Instances of bullying in the workplace are an issue for many employers at some point especially if not managed correctly it can be very costly.  However a lot of the advice and suggestions for dealing with bullying while well-meaning simply do not work.

Let’s have a look at some of the common myths

Myth: You can eliminate bullying in the workplace.

Fact: Bullying is a human behaviour from the playground to the workplace bullies exist.  Is it unrealistic to believe bullying in a workplace can be completely eliminated but there are things you can do, some are effective, some are not.

What employers must ensure that they do is take ‘reasonable steps’ to stop or prevent bullying.

Myth: Having well written policies will stop workplace bullying.

Fact: Bullies ignore bullying policies, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be a bully.

 The well written policy helps to protect the employer should an alleged bullied employee make a negligence claim with regard to a breach of duty to maintain a safe workplace.

A well written policy is part of the ‘taking all reasonable steps’ defence and one of the first questions asked in a court of commission is “can you produce your bullying or workplace behaviour policy”

Not having a policy is a huge mistake, but a policy is not the be all and end all of an employer’s responsibility.

Myth: Conducting regular reviews on any anti-bullying related policies will help.

Fact: See above and again useful when arguing the ‘taking all reasonable steps’defence.

Myth: Communicate anti-bullying policies to all employees to emphasise that compliance is required.

Fact: That works well for those who are not bullies but again is ignored by the bullies.

Of course it does add to the ‘taking all reasonable steps’ defence when an employer is asked, “what have you done?”

Myth: Providing information and training to all employees about bullying will reduce bullying

Fact: That’s bit like saying publicising speed limits will reduce speeding when we all know that a speed camera or marked Highway Patrol car reduces speeding.

While this information and training may be ignored by the bullies it is a good opportunity to clearly define bullying and what is unacceptable conduct.

This works best if you are very clear about the repercussions for those who bully.

Make sure that there is accountability of attendance in the case of face to face training (my preferred method) or completion if it is online.

If a complaint is made having evidence that the bully attended training is very useful when it comes to taking disciplinary action and of course it also add to the ‘taking all reasonable steps’ defence.

So far most of the suggestions that I have seen may help to cover the employer but actually have little effect of the prevalence of bullying in the workplace.

 Myth:  Having a policy that states something like “in the first instance speak to the person bullying you and tell them how they are making you feel”.

Fact: Really, come on, not going to happen.

What you need is;

  • A trusted HR department or person that employees being bullied can come to and discuss the situation, seek help and get it
  • A trusted mechanism through which employees are able to make a complaint and know that action will be taken
  • An effective method of dealing with and investigating complaints
  • Trained HR professionals who can undertake a timely and efficient investigation or
  • A professional workplace investigator on speed dial (My number is below)

 Myth:  The bully’s often aggressive persona and attitude makes them hard to deal with when trying to investigate complaints.

 Fact: Workplace bullies like the feeling of power and will often try to ‘Lord it over’and intimidate HR professionals.

 In many cases I have been told by HR managers who have engaged me to conduct investigations that the perpetrator will be aggressive and difficult to deal with.  It’s funny how when I interview them in a formal manner they are often the opposite, often nervous, compliant and timid when they are out of their comfort zone and not able to flex their bullying muscles.

When bullies know that an employer is going to deal with them in a professional and formal manner the word gets out that bullying will not be tolerated and bullies will be dealt with.

Many workplace investigators are former police officers and are used to dealing with difficult people and they are not easily intimidated.

We refer to workplace investigations as the dark side of HR, as a manager or HR professional if you don’t want to walk on the dark side, call in an expert and save yourself the stress and know that we get it right the first time.

The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations into bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct.

You can contact me on 02 9674 4279 or
AWPTI - workplace investigation Sydney and through-out NSW, QLD and Victoria.

Workplace training national wide

Misconduct investigations, bullying investigations, harassment investigations & sexual harassment investigations, complaint investigations, grievance investigations, discrimination investigations

This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory.  It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigators.

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Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on May 12, 2017 at 11:37

Workplace bullies are normal everyday looking people who have been described by various authors as liars, cowards, cheats, psychopaths, assholes, emotional vampires and a multitude of other descriptive nouns. 

Some workplace bullies might be the person next door, the person you work with, someone from another department or agency, the HR Manager, the CEO or even you.  They could be male or female, young or old.  They could work in the cubicle next door or in head office.

I frequently refer to the work of the late Tim Field who identified a number of myths about bullying and they are:



What some people call “bullying” is really tough dynamic management


The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy.

Good managers manage, bad managers’ bully.

Most employers don’t want to calculate the cost of low morale, poor productivity, poor customer service, high sickness absence, high staff turnover and frequent grievance and legal action that are a consequence of “tough dynamic Management”.




The word “victim” allows disingenuous people to tap into and stimulate other people’s misconceptions and prejudices of victimhood which include the inference that the person was somehow complicit in the abuse.

Victims contribute to the bullying


When held accountable, abusers, molesters, harassers, bullies and violent people abdicate and deny responsibility for their actions by blaming their victim.


Abusers, harassers, bullies and violent people seem possessed of an army of supporters, apologists, appeasers and deniers, and appreciate all forms of support which mitigate their crime.

It takes two to tango


Abusers choose to abuse, molesters choose to molest, rapists choose to rape, harassers choose to harass, bullies choose to bully.


Victims are weak and inadequate


Normal people don’t need to bully; only weak people need to bully to hide their weakness and inadequacy.


Therefore, anyone who is exhibiting bullying behaviours is revealing and admitting to being weak and inadequate.

Victims are weak


Targets of bullying have no interest in power or exercising power. 

They go to work to work and they are not interested in office politics or conflict. 


Targets of bullying have high moral values, a vulnerability (e.g. need to pay the mortgage) strong sense of fair play and  reasonableness, a low propensity to violence, a reluctance to pursue a grievance, disciplinary or legal action, a strong forgiving streak, a mature understanding of the need to resolve conflict with dialogue.


Victims are loners

Targets of bullying are independent, self-reliant, self-motivated, have no need to form gangs or join cliques, have no need to impress, and have no interest in office politics.


Victims are not team players

Targets of bullying are not corporate clones and drones.  They are independent, self-reliant, self-motivated, imaginative, innovative, and full of ideas. 


Bullies operate a divide and rule regime and work hard to isolate and disempower their target who they falsely accuse of “not being a team player”.


Victims are isolated

This is a correct observation; bullies isolate their targets in order to disempower them. 

It’s a classic tactic of control used by all abusers.



Victims are sensitive/oversensitive

Sensitivity comprises a constellation of values to be cherished and nurtured, including empathy, respect, tolerance, dignity, honour, consideration and gentility. 


Anyone who is not sensitive is insensitive.


Bullies are callously insensitive and indifferent to the needs of others and when called upon to share or address the needs and concerns of others react with impatience, irritability and aggression.


Victims are too weak to stand up for themselves

Targets of bullying are high-performing employees who go to work to work.  They do not go to work with the intention of indulging in conflict.


Victims can’t defend themselves

Prolonged negative stress results in trauma which prevents articulation. 

People who blame targets of Bullying for not being able to express themselves in an articulate manner are revealing their lack of empathy and their lack of knowledge of trauma and its effects.


Targets aren’t really bullied/harassed – they’re only in it for the money


Seeking legal recourse is very expensive both financially and emotionally.

In rare cases where the employer sacks a serial bully, the bully feigns victimhood and sues the employer for as much as they can get.


Targets are just whiners who can’t get along with people

Targets are targeted because they are competent and popular

Bullies are jealous of the easy and stable relationships that targets have with others.


Jealousy and envy seem to be the conduits for the release of the seething inner anger, hatred and resentment that bullies harbour.


It’s a personality clash

A personality clash is where two people of equal rank or status or value or power don’t see eye to eye. 


Bullying consists of a pattern of persistent, daily, trivial, nitpicking criticism, isolation, exclusion, undermining, discrediting, setting up to fail, etc on a target who the bully  has disempowered and disenfranchised.

There’s a fine line between bullying and tough management

I’ve never heard anyone say “there’s a fine line between a normal relationship and sexual harassment” or ‘there’s a fine line between marriage and domestic violence’ or ‘there’s a fine line between sex education and paedophilia”. 

Bullying (by a serial bully) and managing have as much in common as Adolf Hitler and Mother Theresa. 


The objectives of the serial bully are power, control domination and subjugation, achieved largely through manipulation, deception and abuse of power; “management” is a convenient cover for the serial bully’s disordered, dysfunctional behaviour.


Bullies are nice people really, they’re just under a lot of pressure

Abusers, violent partners, harassers, rapists, molesters and paedophiles are also nice people really, it’s just that they’re under a lot of pressure.

Lack of knowledge of, refusal to recognise, and outright denial of the existence of the serial bully are the most common reasons for an unsatisfactory outcome for employees and employers. 



Female bullies bully because they’re under more pressure than men to succeed

A female serial bully, like all serial bullies, bullies because she chooses to bully.


Bullying is behaviour, and behaviour is choice. 


Whilst women may face more pressures and demands at senior levels, the most successful females are not bullies – they get there because of their integrity, ability to plan and organise, and achieve.


Bullies are non-achievers. 


The view that women must become bullies to succeed is insulting and offensive to the majority of women who succeed on hard work, persistence and skill.


Victims have problems with people in authority

This is one of the tactics that bullies and abusive employers use. 


They claim that the target who is busy exposing incompetence, negligence etc has “a problem with authority”.


Some less-than-competent mental health professionals claim this too. 

The truth is that targets have the uncanny knack of spotting fakes, fraudsters and weak, inadequate and incompetent people abusing their positions of power: said incompetents also have an uncanny knack of being able to spot who can see through them. 


Targets of bullying are accountability-focused so they must be ruthlessly controlled, and if this doesn’t work, they must be eliminated by all means possible.


You can’t get PTSD from bullying

Those who promote this view are increasingly out of touch with both reality and research. 


This view is also offensive to those who suffer PTSD as a result of bullying and harassment, stalking, domestic violence, abuse, etc.


The late Professor Heinz Leymann established the link between bullying and psychiatric injury (PTSD) in the 1980’s.



The late Tim Field also provided a range of descriptors to describe types of bullying.  As indicated previously, the complexity of issues involved in all forms of inappropriate workplace behaviours can mean that by putting a person into the ‘wrong’ environment or even selecting the ‘wrong’ person for an organisation, allegations of workplace bullying could be made.  Understanding of these types of bullying can provide those charged with recruiting and selecting personnel of what is required to reduce the incidence of allegations.

The types of bullying as described by Field (2002) are:

Pressure or unwitting


Stress of the moment – “normal” behaviour

When organisations struggle to adapt to changing markets, reduced income, cuts in budgets, imposed expectations and other external pressures

Note: Bullying behaviours that result from these types of pressures may be reasonably common.  However, it is possible that some allegations made in these types of environment are ‘written off’ as reasonable management actions, personality clashes, or in some cases, those who believe they are being deliberately targeted, may be convinced that ‘everyone is under a lot of pressure so just let it go”.



Where employer abuses employees with impunity knowing that the law is weak and jobs are scarce – coercing employees to work 60/7/80 hours a week and then making life hell for anyone who complains

Note: It is interesting to note that in many cases, feedback provided from victims/targets is that they don’t report bullying behaviours because “a bad job is better than no job”, or they have seen how the bullies are rewarded and realise that “it is no point complaining”.  Some recent decisions seem to be finding in favour of those who suffer from this type of bullying.



When bullying becomes part of the culture and accepted

Note: Some workplaces have a culture of tolerance leading to acceptance.  Simply providing a policy and procedure with periodic training, without addressing ingrained workplace cultures or the unwritten ground rules will not result in change.



When employees are bullied by those they serve or when employees bully their clients

This type of bullying can damage client service delivery and reputation.



Where the source of all dysfunction can be traced to one individual, who picks on one employee after another

Note: here does not seem to be any data indicating how prevalent this type of bullying behaviour is in Australian workplaces.  However, from time to time, readers comments on various websites tend to suggest that there are a number of such individuals in various organisations.



Unwitting bullying which people start exhibiting when there’s a serial bully in the department

Note: In some cases, individuals may ‘join in’ the bullying simply to remain ‘in the loop’ or there is a fear of speaking up.



Serial bully with a colleague. One talks and the other watches and listens. Watch the quiet one.

Usually opposite gender and frequently there’s an affair going on. Field (2002)  



Serial bully with colleagues. Flourish in corporate bullying climates. Bully as an extrovert – shouter and screamer – easily identifiable and recordable

Introvert – in background initiating the mayhem – harder to identify – most dangerous

Note: These could exist in regimented organisations where the hierarchical nature and command and control models seem to ‘expect’ that there will be both types of bullies.  Experience suggests that some of the bullies who shout and scream can be managed by ‘standing up to them’ particularly by someone of equal status.  The introverts are much more dangerous in that they do their ‘bullying from a distance’ and when confronted, have created an environment where ‘nothing sticks’.  When confronted, they will generally try and deflect any criticism



Where two parties are encouraged to engage in adversarial interaction or conflict.



 Where the serial bully forces their target to comply with rules, regulations, procedures or laws regardless of their appropriateness, applicability or necessity

Note: This type of bully survives in command and control type organisations where authoritarian managerial styles are expected.  This types of bullies do not encourage creativity or use of initiative and individuals can become targets simply because they prefer to use their behaviours in their work.




Bullying of all kinds that continues after the serial bully has left. Like recruits like and like promotes like, therefore the serial bully bequeaths a dysfunctional environment to those who are left.  This can last for years.

Note: The recruitment, selection and placement processes in some organisations might be such that once the ‘primary bully’ has moved on, another will step into their shoes.  In some extreme cases, the victim/target sees what is happens and eventually becomes a bully, simply to succeed.



Misuse of e-mail systems or internet forums for sending aggressive flame mail. Also called Cyber stalking.

Note: The advent of the technological age has seen more and more issues with the use of social media.  The blurring of the line about what is and what is not a workplace, internal rules that don’t align with expectations of younger workers, and a failure by some to understand that what is written on social media sites can be used in litigation, has opened the door to bullying allegations.

Decisions are now being made in favour of employers who take a stand against misuse of email etc. However, little to no training is provided by some organisations to their workers on social media etiquette.  Some cases where misuse of social media, internet and email is identified could result in individuals being prosecuted under Federal or State laws. 

As indicated at recent presentations, claims relating to workplace bullying are on the increase.  There is an increased need to conduct more detailed investigations that may involve an increased complexity of issues, including the need to understand the various myths that exist and the types of bullying.

Whilst many organisations may conduct presentations or workshops in relation to the prevention, detection, reporting and resolution of bullying, content also needs to include discussion relating to myths and types.  Some managers and workers may have a perception that only specific people will instigate bullying behaviours, and others may work on the basis of an 'urban myth' that bullying only happens in specific situations, between two people or when various hazards or contributing factors exist.

Bringing these myths to attention is important and as Phil has indicated, applying a factual approach is important.

Comment by Phil O'Brien on May 12, 2017 at 12:13

Great info, thanks Bernie

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