Bullies in the workplace

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“I would not be saying that, given the current economic climate if I were you.”

The words are etched on my mind. I’d disagreed with one of our directors and he had not taken kindly to it. He was known for his temper and he was known to be one of the Managing Director’s henchmen. He was the tough guy who went in and sorted things out, including doing things like closing inefficient sites down.

The “economic climate” he was referring to was that the company were scaling back at the time, rumours of redundancies were in the air. The implication was obvious. “Wind your neck in or you will be next.”

As it happened, by that stage, unbeknown to him, I already had plans to move on and was carefully planning towards heading off to Theological College. Unbeknown to both of us was that I would out survive him. One day he lost the favour of the MD and was unceremoniously booted out with a functionary statement from the boss to say that he was no longer with us.

I was thinking about that the other day because someone asked about whether there was any literature out there on dealing with bullies in the workplace. I’ve met a few in my time and so I thought it might be helpful to say a little bit more about it here.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that we assume that the bully will be the boss who throws his weight around.  That is sometimes the case but, not always so. The bully may be a dominant man in a position of power but can be a colleague, a group of colleagues or even a subordinate in the organisation. And they need not be male!

The bullying boss

 has a number of tactics including:

  • Making a threat to your well-being. This might include the potential for you to lose your job, to miss out on a pay rise or to be turned down for promotion (as in my example above).
  • To physically intimidate by shouting, getting up in your face or being constantly present, watching, note taking etc so that you feel like you are always looking over your shoulder.
  • To make life unpleasant for you at work by altering your terms and conditions, failing to provide you with suitable working conditions etc.
  • By constant fault finding and nit-picking about your work
  • To exclude you from interesting work, meetings, consultation and discussion.
  • To fail to value, show an interest in or appreciation for the work that you do. 
  • To try and coerce you into unethical and unfair contractual terms and conditions such as Non Disclosure Agreements.

The aim is to belittle you, to make you feel small, experience shame and to cause you fear.  Simply by being alert to the tactics and the goal of the bully robs them of something of their power.  Furthermore, it is worth observing that the list above amounts to abuse, is a breach of employment law and at times steps into criminality. 

It is helpful to know that the bully often relies on the plausibility of threats that s/he simply does not have the authority or power to fulfil. 

If you find yourself in such a situation, it is worth consulting with your trade union or with an employment lawyer.  You will have a case for grievance and if at anytime you feel pushed to quit then you will have a case for constructive dismissal.

 Make sure that you know the internal grievance procedures and your legal entitlements. If you do take up  grievance, my advice is that you spend time writing it out. Keep the initial grievance succinct. Try and sum up in one or two sentences what the issue is.  A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the longer the list the better but that is distracting. It is better to keep those examples back for later evidence.

I chose not to act on the specific incident I mentioned at the start. However, if I did, whilst I’ sure I could have listed all the things I found unpleasant or difficult with the man, those things would not have helped, indeed, may have given the impression I was the one with a vendetta. So, I simply would have said something along the lines of:

“Mr A threatened to use the redundancy process against me in an unlawful manner. This reflects a pattern of treatment and interactions over a period of time.”

Bullying colleagues and subordinates

As mentioned above, in contemporary contexts, power plays don’t always come from above in the hierarchy. Sometimes we can experience bullying and abuse from other colleagues. Sometimes it is the boss who is bullied.  This may be from an individual but also you will often see gangs forming to bully others.

Bullying in this context is likely to include:

  • An outright refusal to comply with the terms of their contract and instructions given to them.
  • False accusation or the threat of false accusation. There will be gossiping, complaints and grumbling. Of course, when directly challenged they will deny any responsibility for this
  • Ignoring the chain of command -a means of showing they don’t acknowledge your position and status.
  • Delaying meetings, stretching out deadlines and insisting that you meet with them at a place of their choosing. They again are examples of power play. You may formally hold a position in the organisation but they are the real power holders
  • If they have physicality on their side, then just like the bullying boss they may use that by getting up in your face.
  • Bringing others in to support them -building the gang. This does not need to be actual people, the classic “some people are saying…” works as well in workplaces as it does in churches!
  • Passive Aggressive behaviour  for example, facial expressions, body language, sighs and tone  and the equivalents in correspondence too.

Once again, their aim is to get their way at cost to you. The aim is to make you feel week, shamed, guilty, alone.

One important thing here is to be aware that an employee who behaves that way often feels protected by someone else in the organisation.  Remember, bullies are cowards. So, it is helpful to identify who is protecting them and why. It may well be that they are being used as a proxy by someone else to bully you or more often than not, it is simply that someone does not have the full picture and thinks that they are helping when in fact, they are hindering.

My advice in such situations is.

  • Keep your cool, don’t lose your temper -the bully wants you to do that to strengthen their arm.
  • Make sure that you are clear about the processes and procedures you have in place and what action can be taken.
  • Make sure your boss is aware of the issues. Whether it is from your colleagues or subordinates, they have a responsibility to prevent bullying.
  • Name things for what they are and let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable. Remember, focus on the behaviour not on the person.

Keeping my side of the deal

I believe that we are called to submit to those in authority. This means not just that we have to subject ourselves to any rubbish. So, for example, the wife subjected to abuse in the home and the employee bullied by their boss does not just have to suck it up because the husband and the boss are breaking laws. Submission to authorities includes availing yourself of the protections available to you.

Ephesians 5 and 6 show that in the church, home and workplace there should be mutual submission and reciprocal treatment. That is not always there. I believe 1 Peter 2 and 3 tells us how to live when we are in that situation. We keep our side of the bargain.  Jesus provides an example of how to face unjust suffering and we have the promise of his presence with us when relief is taking time to come.

Keeping my side of the deal in the workplace means.

  • I don’t resort to bullying behaviour
  • I do my job to the best of my abilities taking pride and delight in it, working as for the Lord.
  • I act out of compassion towards my colleagues, superiors and subordinates.
  • I pray for them.

I have often said to people in such situations that this is about God’s grace and the grace he gives us for the situation. It is not my place to tell them when to stay and when to quit or what action to take. We can talk through the wisdom of such situations. However, this is about them making prayerful decisions.


These are good words to apply to the workplace context.

Slaves,[a] obey your earthly masters[b] with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants[c] of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master[d] and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.[1]

[1] Ephesians 6:5-9

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