Tactics against bullying at work

Brian Martin


You're being bullied at work: undermined, humiliated, denigrated, shouted at, isolated. Your life is being made very unpleasant.

A few common bullying behaviours

  • Relentless criticism; put-downs; condescending remarks; hostile gestures and looks
  • Shouting, swearing, name-calling
  • Ostracism ("the silent treatment"); malicious gossip
  • Unreasonable demands; not giving credit for work done
  • Denial of normal privileges; excessive scrutiny
  • Threats; false allegations; unwarranted reprimands
  • Inappropriate touching; pushing; hitting

Sometimes the bully is your boss, making it very difficult to resist. Or the bully might be a co-worker, or even a subordinate. If several people join in the bullying, it's often called mobbing.

There's a lot written about bullying, especially about:

However, management can't be relied on to solve every problem. Furthermore, often management is the problem: favoured managers are the bullies.

From the point of view of an individual being bullied, the alternatives don't look good. If you put up with the abuse, it will probably continue. If you resist, it may get worse. Many advisers say the best option is to leave.

Is it possible to resist effectively? Sometimes it is, but you need skills and psychological toughness. And you need to know what tactics to use. That's what I tell about here: tactics.

Are you ready?

Before taking action against bullying, you need to be prepared. Some people are so embarrassed and humiliated by their treatment that they couldn't possibly expose what has happened or stand up to an increased level of attack. The approach described here simply says which tactics are likely to be effective if you're able and willing to resist. The choice is yours.

How can you decide whether you're prepared? Consider what resources you have:

  • Psychological strength. Can you handle ongoing or increased bullying, and see through a lengthy struggle?
  • Health. Can your body handle continued stress? Are you exercising and eating well?
  • Money. Can you afford to lose your job? Can you afford legal expenses?
  • Allies. Are there others at work who will take your side? Will the union back you?
  • Personal networks. Do you have family and friends who will support you through the toughest times?

Write a list of your resources. Then compare it to the other side's resources. Use this to help decide whether to resist. Sometimes it's better to lie low and wait until the time is right, or to let someone else take the lead. Sometimes even the best tactics will not succeed.

Valuable insight can be obtained by looking at what tactics are effective against other sorts of injustices. In the next section, I describe the backfire model, a framework for understanding tactics used by perpetrators, based on years of research. Then, in following sections, I spell out the implications of this perspective for an individual who is willing to actively oppose bullying behaviours.

Outrage dynamics

Consider a serious injustice, such as beating of peaceful protesters, torture or genocide. Such actions shock many people. Perpetrators typically use five methods to reduce popular outrage.

(1) Cover-up: the action is hidden. Torture is nearly always carried out in secrecy.

(2) Devaluation of the victim. When the victim is perceived as dangerous, inferior or worthless, what's done to them doesn't seem so bad. Protesters are called rabble and rent-a-crowd. Enemies are said to be ruthless and untrustworthy and sometimes labelled terrorists.

(3) Reinterpretation. A different explanation is given for the action, making it seem more acceptable. Or someone else might be blamed. Protesters are said to be provocative. Their injuries are claimed to be slight. Treatment of prisoners is said to be "abuse," not torture.

(4) Official channels. Expert investigators, formal inquiries or courts are used to give a stamp of approval to what happened, leading to an appearance of justice without the substance. An inquiry into police beatings might take years and lead to minor penalties against a few scapegoats. Meanwhile, public anger dies down and the problems remain.

(5) Intimidation and bribery. Victims and witnesses are threatened or given incentives to keep quiet and not oppose what happened. Witnesses to police brutality might be threatened should they speak out.

Powerful groups regularly use these five techniques to reduce outrage. The Los Angeles police used them in relation to the 1991 beating of Rodney King. The perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide used them. The US government used them in relation to torture at Abu Ghraib, exposed in 2004.

Bullying is not nearly as drastic as torture or genocide, but the tactics used to dampen outrage are similar. The same five methods are regularly used by bullies and their allies.

(1) Cover-up. The bully makes demeaning comments when there are no witnesses. Tasks are assigned that are inappropriate for the target - too onerous, or with no challenge - but in a way that others will not easily recognise. Rumours are subtly spread. Evidence of obnoxious behaviour is destroyed.

Another form of cover-up is when the bully and witnesses simply behave as if nothing had happened, and deny that a blatant action ever occurred.

(2) Devaluation. The bully sometimes attacks directly, claiming work is not up to standard and denigrating the target's contributions. Or the bully might dismiss or misrepresent the target's work in a meeting. The target's personality is questioned. Labels are applied: paranoid, lazy, unstable, complaining, devious.

(3) Reinterpretation. Bullying behaviours are said actually to be supportive, friendly, well-intentioned, justified and necessary. Everything is claimed to be legitimate.

Alternatively, the behaviours may be blamed on the victim, who is said to have provoked them.

(4) Official channels. Workers concerned about bullying may be advised to put in a formal complaint, use a grievance procedure or even go to court. Seldom do these processes lead to a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes they become a new form of harassment and humiliation.

(5) Intimidation and bribery. Workers are often intimidated by bullies, fearing an escalation of harassment should they do anything about it. They may also fear dismissal or legal action. They may be threatened, either overtly or subtly. Co-workers sometimes join in the bullying in order to curry favour with bosses: this is a form of bribery.

How to increase outrage

To increase outrage from bullying, you need to challenge the five methods. Here's the general approach.

(1) Expose the bullying.

(2) Validate the target, by demonstrating good performance, loyalty, honesty and other positive traits.

(3) Interpret the bullying as unfair, and explain why contrary explanations are wrong.

(4) Mobilise support. Avoid official channels or use them as tools in exposing the unfairness.

(5) Refuse to be intimidated or bribed, and expose intimidation and bribery.


Some workers who claim they've been bullied are actually being treated reasonably. Some of them are bullies themselves. Such workers often lack self-awareness. They see tiny flaws in others' behaviour but not the larger flaws in their own.

How can you tell whether you're part of the problem? You can ask someone who's neutral - but remember, if you react badly to criticism, others won't want to tell you the truth.

Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Have I had confrontations with quite a few different people?
  • Am I hiding any information? Do I resist an open discussion of the issues?
  • Do I make derogatory comments about others, openly or while gossiping?
  • Have I threatened anyone?

Another approach is to write down a brief account of your experiences and then write a similarly brief account from the point of view of the other party - the bully. Present the bully's perspective as effectively as possible. If you can't bring yourself to do this, get a friend to do it for you. Then ask yourself, or the friend, which account sounds more persuasive. If the bully's perspective sounds equally or more persuasive, maybe you've misperceived the situation.

Next I give some examples of how to increase outrage, using the five methods listed above.

Expose the bullying

The bullying may be obvious to you, but others may not realise what's happening and what effect it has on you. That includes the bully!

You need to communicate to the bully, in direct terms. You can speak directly, in positive terms: "Please move back a bit." "Please knock before entering my room." "Please speak to me politely and professionally."

If this doesn't work, you may need to point to inappropriate behaviours explicitly. "Don't lean over me while I'm working." "Don't yell at me."

If the behaviours persist after verbal warnings, put it in writing: an email or a hand-delivered letter. Try to obtain some acknowledgement of receipt.

Some people who regularly use bullying behaviours have no idea what effect they're having on others. When someone finally tells them, so they really understand, they are embarrassed, even mortified, and may even thank whoever has told them. If you've been bullied by such a person, the solution is simple and direct, though repeated messages may be necessary to help change ingrained habits.

But the perpetrator often isn't able to change, or doesn't want to. In some cases, informing the bully can make things a lot worse - you are attacked. So start cautiously with your messages and, if the response is ferocious, adopt a different approach: expose the problem more widely.

There are two components to this: documentation and communication. First, documentation: you need evidence about what's happened, good enough to convince a sceptic.

The foundation is a good diary, with regular entries describing what happens: "At 10am I put my report on Joan's desk. At 10.15 she came into my office, tore up the report in front of me and dropped it on my desk, smiled and quietly said 'This is rubbish', and left before I could say a thing."

To supplement your diary, which is a personal account - and might be accused of being biased - you need confirming material. Letters or emails can be very helpful. So are statements from others. If there's a meeting and the boss makes a dismissive comment every time you speak, write a short statement and try to get a witness to sign it.

This raises the delicate issue of building support. If you have some supporters, you are in a far stronger position. But you need to be careful, because it's possible that a few individuals will say they support you, but then go tell the boss or even try to undermine you by exposing your vulnerabilities.

Talk to a trusted co-worker first. If she says "I saw how the boss put you down at the meeting," you might say "Would you be willing to confirm that?" If she says yes, send her an email briefly summarising the events, asking her to reply if she agrees. Down the track, if things become more formal, you might seek a signed statement.

If several of you are being harassed, then you can combine forces to collect information.

If the actions involved are very serious - for example, if crimes are involved - then you might consider covert recordings of conversations or actions, over the telephone or face-to-face. Practise beforehand to make sure you can handle the equipment. Making covert recordings is a serious violation of trust, so only proceed if the relationship is beyond repair and the other party's actions are extremely serious.

If you have a good amount and quality of documentation, you need to write a summary of the issues. Make it simple. Just state the facts. Start with a title and a one-sentence summary of the issues. Say everything in one page. Make it understandable to someone who knows nothing whatsoever about you or your workplace. Show a draft to some friends and use their responses to help improve it. Make sure everything is spelled and expressed accurately.

With your short, clear summary and plenty of back-up documentation, you are in a good position to take the story to wider audiences. Seek advice about the best way to proceed. Usually it's better to tell just a few more people at first, for example some co-workers or a senior official who's not directly involved.

Depending on the situation, you can expand the audience to include larger numbers of workers, community members and the media. You can use leaflets, emails or the web. If you take the story more widely, you need to have high-quality evidence and, if possible, supporters or experienced advisers to help you.

Validate the target

The bully will try to discredit you. Bullying behaviours often do that anyway. The bully might spread rumours or, in response to your exposures, write an attack on your credibility.

You can defend by producing documentation of your good work, for example performance reviews. Your supporters can help by saying what a good job you've done and what a considerate, conscientious and trustworthy person you are.

You need to behave in an exemplary fashion. If, when the boss shouts at you, you shout back, you change the encounter from abuse to a shouting match. If the other person is seen as the perpetrator, you will gain sympathy, but if you are seen as a perpetrator too - or as weak, unstable, vacillating, vain, hypersensitive or unpredictable - you will lose support.

You definitely shouldn't be aggressive, but neither should you be passive. Assertive is the desirable middle ground.

Of course it's unfair that you should have to be so well-behaved when the bully is doing terrible things. You might be perfectly justified in losing your temper in response to continual harassment. But even if you're justified, showing your anger and hostility is tactically unwise: you'll lose sympathy.

Bullies often become skilled in finding weaknesses in their targets, needling them until they crack and either crumble or blow up in anger. If the bully is subtle, observers may think the target is the only one causing a problem. Hence, you need to behave well and be seen to behave well.

Interpret the actions as unfair

When evidence of actions is undeniable, bullies and their allies commonly attempt to explain things away, saying they weren't really bullying or that someone else is responsible.

To counter these tactics, you have to keep the focus on the unfairness of the actions. Using a suitable label can be helpful: "bullying" or "mobbing" or "harassment." But sometimes it's better to be more specific:

Each of these expressions contains a description of behaviour and links it with unfairness.

The bully may attempt to blame actions on someone, most commonly the target: "if you hadn't taken so long, I wouldn't have had to raise my concerns." Rather than try to respond to the implied or stated criticism ("you took too long"), it's usually better to focus on the damaging actions (shouting, snide comments, ostracism, etc.), noting that they are not appropriate.

There are lots of tricks of verbal and written attack. Get hold of a book by Suzette Haden Elgin about the "gentle art of verbal self-defense" so you can learn methods of defending yourself.

Be sceptical of official channels

It's tempting to seek help by using formal processes, for example reporting the matter to the boss's boss or to the board of management, making a complaint using an internal grievance procedure, or making a submission to a review panel. Unfortunately, this seldom helps and can actually make things worse.

People high up in organisations nearly always support the chain of command. A top manager will almost always support subordinates in the face of challenges from lower-level employees.

Grievance procedures have many disadvantages. They are:

Unless you have allies in high places, using official channels is probably a bad idea. It will give people the impression that the matter is being dealt with appropriately, when actually you are at a huge disadvantage.

So often it's better to avoid official channels altogether. Instead, focus on mobilising support, namely getting others to understand what's happened and to take action against the bullying.

If you can't really avoid using formal channels, try to use them to increase awareness. For example, write your formal complaint so it's understandable to outsiders, and give copies to potential supporters.

Resist intimidation and bribery

Be prepared to resist. Some workers are so used to getting along that they can't bring themselves to oppose even the worst abuse.

Bullying is itself a form of intimidation. Sometimes, in addition, the bully will threaten reprisals if you resist. That's overt intimidation. When the bully offers incentives - even just a respite from abuse - for acquiescence, that's a form of bribery. Sometimes co-workers join in bullying with the expectation of rewards - that's another form of bribery.

Resisting means being assertive in response, documenting behaviours, explaining them as abuse, being prepared expose inappropriate behaviours, and building support. If you are overtly threatened, that's an opportunity for you: obtain evidence of the threat and expose it at a suitable opportunity.

Learning how to resist

Treat your encounters with a bully as a process of learning. Try something - such as a verbal response - and see what happens. If a tactic works, keep using it. If not, try something else. Keep a log so you can look for patterns. Discuss your findings with others: share information and insights.

Think of yourself as a researcher: you're finding out about how to be effective in your work while dealing with particular obstacles.

Learn about the organisational culture. Observe what behaviours are normal, which ones are praised and which ones are stigmatised. Talk to experienced workers about how the place operates, how people get things done and how to bring about change. You can use these insights to judge which methods are likely to win support.


It's better never to be bullied in the first place. If you are skilled and prepared, bullies are less likely to take you on. Here are some ways to deter bullying.

Collect lots of information about your own good performance. Keep copies in safe places. If you plan to act against corruption or bad practices, collect extensive information to back up your claims.

Develop your skills in speaking and writing. Know how to talk with others. Learn how to write persuasive accounts, how to prepare a leaflet, how to run a publicity campaign and how to set up a website - or have reliable friends willing to assist.

Avoid doing things that can be used against you. If you spend much of your time bad-mouthing others, getting others to do your work, and claiming credit for what you didn't do, you can't expect support when the crunch comes. Have others help you gain insight into being collegial, collaborative, approachable and civil.

Be prepared to survive. You may need financial reserves. You will need psychological strength. You need exercise and good diet to maintain your health. You need supportive relationships. When you come under attack, you may need all your reserves: financial, psychological, physical and interpersonal. If you're living on the edge, you're more vulnerable.

Build alliances. There is great strength in collective action. If you have a decent union, join it and be active.

Develop options. Find out about other potential jobs. Think about a career change. Consider downshifting to a less costly lifestyle. Sometimes it's better to walk away from a stressful job. If you have such options, you're actually in a stronger position to resist, if that's your choice.

Help others. If you assist other workers who are bullied, you develop useful insights and skills - and others are more likely to help you should you need it.

Further information

The backfire model

Backfire materials

Brian Martin, Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Bullying at work

The Field Foundation, Bully OnLine, http://www.bullyonline.org/

Heinz Leymann, The Mobbing Encyclopaedia, http://www.leymann.se/English/frame.html

Susan Steinman, worktrauma.org, http://www.worktrauma.org/

Andrea Adams with contributions from Neil Crawford, Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It (London: Virago, 1992). A classic treatment.

Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz and Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing, 1999). A practical guide.

Carol Elbing and Alvar Elbing, Militant Managers: How to Spot ... How to Work with ... How to Manage ... Your Highly Aggressive Boss (Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin Professional Publishing, 1994). Excellent on how to personally investigate bullying behaviours and responses.

Tim Field, Bully in Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace Bullying (Wantage, Oxfordshire: Success Unlimited, 1996). A practical guide.

Robert Mueller, Bullying Bosses: A Survivor's Guide (San Francisco: BullyingBosses.com, 2005). A practical manual.

Gary Namie and Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (US: Sourcebooks, 2000). A practical guide.

Peter Randall, Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims (London: Routledge, 1997). An academic treatment, covering the complementary roles of perpetrators and targets.

Susan M Steinman, Don't Take Shit from Hyenas at Work: Reclaim Your Dignity - Be Hyena-wise! (Johannesburg, South Africa: The People Bottomline, 2007). A practical guide with a humorous touch.

Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It (Rochester, VT: Schenkman Books, 1997). A detailed guide on developing understanding and the psychological capacity to survive in toxic work environments.

Verbal skills

Suzette Haden Elgin, Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989). A practical guide to being effective in interpersonal situations. Elgin has written many books on "the gentle art of verbal self-defense." They all cover her basic approach.


I thank Joe Blase, Robina Cosser, Susan Steinman, Ken Westhues and Carol Wing-Lun for valuable comments. A few passages, mainly in the deterrence section, are adapted from my leaflet "Resisting unfair dismissal".

Brian Martin

6 June 2007