How Might You Recognize Workplace Bullying?

How do you figure out if you, or someone dear to you, is being bullied? It sounds like it might be easy to spot, but in reality, it is often tough for individuals to feel confident that this is what is happening.

“It is not unusual for some bullying behaviors to continue for weeks or months before their true nature is recognized” (Tehrani, 2012). 

Bullying is a very sensitive topic and I would like to begin with a story about a fictional character named Sara. Because I am committed to protecting the confidentiality, and trust of the many folks that have divulged their life and work experiences to me as a friend, colleague and an executive coach, I have created a story that highlights, and compiles, the kind of experiences that a person who is being bullied may have.

So let’s meet Sara.

Sara had been at a new position with a new company and a new boss for only a few months, and hadn’t had much opportunity to establish relationships with her colleagues. She came to realize that her supervisor might be bullying her, but felt isolated and unsure of how to act on her notion. 

One of the most difficult challenges for Sara was to figure out what was happening; she felt very alone and it seemed unthinkable for her to discuss the uncomfortable events with any of her new co-workers, some of whom she had said nothing more than hello to. Sara was in a vulnerable spot and in her isolation and uncertainty she began to question herself. She was off kilter and was losing perspective. Maybe she had incited the wrath of her boss by being less than capable?

Sara wondered, agonized and internalized. She reflected upon the numerous uncomfortable interactions with her supervisor over the past few months. The one that she found most troublesome was the conversation they’d had just last week. The conversation replayed over and over in her mind. Oh, if only I hadn’t said what I did, Sara lamented. Then maybe my boss wouldn’t have threatened me by saying that I had better not embarrass him or there would be hell to pay… When Sara went home that evening, she couldn’t sleep.

Sara didn’t sleep well for many of the nights that followed. She was slowly coming to the realization that she was being bullied by her supervisor at work. Yet, it was hard to come to terms with and even more difficult to accept.

When Sara did some research, she found that workplace bullying, is defined as:

Repeated negative actions and practices that are directed at one or more workers. The behaviors are unwelcome to the target and undertaken in circumstances where the target has difficulty in defending him or herself. The behaviors may be carried out as a deliberate act or an unconscious one. These behaviors cause humiliation, offence and distress to the target. The outcomes of the bullying behaviors have been shown to cause clinically significant distress and impairment in social, occupational, and other areas of functioning.” (Einarsen et al, 2003, p. 15)

As the above definition outlines, and as Sara had determined, it was increasingly difficult for her to function well and do a decent job in a new role. And it was challenging for her to establish and forge relationships with her colleagues and her supervisor. Sara’s energy drained out of her, like water coming out of a barrel with a hole in it.

This was not a healthy conflict. It drained Sara and prevented her from doing the kind of work that she knew she could do. Her lack of energy compounded the problem as she became less and less able to think clearly on the matter.

In life, and in organizations, there is always going to be conflict between individuals. Conflict, handled well, can be a healthy way to bring together different viewpoints for a stronger solution, relationship, action or understanding.

This brings up the question of what is the difference between bullying and healthy conflict? Tehrani (2012) tells us that “bullying differs from healthy conflict in that bullying always involves an abuse of power whereas in healthy conflict the participants are able to discuss the issue without wishing to undermine or show a lack of respect towards the person holding a different view on the issue.” When Sara read the above quote, she realized that she had been threatened repeatedly and that she had very little ability to express her concern. Her supervisor had made it clear that she had better not talk to others about their “issues” or it would have a negative outcome for her.

In the book “Workplace Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions”, Noreen Tehrani shares that bullying often happens in a variety of ways and with different levels of awareness and intent. In this situation, Sara was the victim of predatory bullying, which is when the target has done nothing to warrant the negative behavior. This was done with wilful intent, which is directed at the target with the intention of causing actual occupational, physical or psychological harm and it is one of the most overt kinds of bullying.

Bullying challenges the very nature of connection and human relationships and leads us to ask questions about how we understand, address and prevent the causes of bullying, on both an organizational and individual level. What are the antecedents? What are the triggers and pressures that might bring bullying to bear in a workplace and within an individual who works in organizational contexts? Stay tuned for my next blog where these questions will be further explored.

“A crucial measure of our success is the way we treat one another every day of our lives.” (from: Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, by P. M. Forni, 2003)


  • Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (2003). Emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. London: CRC Press.
  • Tehrani, N. (Ed). (2012). Workplace bullying: Symptoms and solutions. New York: Routledge.
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