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Who does the workplace bully target?


Mon 3 December, 2018

lady with head in hands

Think workplace bullying and there may have been a time when an aggressive manager constantly berating a terrified junior employee was the only image that came to mind.

The reality is that any employee regardless of position or seniority can be a target while working in any industry or profession. The bully can be any gender and from any rank or background.

This is typified in the case of an acting police inspector reportedly awarded £500,000 after claiming he was bullied for challenging alleged misconduct. (1)

While research from the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University revealed one in 10 post-primary teachers say they are victims of online bullying, and it is mainly at the hands of pupils (2) According to the study parents and colleagues are also responsible for some of the bullying

Bullying at work can occur in many different ways. It can be devastating and distressing for the victim. It can have a long-lasting and damaging impact on all aspects of their life both inside and outside of work.

The target of the workplace bully can feel incredibly low and extremely fearful about having to attend work and the prospect of being confronted by the individual or group responsible.

ACAS describe bullying as any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. It is not necessarily always obvious or apparent to others, and may happen in the workplace without an employer’s awareness (3)

The type of worker that may be targeted by the workplace bully can vary, as can the motivation for the perpetrator to behave in such an unfavourable manner.

Exceptional performers may be affected because of the recognition they get for their outstanding work. They may be more creative, productive or skilled than colleagues and as a result targeted by those who feel inferior. Managers can also feel threatened by such a worker and can try and take credit for their work or undermine them.

There has long been a perception that the victims of bullying are likely to be loners or an outsider. However, popular workers can be targeted out of jealously.

Good, honest and conscientious workers can be affected by bullying. Perhaps the best example is workers who are whistle-blowers (4)

This may mean exposing wrongdoing by colleagues or management, which can often result in that person being bullied. Whistle-blowers are protected by law from such behaviour if they make a protected disclosure.

Bullying is not against the law, but if an employee is being treated in an intimidating or offensive manner, it could be harassment, which is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

It is still unfortunately the case that employees may suffer nasty treatment at work just because of their gender, age, race, sexual preference, religion or disability.  A worker being bullied as a result of one of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act (5) may have some legal recourse.

Bullying can often be excused as firm but fair management, just a bit of banter or a clash of personalities.

Examples of bullying behaviour can include the following:

  • Misuse of power or position to make someone feel uncomfortable or victimised.
  • Being persistently picked on in front of others or in private.
  • Being ignored, excluded or victimised.
  • Unfair treatment.
  • Being constantly criticised, having duties and responsibility taken away without good reason.
  • Being put down or made to feel like the butt of the jokes.

Bullying is never the fault of the victim and anyone being bullied at work should not feel they have to suffer in silence. They should be encouraged and feel empowered to report it as soon as possible.

The matter can sometimes be addressed informally as making the perpetrator aware of the impact of their actions can on occasion be enough to resolve the issue.

Employers should take any reports of bullying seriously and act without unreasonable delay to deal with such a complaint. Organisations are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment.

A zero-tolerance approach should be taken to bullying and having established and recognised anti-bullying and harassment policies can help prevent problems. 


1. Police inspector reportedly awarded £500,000 [Internet] BBC News [cited Dec 2018] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-41900656

2. Teachers are bullied by own pupils on line [Internet] News Education [cited Dec 2018] Available from: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/education/teachers-are-bullied-by-own-pupils-online-37509144.html

3. Bullying and harassment [Internet] Acas [Cited Dec 2018] Available from http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1864

4. Whistleblowing for employee [Internet] Gov.uk [cited Dec 2018]   Available from https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing

5. Protected characteristics [Internet] Equality human rights.com [cited Dec2018] Available from: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/equality-act/protected-characteristics


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