from the bully - from you.

    The only way to deal with a covert bully is to go covert on him. Besides, the psychos don't scare me, I live in a right to carry state.

    1. Good afternoon Rick.

      I read both the posted article and your reply to it, and I would like to offer my opinion to you.

      You statement sounds to me like "fight fire with fire" and to be quite honest, it may be effective to a certain extent - and as far as your own person is involved and as long as you are in a position to defend yourself better than the bully's attacks - however, ultimately, it doesn't stop or change the bully. At best, he will stop targeting you, and at worst he will just wait for an opportunity to attack you again.

      The problem of the bully is realizing he is one (most don't because of denial). What I do know, is that all bullies are victims of their own fears one way or another, forced to carry around their own fears that they then project onto the people around them.

      If you could "multiply" your personality (fearless I suspect) and "install" it on all your other co-workers, then you might succeed in driving the bully out of the workplace or isolating him/her. I feel that that would be a much more effective way with dealing with one. However, not unlike a shark, they always single out the weakest of the school of fish.

      No matter what your opinion is on the above, I wish you well with your new book and everything you do.

      My best regards...

  3. Hello, so my question to you is how is that done.... '...is to go covert on them....'? Would be interested to know

  4. hi ricklawrence - i would like to know more pls. i think you're onto something important - how can we be in touch?

  5. I deal with covert bullying everyday in my local area (not at work) by ignoring it, it is subtle, and covert as this article implies. I have been bullied this way since I was nearly a baby. I realized. I tried to laugh it off. My mom always knew I shouldn't be around most other people because would always see a need to provoke me. She was right. I need to watch out for people they are mean. A supermarket staff who I feels hates me literally laughed about me right in front of me (loudly) while she was serving me, talking to another person against me. I look like a kid so I think it is surprising that people bully me.

    1. "I look like a kid so I think it is surprising that people bully me." try to understand if you look like a kid they will treat you like one" people are very cruel. but i dont think you are a kid maybe your more grown up than the two of them combined

  6. I worked at a nonprofit in DC that has a great reputation with the outside world, but once you got hired there, you quickly started to hear rumors that black women, in particular, never stood a chance of staying/succeeding with the company. In fact, I was shocked that several other black co-workers came out of the blue and warned me to start looking for a new job within the first six months of being there. And true to the rumors, I saw that most of the black women with terminal degrees were running from the place left and right.

    Oh yes...it didn't take long to see why the rumors existed. Many people who worked there, black and white, complained about the toxic working environment, but it seemed that in terms of having one's reputation covertly destroyed by unfair gossip, dealing with professional sabotage, and constantly being humiliated or called out in front of everyone for even the most minor infractions or mistakes, black women dealt with the most mistreatment by far. Given the total lack of diversity in promotions and retention, there was no way HR wasn't aware of the problem, and HR finally agreed to release data to show that the "rumors" about black women and other minorities were well-founded.

    I ended up working closely with an HR diversity officer who was supposed to be there to help fix the problem. Though, in the end she turned out to be the biggest bully of all. She knew all about the racial disparities there, but instead of doing her job, which included providing constructive strategies to fix the problem, she pulled the same crap I'd seen other managers pull with black women (e.g., withholding vital information, refusing to allow the black employee groups to move forward with their agenda while wholeheartedly supporting other groups, spreading false gossip to harm black female employees' reputations, sending out nasty emails with the intent of embarrassing black female employees, etc.). Thankfully, I ended up leaving the organization after being yet another victim of potentially racialized bullying...Though, it still hurts me to this day that the HR diversity officer, who was supposed to be the very person assigned to fix the problem, was actually perpetuating it more than anyone else...I just don't know what to think of something so unfair and what's worse is that it doesn't seem that things will ever get better for the ever decreasing and marginalized group of black females who still work there.