Bully Be Gone: What Is Workplace Bullying and Why Does It Matter?

The following article by Dr. Lynne Curry was originally published in January 2018 Social Space Magazine, a publication of the Lien Center for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University; https://socialspacemag.org/bully-be-gone-what-is-workplace-bullying-and-why-does-it-matter.

We have all met at least one in the course of our careers. He, or she, is the angry, aggressive bully who insults you to your face and behind your back. You would expect that at some point they would tire of this behaviour, but bullies thrive on demeaning and belittling you. Meanwhile, being bullied saps your emotional and physical energy until you finally resign from a job you once loved.


Workplace or corporate bullying is certainly real in Singapore, as shown in news reports over recent years,1 but it is an issue not faced by Singaporeans alone. In Australia, a 2016 survey found that as many as half of all Australian employees experience or have experienced bullying during their careers.2 The country, which passed Brodie’s Law3 in 2011, has made bullying—occurring anywhere, whether in the workplace, on social networking sites, or in schools—a serious criminal offence punishable by up to ten years in jail. And in the United States, a 2014 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that over 37 million workers face “abusive conduct” during their workday and almost 29 million others witness bullying.4 This figure of about 66 million equates to three to four out of every ten workers experiencing bullying. So what exactly is bullying? What happens in organizations that allow bullying? Why do employers allow it? How can organizations fix this? And what if you only witness bullying?


We all know rude individuals or those who occasionally lash out at others in stressful situations. Bullies, however, repeatedly and intentionally humiliate or intimidate their targets. To readily identify a bully in action, there must be a consistent pattern of psychological violence and aggressive manipulation against his or her victim(s).


The organizations that allow bullying to happen suffer, as do those who work in them. On the individual level, employees who experience or witness bullying lose self-esteem and job satisfaction, while on the company level, the entire organization will suffer a decline in productivity, staff engagement, work quality, employee loyalty and reputation.


Companies that ignore or enable bullying to go on will typically see an increase in employee absenteeism, grievances, turnover, and in more extreme cases, workers’ compensation claims and litigation. Moreover, victims develop feelings of anxiety, depression and angst as a result of their bullying, and these negative psychological impacts can cause a significant dip in their performance at work.


In my book, Beating the Workplace Bully, I document seven types of bullies. Recognizing these types can help you understand who and what you are up against.

  1. The Angry, Aggressive Jerk, who insults, blames and belittles.
  2. The Scorched Earth Fighter, who pulls out all the stops to win; for this type of bully, it is not enough that he wins; you need to lose.
  3. The Silent Grenade, who rules the workplace because he occasionally explodes so fiercely that others tiptoe around him.
  4. The Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, who charms those he seeks opportunities from and claws those who get in his way.
  5. The Narcissist, who feels entitled to win at all costs.
  6. The Wounded Rhino, who acts with calculated malevolence in an effort to dominate others.
  7. The Character Assassin, who spreads destructive stories to defame others.



With all these negative consequences, one might wonder why some organizations would turn a blind eye to bullying in the first place. This is because in many cases, even though their behaviour damages staff morale and productivity, many workplace bullies are high-achieving individuals who produce good results for the company. This thus leads senior management to perceive them not as bullies, but hard-charging, task-driven characters. It is not surprising, therefore, that when fellow employees speak out against their bullying actions, these protests fall on deaf ears, or are met with responses like, “Say what you will about John, he achieves results.”

Further, many bullies excel at workplace politics, and as the phrase goes, are able to “kiss up even as they kick sideways and down”. This can explain why senior management may seem “blind” to the bully’s destructive behaviours, refuting bullying claims with responses like, “But that’s not the John I know.”


Whether you face a bully or suspect one of your employees may be one, there are some things to keep in mind.

  • You can’t expect a bully to go away on his or her own.Because most bullies are high performers at work, they are valued by the organization, and believe others will give them what they want if they intimidate or create fear in their targets.
  • You can’t ignore a bully.Bullies test their potential victims, but that is a test you want to fail. If a bully is convinced that you are an easy target, he will intensify the frequency and scale of his attacks, and the problem can quickly spiral out of control.
  • You can’t kill them with kindness.With bullies, niceness fails, because they perceive that as a weakness.


What can employers and human resources professionals do to address corporate bullying? The following is a handy checklist to start with.

checklist2.PNGIf you witness bullying, please understand there is no witness protection. If you remain silent, you let the bully know that you sanction his or her actions, show the target that you do not care enough to act, and give the bully the sense that you fear him or her—potentially positioning yourself as a future target.

For more information, you can check out my book, Beating the Workplace Bully (US$15.25 via Amazon). Published by AMACOM, it is a self-training guide for individuals facing corporate bullying and managers or organizations looking to eradicate bullying. Additionally, if you have specific questions, you can write to me at Lcurry@avitusgroup.com or email any of our workplace coaches at our free blog, workplacecoachblog.com.

© Dr. Lynne Curry as published in January 2018 Social Space Magazine, a publication of the Lien Center for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University, 81 Victoria St, Singapore 188065.  Visit http://www.socialspacemag.org for more information.








Singled out for bullying by a new boss? Don’t wait too long to act.


I’ve been employed for two years in a stressful customer service position in a large company. Most of my co-workers are pleasant and hardworking despite all of our extreme workloads and the stringent performance measures our supervisor places on us.

Up until three months ago, I’ve had a supportive supervisor. Corporate management suddenly and inexplicably fired him and replaced him with a new supervisor. This new supervisor has been allowed free rein to intimidate and bully me. He barks at me, stands over my shoulder, and seems focused on catching the slightest infractions for which he can publicly belittle me.

I seem to be his primary target, as my co-workers lay low to avoid his attention.  As a result, within seven weeks I developed extreme anxiety that required medical treatment. After one particularly harsh confrontation, I had a frightening panic attack, which sent me to the emergency room.

I went to human resources and explained that this man’s bullying behavior was impacting my emotional, mental and physical health and asked for help. I got none.

When I reminded our HR officer that I couldn’t work if I was having panic attacks, she gave me a Family Medical Leave Act form to fill out for anxiety-related absences. She also said that the other employees seemed to be handling everything “fine.”

The stress of his constant bullying has affected my work life and ability to do my job. The new boss is, of course, tracking my mistakes. What do I do now?


You’re not alone. According to a recent study of 3,066 U.S. workers conducted by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, nearly 1 in 5 workers state they endure a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include harassment and bullying. Nearly 55 percent of those surveyed state that they face “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions.

As an employee confronting what you see as a hostile environment, you have six alternatives. You can vote with your feet, and many do. If you choose to stay, you can “lie low” or talk with your supervisor and see if you can change the dynamic. You can examine yourself and ask yourself the question your HR officer’s response implied: What leads your new supervisor to target you — and why do your co-workers seem better able to tolerate him? You can ask HR for help or jump the chain of command and reach the ear of a senior manager.

If you choose one of the last two strategies, do it early. Far too many victims wait until they’re a mess before blowing the whistle on a problem supervisor. As a result, they come across as angry, frustrated and emotional, thus appearing as much of a problem as the supervisor.

If you decide to make a case to a senior manager, act before the hostile treatment takes too great a toll on you and arm yourself with substantiating documentation. You can’t expect a senior manager to act based on your opinion or anecdotal information.

While you have your panic attack as evidence of what happened to you, both HR and senior management may wonder if the problem stems from your sensitivity and not the treatment you received, particularly given they valued your supervisor enough to promote him. You also need to decide how to handle the frequent assumption that the problem is only a personality conflict and not bullying.

Finally, your HR officer may have made a critical mistake by not following up on your complaint — and you may have grounds to sue or seek the help of a regulatory agency.

For example, perhaps your supervisor targets you due to your membership in a protected category, such as your age, sex, race or religion or because you’ve engaged in a protected activity such as voiced safety concerns.

Even if your HR officer thinks this isn’t the case, she may want to investigate to be able to protect the company should you get fired and sue for wrongful termination.


Lynne Curry

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

How to Deal With a Bully Subordinate


My bully is my subordinate.  He presents to others as “the nice guy,” and appears hapless and lost most of the time.  I’m just now realizing that some of this is calculated to avoid his work, and that I have over invested in attempting to coach him.  His previous supervisor used to stay late explaining basic writing skills (such as grammar, word usage, and consistent tense), while he earned overtime nodding his head, but failing to follow through on improving his skills.  He spends most of his day socializing.  When asked about the status his assignments, he states he “didn’t know” even when he’s agreed in writing to follow through, or initialed a memo outlining the assignment.  This “I didn’t know, I’ll get right on that now” is turning out to simply be a way to buy more time. Everything is fine as long as I don’t hold him accountable.  Even when this is done gently his response is very theatrical.  He was responding with over the top grief, guilt, and self-disappointment like a “sad puppy” cartoon character. I was reassuring him and giving him more time, and further instruction.  Now that I am keeping records and holding him accountable to his commitments, and is now becoming angry and accusatory as he resists completing his work.  He exhibits two very different sides: one is a poor victim who just needs coaching and understanding; and the other will fight hard to avoid doing basic tasks.  He smirks at me as he states: “Well, I didn’t have clear direction on that!”  Last week he barged into my office exclaiming “I don’t know why I treat you so badly, I’ve never treated anyone this badly in my life, and I know I should probably be disciplined.”  I explained to him that I knew why he did it, it’s because I let him, and it needs to stop. There is always an apology, but never a change, the work is not being done, and what work is submitted is of such poor quality I have to redo it myself.  This dynamic is further complicated by his marriage to one of our newly hired division leads who is in a position lateral to my supervisor.  I’ve been directed by my supervisor to start initiating discipline rather than continue coaching, but the employee seems to be flaunting his marital relationship with some view it now provides leverage. I really wanted to treat him with more dignity than what I thought his previous supervisor provided him, but now I know “the rest of the story.” I’ve read every book I can read on how to coach him and help him improve, but I’m on overload and running out of steam with no results.

What do I do?


This subordinate has learned how to keep the comfortable status quo, and he does not want to change.  The haplessness and “sad puppy” routine have worked for several years, and your new style now poses a threat to his comfortable existence.  When you started keeping records, and challenged his “I didn’t know” routine, you upped the game and became a threat.  This Shape Shifter has been playing this game for a long time, and has been able to get away with it.  Now that you see through his façade, and the old routine is not producing the results he wants, he is trying a new tactic.  This employee’s top goal is to successfully resist the change you represent.  The energy he puts into avoiding his work has always paid off.  Others have not invested the time, energy, and resources that you have in him.  What you have done is admirable, but this particular employee will not change.  Save your coaching energies for the multitude of employees who will respond positively to them.  In the meantime, the best investments you can make for this situation will be to document his commitments to the clear direction you are providing, and follow through on consequences for disruptive behavior.  Ignore his attempts to flaunt his social relationships.  Your responsibility is to see the work is being done, and right now, it clearly isn’t.


Jennifer Yuhas is a Senior Consultant and Trainer with The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company.


How “Shape Shifter” Employees Disrupt the Workplace

Have you met a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. (or Ms.) Hyde in the workplace? One of the most slippery bully types, the shape-shifter takes out their targets. This article, featured on the AMA Playbook, draws from Beating the Workplace Bully, and tells you what you need to know about the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde employee.



“Claire” seemed to be the perfect new hire. When corporate management visited your branch office during Claire’s first workweek, she surprised you and delighted the managers above you by quoting the corporate mission statement in her brief self-introduction. “You’ve hired a keeper,” your CEO said.

During Claire’s first month, she bonded with you, letting you know how grateful she was for the opportunities you gave her, cooperatively handling extra projects when you sought a willing volunteer, and completing all projects by deadline, even if it meant staying late or working weekends.

You started hearing grumblings from her peers and other employees a month after her hire, but you assumed Claire’s talent had inspired others’ jealous reactions. By the time you learned the truth about Claire, it was too late—for you.

Shape shifter employees turn workplaces upside down. Managers or colleagues taken in by their facade and flattery soon learn that the shape shifter’s collegial approach can evaporate like mist on a hot summer morning.

The shape shifter’s M.O.

Shape shifter employees use a deferential facade to bond with upper management. While they find ways to make themselves appear valuable and talk the party line, their agenda is their own success. They work toward that goal regardless of what it costs their manager, others, or the company.

Classic “kiss up” and “kick down” covert bullies, shape shifters show their “claws” to those who get in their way, steal credit for others’ efforts, and stab in the back anyone between them and success.

The shape shifter’s peers and immediate manager fare the worst. Shape shifters sneer at their peers’ accomplishments and “forget” to provide them with promised materials by feigning a misunderstanding of commitments. Those forced to collaborate with shape shifters become nervous wrecks when deadlines loom. Worse, when they appeal to the shape shifter’s manager, the shape shifter insists he or she is being unfairly defamed by jealous coworkers.

Meanwhile, shape shifters subtly undermine their immediate manager by blind copying the manager above them with misleading emails. They weaken their manager’s credentials by calling those above him with pseudo-legitimate questions, claiming “I wanted to ask my manager about this but couldn’t find him anywhere.”

How they trap their managers

Despite the storm clouds surrounding the shape shifter, those in management find it difficult to believe that the “great” employee persona masks an evil twin. If the disbelieving manager defends the shape shifter, it weakens his relationship with other employees.

When the shape shifter’s immediate manager finally realizes what’s going on and tries to explain his new opinion to those above him, he often lacks objective facts because he hasn’t collected them. Those in charge wonder if the manager has drawn the right conclusion or is simply threatened by a “star.”

Taking out the shape shifter

To remove a shape shifter who has successfully initiated himself with upper management, a manager needs ammunition. Tools such as a 360-degree review or employee survey can reveal the shape shifter’s true nature. Both strategies provide those who fear the shape shifter’s “claws” with a confidential method for voicing their concerns. They also provide a clear foundation for improvement-oriented coaching and helpful documentation should discipline be a desired remedy.

Managers who are tuned in to the collateral damage caused by shape shifters can also follow normal disciplinary documentary procedures. This approach can prove successful, as shape shifters excel at “spin” rather than work. Because shape shifters also possess highly attuned antennae, they often leave as soon as managers start this process.

You may wonder what happened to Claire. She stepped into her manager’s spot on the organization chart when corporate decided “it was time for a change” in the branch office’s management. Half of Claire’s former peers, who’d had enough, soon left—a clue the corporate office failed to pick up on. Realizing that productivity in the branch would soon tank, Claire used her promotion to leverage her way into a senior management position in the corporate office, ready to try her spin on a new playing field.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

You’ve Awakened the Wrath of the Office Bully. Now What?


On my first day at my company, the co-worker I was hired to replace said, “Whatever you do, don’t make Bart mad.”

“So, what will he do?” I asked, thinking she was teasing me.

“You don’t want to find out,” she said.

I soon learned. Bart and I crossed paths because I needed IT support and foolishly thought I’d get it. So when I didn’t get a response to my first SEVEN politely worded request emails, I merged them into a batch and sent them to our executive director asking, “What’s protocol for getting IT help? Or, can I contract for it with an external professional? I know someone who could take care of this and come this afternoon.”

She forwarded my emails to Bart. Bart stormed into my office within the hour, tore my computer apart, accused me of spilling Coke on the keyboard (I don’t drink Coke but Bart does) and left the empty parts strewn across my desk. He then took a week securing a “new” refurbished computer for my work station and put it together, along with a sticky keyboard. I got the message. I cleaned it myself.

I’ve never dealt with someone like Bart. When I complained to our executive director, she told me that Bart does “brilliant” work maintaining our company’s server and equipment on a shoestring budget and works “cheap.” Since we’re a nonprofit and chronically strapped for cash, I get the point. I’ve asked two of my co-workers how to deal with this. Both said, “Don’t bother him. He gets to everything in his own time. Learn patience.” I don’t know if I’m more bothered by how Bart acts, or by how everyone else tiptoes around him. Help?


When you start working in a new company and run afoul of unwritten rules, look first to your own behavior and clean up your mistakes. Never launch battle via email, which you did, twice. Sure, your executive director shouldn’t have forwarded your email to Bart, but instead talked first with you and then with Bart to positively resolve the situation. However, you need to learn not to send an email you don’t want forwarded. Also, if you sent a new co-worker two emails asking for help and haven’t received a response, stop by their office. Your next five emails only push someone’s buttons.

Next, co-workers often react in the way you’ve described to a bully type I’ve named the “wounded rhino” when outlining seven bully types in “Beating the Workplace Bully.” Wounded rhinos are slow-moving and ill-tempered when disturbed. Rile them and they gallop forward at high speed and gore you. Because they’re authoritarian and malevolent, other jungle animals avoid them.

Unfortunately, avoidance never works, and if you’ve described your new agency accurately, Bart rules through intimidation. Your executive director allows this because she fears she couldn’t replace him with someone as talented who’d willingly work for the salary your agency can afford to pay. Everyone else backs down because Bart fiercely retaliates against those who cross him.

Take a lesson from the Nile crocodile, who successfully “takes out” rhinos by slowly approaching them, while taking care to avoid detection by staying below the water’s surface. When within striking range, the crocodile leaps up and grabs the rhino’s head.

The good news — unless you’re the problem, everyone knows Bart’s downsides; they simply work around them. The better news — given the problematic job market, you and your executive director may be able to find an equally talented IT professional who’s mission-oriented enough to work for the salary your agency can pay. Find such a person, and Bart no longer holds your agency hostage through his talent, but can be given a clear-cut “cut it out, and if you can’t or won’t, it’s time to part ways.”

If you clean up your part in this drama, and if strategy fails, you may want to reconsider continuing at this agency. When an organization allows a bully to run rampant, everyone suffers.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.