Bully at work

Take steps to deal with office intimidation.

The day she got her pin for 25 of service, after being feted by her adoring coworkers, a teller had a panic attack so severe she could not breathe.

She called 911 and at the hospital she told her story: for 12 of those years at a job she loved and needed, her boss had been secretly tormenting her by ridiculing her and undermining her effectiveness. He’d give her extra, often pointless, work. "You’re being bullied," a nurse told her.

And so are many working Canadians: research shows 40% have experienced one or more acts of workplace bullying per week in the past six months. Bullying takes many forms and often leads to mental and physical health problems. (The teller ended up taking a six-month leave of absence due to post-traumatic stress disorder; she is now working to clearly document and resolve the issue.)

Bullying is now attracting research and awareness, and experts say recognition of the issue is where sexual harassment in the workplace was a few decades ago. "It’s harder to prove and more subtle," says Jacqueline Power, an associate professor at the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor who studies workplace bullying. "If someone touches your breast, that’s sexual harassment. Mean comments are hard to quantify."

Yet, with growing experience and more legislation across the country, there’s increasing hope for victims of bullying in the workplace. If you experience it or see it, here’s what you need to know to take action.


Valerie Cade, a Calgary-based workplace bullying expert and speaker and author of Bully Free at Work, defines bullying as behaviour that is "disrespectful, deliberate and repeated toward one, but not others, or one group but not other groups, for the bully’s gain."

Some bullies yell and are cruel in an up-front manner, but usually the abuse is less overt, more complex and secretive. "Bullying by exclusion is common. It gets back to that playground mentality," says Lynn Brown, managing director of Brown Consulting Group, a human resources consulting company in Toronto. That includes "accidentally" not inviting someone to a meeting, and ganging up with others. Withholding work is common (one lawsuit in the UK involved a bully hiding mail). Cade says to be on the lookout for repeated manipulation and lies: personal and professional rumours and cooked-up stories of errors on projects. "It’s all about power and control," says Brown. Bullies generally work to prop up their own reputation and in the process tend to crush the target’s self-esteem.


Gary Namie, director of the US research and advocacy organization Workplace Bullying Institute, says that bullies are nasty, even dangerous people who have a sociopathic lack of empathy, are self-centred, use others for personal gain and get pleasure from harming others. Power says her own research confirms that bullies have these worrisome traits. "They are psychopaths. We’re talking about quite permanent personality predispositions. There’s very little you can do to rein them in or change them."

Targets, on the other hand, tend to be hard-working, ethical employees who like to get along with others and avoid the spotlight. "They’re the nose-to-the grindstone type who just want to be left alone to do their job," says Namie.


Bullying is devastating. According to Namie, about 80% of victims leave their job. Many start internalizing the abuse and blaming themselves and the quality of their work tends to go down. The stress may lead to conflicts at home, substance abuse, depression or illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Some bullies are fired or sued, but the vast majority get away with it. "Why does it happen? It gets rewarded," says Namie. Because bullies are often very cunning, they end up taking credit for others’ work, even looking like heroes for exposing poor work by others (often their targets).


  • Stay tuned into what’s going on with your team and be aware of the signs of bullying (see below).
  • When approached by someone with an allegation, avoid the urge to minimize and ignore the situation. "Stop saying, ‘Work it out between yourselves.’ Don’t make the victim solve it. If she hasn’t already, she can’t," says Namie.
  • Acknowledge the problem and listen to both sides of the story. "Don’t be too quick to solve it," warns Cade. If you have a bully, chances are this person is good at covering his tracks.
  • Learn all you can. "Since bullies are complex, educate yourself or seek outside help," says Cade. "Education is empowerment."
  • Consult your company’s workplace behaviour policy and see if it can help you instigate a termination. Namie says this is the best solution: "They’re not going to stop. Get rid of them." Don’t just give a bully a warning: that can lead to retaliation. If you don’t have an anti-bullying policy, get to work on one.
  • Work with HR to screen for sociopathic personalities at hiring time to avoid bringing in new bullies.


  • Avoid confronting the bully. "It’s the worst thing you can do. Bullies tend to erupt in anger when you do that," says Power. They will often retaliate and further torment you.
  • Collect clear information, says Cade. Keep emails, record conversations and make notes on what precisely was said, when and where. Include even small things such as not being invited for lunch or receiving a document in an unreadable format.
  • Consult your workplace’s behaviour policy and come with clear supporting facts when you report the problem to HR or a superior. "When you present your case, make sure you are not emotional — save your emotions for a safe place, such as a therapy session," says Cade.
  • Find a champion. Cade recommends that targets keep pursuing allegations as long as someone high up in the company listens and helps open doors.
  • If the bullying is related to discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or other grounds, you can file a complaint through the human rights commission in your province.
  • File a civil suit through the courts. There are success stories: in 2012 an assistant manager at Walmart in Windsor, Ont., was awarded $1.4 million after being bullied by her boss. BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec now have labour laws recognizing workplace bullying.
  • Try improving your coping skills. Cade coaches targets to disengage from the abuse and avoid bending over backward to please a bully. "The thing that will allow them to cope better is to accept the reality that the bully won’t change." Cade suggests targets educate themselves about bullying tactics so they can analyze what’s happening to them. This approach has helped people stay in their jobs and has led to bullies losing interest.


Emotional changes in staff: "Watch for a competent person who is suddenly bumbling and self-doubting," says Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in the US. A target who’s exhausted from stress and suffering from low self-esteem will start making mistakes. Absenteeism: An empty desk, particularly on Mondays, could turn into a stress leave over time.

Social shifts: If the bully is affecting the workplace overall, there may be rampant rumours, meetings where no one dissents and changes in friendships.

A sudden explosion: When it all hits the fan in a big office argument, it’s a sign that bullying has been festering for some time; teasing out who’s the bully and who’s a retaliating target could be tricky.