Employees often don’t recognise bullying. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a person may feel vague discomfort towards a perpetrator at work that he or she cannot put a finger on. Others may feel that they are on an emotional rollercoaster with the workplace bully. Some may sense that they are experiencing toxic, unfair or disrespectful treatment at times, but can’t understand why. Employees may dread or fear seeing the individual and not enjoy tasks or activities they enjoyed before.

The WBI suggests the type of people who become targets tend to not be judgemental and put the perpetrator’s behaviour down to having a bad day. Victims are not foolish for not recognising bullying, or not seeing the link between their mistreatment and their resulting health and social problems. In many instances the victims believe they are being too sensitive or believe they are strong enough to handle the situation themselves. The victims’ stubbornness is normally part of their highly desirable work ethic.

Recognising the signs of bullying is the key to prevention. The WBI proposes that a target’s experience of bullying probably includes the following:

Experiences outside work:

  • The targets feel like throwing up the night before the start of their work week
  • Their frustrated families demand that they stop obsessing about work at home
  • Their doctors question what could be causing their skyrocketing blood pressure and recent health problems, and suggest they change jobs
  • They feel too ashamed of being controlled by another person at work to tell their spouses or partners
  • All their paid time off is used for ‘mental health breaks’ from the misery
  • Days off are spent exhausted and lifeless, and their desire to do anything dissipates
  • Their favourite activities and fun with their families are no longer appealing or enjoyable pursuits
  • They begin to believe that they provoked the workplace cruelty

Experience at work:

  • If the bully is the boss, the target is continually given obviously impossible tasks to complete. These may be a new tasks to conduct without proper training or time to learn new skills. No matter how well the target is able to deliver despite the circumstances, it is never good enough for the bully
  • The target is not told about meetings or surprise meetings are called by the perpetrator, with insufficient time for the target to prepare. The target is constantly harassed and humiliated in meetings
  • Everything the perpetrator does is arbitrary and capricious, working a personal agenda that undermines the employer’s legitimate business interests
  • The perpetrator instructs or influences others at work to stop working, talking or socialising with the target
  • The target constantly feels agitated and anxious, experiencing a sense of doom, waiting for bad things to happen
  • No matter what the targets do, they are never left alone to do their jobs without interference
  • Other people start mimicking the perpetrator – to curry favour with the bully or simply to let off steam and be a bully themselves – and feel justified screaming or yelling at the targets in front of others. If the targets scream back they are disciplined. Increasingly unfair punishment is meted out to the targets
  • Ineffectual HR managers tell targets that their harassment isn’t illegal, and that they have to ‘work it out between themselves’
  • When targets finally confront their perpetrators, perpetrators often plead innocence and, in turn, accuse their targets of harassment
  • Perpetrators constantly accuse their targets of incompetence, despite a history of objective excellence. Typically, perpetrators can’t do the target’s job but are found in positions where they are responsible for the targets’ evaluation. It is in this area that bullying is most insidious and manipulative in controlling the target
  • There tends to be a tacit awareness by most people in the department or company that the perpetrator is a bully. In many instances, verbal agreement is given by co-workers, senior bosses and HR that the perpetrator is a problem. However, when the target asks for support, many deny having agreed with them about the perpetrator. This isolates the target and empowers the perpetrator and his or her sponsors.
  • Applications by the target for other positions or requests for transfers are repeatedly and mysteriously denied

Steps to stop bullying can only start when the perpetrators’ behaviours are recognised as not routine, acceptable or deserved, or as having any rational reason to be present in any workplace. The longer it takes for bullying to be discovered, the greater the likelihood that stress would have begun to erode the health of the victims – as well as that of the innocent observers of the bullying – and their productivity levels.



Workplace Bullying Institute


Harvard Business Review


SA Board for People Practice




TUC – changing the world of work for good


Dichthelabel – The Annual Bullying Survey 2019


CRC Health


No Workplace Bullies