Do You Work for a Bully?

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By: Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

I met Brenda when I was brought in to help with an upcoming change initiative at a Fortune 500 company. She managed a 2,000-person department and I was impressed by her intelligence, creativity, political savvy, and dedication to her job. Brenda had all the qualities of a senior executive—which was her career goal.

But Brenda was also a bully. One direct report described her as a “kiss-up and slap-down kind of manager.” The targets of the bullying were especially demoralized, but even those on her staff who only witnessed the bad behavior began to devote more energy to protecting themselves than they did to helping the company. Brenda's dysfunctional management style eventually led to a decline in her department’s performance and, as a result, the change initiative was abandoned. Eventually Brenda’s career was derailed by the increasing number of enemies she made with every nasty glare and mean-spirited remark. She resigned when it became obvious that she would never get the promotion she coveted.

Stories about bullies don't always end with them resigning in disgrace. In fact, many bullies thrive. You may even be working for one.

By definition, workplace bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee in the form of verbal abuse or behaviors that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating. Bullies at work practice psychological violence. They yell, insult, throw tantrums, steal credit, spread rumors, withhold crucial information, and/or socially isolate their targets by excluding them. The body language of bullies includes staring, glaring, or totally ignoring the target when he/she speaks. Bullies often engage in aggressive finger pointing, invade personal space, and use touch as a measure of control (a bone-crushing handshake) or a means to patronize (a pat on the head).

Here are a few facts about workplace bullying:

  • According to a 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey, 13.7 million adults reported being bullied at work.
  • Bullies are typically bosses. In fact, 72% of bullies outrank their “targets.”
  • Bullying is not illegal unless the target is a member of a status-protected group (due to gender, race, age, etc.) and the bully is not a member.
  • The financial damage bullies do to their organizations is often undetected, but can be seen in the cost of increased turnover and absenteeism and in decreased employee engagement and collaboration.

Some bullies are put into leadership positions because they appear to be smart, ambitious, results-oriented and “take-charge.” All of which may be true (as in Brenda’s case), but in addition to those more positive characteristics, most bullies lack empathy. They seem immune to the suffering of others.

So how can you tell if you're working for a bully or just a tough boss?

One way is to realize that tough bosses treat people equitably. They may be hard on everyone, especially during a crunch time, but they tend to ease up when the crisis is over. Bullies target only a few, and their bullying is relentless.

Another way to gauge whether or not you are being bullied is by monitoring your mental and physical reactions. Targets of constant bullying often become physically ill. Especially prevalent are cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, and a common first sign is hypertension. Targets also suffer emotional distress, including self-doubt, plummeting self-esteem, and depression.

Worn down mentally and physically, it’s no wonder that when it comes to dealing with bullies in the workplace, a lot of targets don't even try. They simply quit their jobs.

If you are being bullied at work, here are few tips:

  1. Understand that being bullied is not about you and your work. It's about dominance and control.
  2. Take a stand from the beginning. (This is the most vital tip, as targets suffer added pain and shame from not standing up to the bully in the first place.)
  3. Stay professional. Speak calmly and confidently, and make your position clear.
  4. Document and confide in others you trust.
  5. Report it to Human Resources if the bullying continues.

I am the co-author of Every Body’s Talking, a new book on body language for children in grades 4-8. The book is filled with tips for projecting self-confidence and understanding and responding to the nonverbal signals from teachers, parents, and friends—but that’s not the main reason I wrote it. Learning to read body language is also an effective way to develop empathy for others, which in turn, hopefully, will reduce the bullying that has become such a problem on grade school campuses.

In the schoolyard or in the workplace, bullying is a way to exert control over others through intimidation. Without a doubt, children who are bullies on the playground grow up to become bullies in the boardroom.

You can learn more about this topic at these AMA seminars:
Managing Emotions in the Workplace®: Strategies for Success 

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: