How to identify workplace bullying

Recent research has shown that more than 80% of UK employees have experienced bullying at work– with more than 20% being bullied on a daily or weekly basis. But, how do you identify workplace bullying? We asked Lyn Witheridge, CEO of the Andrea Adams Trust, the first worldwide charity formed to combat the issues that surrounded workplace bullying, to explain.

By Lyn Witheridge, CEO, Andrea Adams Trust

Andrea Adams, broadcaster and journalist, was the first person to recognise the significance of workplace bullying, and her book entitled ‘Bullying at Work’ published by Virago in 1992, remains a landmark in this field. Andrea’s tragic early death in 1995 left a legacy of many people affected by her personality and her work. They felt deeply that her contribution must not be forgotten and that the work she had started must be continued. They became the founding members of the Trust in June 1996. In setting up the Trust to carry on Andrea's work, it was their intention to fill the gap that she had left and to become the natural focus for the diverse needs the agenda inevitably elicited by this emotive topic which touches so many people.

The Trust was launched as a non-political, non-profit making charity in June 1997.

One factor that makes workplace bullying so important to the Andrea Adams Trust is that we believe it to be a measure of the society in which we live in today, it is a sub violent behaviour, and just a stones throw away from acts which this very society of ours deems criminal.

Bullying at work is perhaps the expression of aggression without physical violence, it’s a form of brutal psychological intimidation, a subtle, hidden and repetitive process, typified by small events which makes its impact through the gradual build up of the effects of persistent repetition.

As a subjective behaviour, bullying is dependent on people’s own perceptions of it, but there is no doubt that it reduces adults to the state of frightened children and has emerged as one of the key employment issues of today.

Awareness and recognition of workplace bullying is therefore essential if it is to be legitimately challenged.

A lot of people dismiss bullying as part of life, but surely that is only because they allow it to be.

Of crucial importance is the targets perception of what is occurring to them – are they experiencing persistent negative reactions and do they view the intent of the perpetrator to humiliate or degrade them persistently?

Just remember that it can take many forms, occur in a variety of situations and crosses gender, race, age, creed and religion. It can involve one or a number of individuals and doesn’t always happen from the top down either. Staff can bully their managers – secretaries their bosses, and those at the same level can bully one another. Basically, bullying can occur in any situation in which one person is financially, materially, emotionally or socially dependent on another.

The Andrea Adams Trust defines this behaviour as the misuse/abuse of power or position to:-

  • persistently criticise and condemn
  • openly humiliate
  • professionally undermine an individual’s professional ability until they lose all self-confidence and self-esteem
  • intimidate somebody in a way which leaves them feeling vulnerable, isolated, angry and impotent

We want to emphasise, however, that our interest in bullying does not contradict our conviction that all managers have the right to manage and are rightly given authority to use and wield power but not to abuse it. Where bullying is accepted as good robust management, it filters down from the top.

We have come across many bullies who excuse their behaviour as strong firm management, but you have to assess whether what is said is constructive or destructive. Is the criticism of the mistakes made or of the person who made them? Is it done to make the person aware of their error and get it right in future or is it made to humiliate and undermine them. The thin line is crossed when persistently downgraded or hurting an employee or colleague, intimidating, upsetting, embarrassing, humiliating, offending or ultimately destroying them, is more important than getting the task done. It is important to remember that it is not the intention of the perpetrator, but the deed itself and its impact on the recipient or target that constitutes workplace bullying

Bullying is not strong management but the self interest of individual survival at the expense of others. It is the expression of weakness and inadequacy through the control of others and is a sad reflection of apparently blinkered management that the complaints of so many employees are generally dismissed as personality clashes or poor management style. Bullying is surely irresponsible management.

Workplace bullies are often insecure people who do not trust others and see them as a threat to their own positions. Their techniques range from outright aggression such as shouting and swearing and humiliating their victims in front of others, to outright psychological torture.

Obvious Bullying Behaviour

Repeatedly shouting/swearing in public or private
Public humiliation/persistent criticism
Being overruled, ignored, marginalized or excluded
Constantly undervaluing effort personal insults or name-calling
Persecution through fear of threats
Increasing responsibility whilst decreasing authority

Less Obvious Bullying Behaviour

Setting individuals up to fail
Setting un-contracted tasks
Setting unrealistic deadlines for an increased workload
Removing areas of responsibility and imposing menial tasks
Deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance
Constantly changing guidelines
Withholding work related information

Latest Research shows that:

  • In February 2008, the Samaritans published research findings showing more than 80% of UK employees have experienced bullying at work– with more than 20% being bullied on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Recent research suggests 18.9 million working days are lost each year as a direct result of bullying at work, costing to the UK economy of £6 billion – massively impacting productivity, creativity, morale and general employee wellbeing
  • 90% of those absent from work due to bullying tell employers their absence was the result of some other kind of illness.

Research studies supported by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation and carried out by UMIST revealed that More than 2 million people at work consider themselves as being bullied at work and that 1 in 4 people report that they are currently being bullied and that only 1 out of every 3 organisations have a specific policy to deal with bullying.

The study estimated that between a third and a half of work related stress is caused by bullying and that 94% of those involved in the research said bullies get away with it and 1 in 6 employers actually encouraged a bullying style of management.

Further problematical is that as yet there is no legal definition of what is meant by the term and this introduces a problem in assessing it prevalence, as there are differing perceptions of what it actually is and therefore its effects may be attributed to something else.

Lyn Witheridge is the founder and Chief Executive of The Andrea Adams Trust, the first worldwide charity formed to combat the issues that surrounded workplace bullying. Lyn had been firm friends with journalist Andrea Adams who was the first person to comprehensively highlight the issue of workplace bullying in the UK. Before Andrea’s tragic death from cancer in 1995, she asked Lyn to pick up the baton she was about to drop and continue her work in raising awareness of the subject.

The Trust works to reduce the incidences of workplace bullying by raising awareness of the problem through training, development and research. The Trust also operates a national helpline to provide support to anyone who needs it.

For more information and to download a free fact sheet visit:

National Ban Bullying at Work Day 7th November:

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