Working out how to tackle the bully in your office


Is there someone at work making your life hell? From cutting you out of meetings to being overly critical of your work to shouting at you, the tactics of the workplace bully can be detrimental to your mental health.

Up to one in 12 people in Irish workplaces are bullied, and whether the bully is your boss or a colleague, the effects can range from loss of self-esteem to anxiety, panic attacks and even thoughts of suicide.

“Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour which could reasonably be regarded as undermining an individual’s right to dignity at work,” says Genevieve Murray of the anti-bullying research centre at DCU.

She’s the co-ordinator of a new series of workshops aimed at helping employers and employees to recognise and tackle the problem.

Murray stresses bullying isn’t banter or a once-off flair-up, it’s something far more sustained and targeted. “Workplace bullying is an escalating process. If you are in a situation where a colleague is excluding you or undermining you, encouraging other staff members to disregard your views or where a boss is cutting your responsibilities, giving you menial duties or is criticising you in a way that you don’t deserve – that’s bullying.”

Completing a PhD on the topic, Murray researched teacher-to-teacher workplace bullying in the post-primary sector.

“I’ve met very capable people who went to work every day, wanting to do their job well, who found themselves isolated by colleagues and they didn’t know why. They found that there were rumours about them, people were withdrawing from them or not giving them work.”

Bullies’s own issues
It turns out bullies may have their own issues. Murray describes them as “Jekyll and Hyde” characters, whose personalities can switch depending on who they are dealing with.

Having a strong need to control, to dominate and to be in power, their behaviour is often a manifestation of feelings of insecurity, lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. 

Research shows that envy and resentment can be strong motives for bullying someone. In fact, in Murray’s teacher research, the bully was sometimes a school principal undermined by a teacher’s capability.

Whoever the cause, workplace bullying can have a detrimental effect on employee health. With problems ranging from anger to fear, migraine, stomach and bowel problems, palpitations, panic attacks, loss of sleep or appetite and even thoughts of suicide, the employee’s family and relationships can suffer too.

With knock-on impacts on the workplace of poor morale, low productivity, poor performance and low self-esteem, employers should know that failure to tackle bullying impacts their bottom line.

Handling a bully isn’t easy, but Murray urges victims to keep a record of what’s happening to them and either confront the bully or ask someone in HR or a union representative to help.

“But the ultimate responsibility for all of this is with the employer,” says Murray. “They shouldn’t brush workplace bullying under the carpet.”

While Murray says there’s no legislation in this country against workplace bullying, a 2007 Health and Safety Authority (HSA) code of practice on bullying is aimed at preventing and dealing with it where it happens. Failure to follow the code isn’t an offence but the code is admissible in evidence in court proceedings.

The HSA code recommends that all employers create and communicate to staff a bullying-prevention policy. The policy should define bullying, state the employer’s commitment to a workplace free from bullying and give the name or job title of the person who may be approached by a person wishing to complain of bullying. It should also state that complaints by employees will be treated with fairness, sensitivity, respect and confidentiality.

“It’s important that HR staff and trade union representatives know how to handle complaints of bullying,” says Murray. “Employers have a duty of care to their staff. Every employee has the right to dignity in their workplace.”

Tips for those being bullied
Do not blame yourself. The fault lies with the bully.

Keep calm under verbal attack, respond quietly and coherently.

Do not hide the fact that you are being bullied. Ask colleagues if they have the same problem.
Keep a written record of events. Write down your own feelings as well as dates, times, circumstances and any witnesses.

Confront the bully and tell them to stop.

Write a letter or memo to the “bully” if you are unable to confront him or her. Keep copies of all correspondence.

Speak to someone in higher authority whom you trust and ask for help.

Request a trained third party, mediator.

Contact your union representative if you have one.

Inquire about the company’s code of conduct and policy on bullying.

If all efforts fail, consider legal action.

(Adapted from the anti-bullying research and resource centre guidelines.)