Adult Bullying

Adult Bullying

The word ‘bullying’ often conjures up images of schoolchildren being bullied by teasing, isolation and physical fights. While bullying in schools is spoken about frequently, bullying by adults (often in the workplace) isn’t spoken about as frequently as it occurs.

After a recent radio show on bullying in the workplace, I’ve been inundated with calls and messages to spread more awareness. My main aim in this post is to help victims cope with the trauma they have experienced and at the end of the article, I offer practical tips and advice on what to do if you are being bullied at work.

What is bullying?

The obvious type of bullying that we are aware of is physical intimidation and verbal aggression. However, there are other forms of bullying that are not often regarded as such. These include:

  • Having one’s work sabotaged
  • Someone else constantly taking credit for your work
  • Setting one up for failure (by setting unrealistic deadlines, etc.)
  • Unfair and unwarranted criticism
  • Having one’s abilities undermined
  • Being excluded from events, important meetings, emails, etc.
  • Having malicious rumours spread about one
  • Casting aspersions on the character and work ethics on an employee

Bullying is not a once-off event but rather a pattern of behaviour that is intended to cause harm to another.

Why does an adult bully another adult?
It’s often a quest for power. Typically, the bully feels inferior in some way – however, this is not obvious. They may present as extremely confident, sociable and charming, which makes it harder for some to believe when you eventually speak up. They warm up to those in positions of power so the chances of them being exposed are decreased, and even if they are exposed, they rarely suffer consequences. Perpetrators generally cannot compete fairly and therefore resort to malicious tactics so the stronger person (the victim) appears weaker to others. Another key aspect of bullies is that they easily assume the victim role at strategic times to prevent being ‘found out’. In order to divert attention from the harm they have caused to others, they make make up stories of how they have been harmed to gain sympathy and attention from others in significant positions.

Who is a typical victim of workplace bullying?
Victims of workplace bullying are targeted because they are perceived to be a threat in some way. They are often skilled, talented employees who are gaining recognition and popularity. As previously mentioned, if the perpetrator cannot compete fairly, they resort to underhanded methods to destabilise the victim. If you are being bullied, do not think of yourself as being weak. The only perceived weakness is that you may not assert yourself (however, standing up to the perpetrator is not always the solution- this is discussed further later on). My advice to victims is to continue to work to the best of your ability as your work will speak for itself.

What are the consequences of bullying?
Victims experience severe stress which impacts on their ability to focus on work. Depression is not uncommon – I’ve even seen cases where employees felt suicidal due to the depth of bullying. The reason for this is because we spend most of our waking lives at work, so we identify too much with our careers. We therefore take any unhappiness or perceived failure in our jobs as a personal failure, which is not the case. Many employers do nothing to prevent or end bullying, not realising the impact on their companies. The consequences on the company are decreased productivity, absenteeism and decreased turnover.

So, what do I do if I’m being bullied?
My first piece of advice is to document everything! Keep a record of all incidents because it may become useful later on. If the bullying is obvious to others and only if you feel safe to do so, ask the perpetrator to stop their behaviour – but only do this in the presence of a witness. If you have superiors in the workplace who are supportive, report all incidents to them and proceed your reporting higher up the hierarchy. Always keep proof of all correspondence. Consider whether legal steps may be required.


  • Because many incidents of bullying are covert, you often will not have proof. Speak to someone to trust about each incident (while still documenting).
  • People with malicious intents cannot be reasoned with, so confronting them may worsen the situation.
  • Do not attempt to get back at the bully for the harm they have caused you – it means getting caugt up in their game. You need to exit the game, because you will never win.
    When the bullying has involved spreading malicious gossip about you, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. What’s most important is that YOU know who you are and so do your loved ones. The truth is that some people are going to believe the bully and there’s nothing you can do about it. What you can do is continue to live your life according to your morals and values and those that are important will see you for what you are.
  • Remember, the bully’s aim is to weaken you, so as hard as it is, focus on your work so that no one believes what the bully may try to prove about you anyway.
  • As much as their actions and intents may upset you, DO NOT spend your time talking about and thinking about them because it makes them more powerful and important. Spend your time on the things most important to you – e.g. your health, family, etc.
  • When we cannot change the environment, we have to consider whether a different environment will be healthier for us. Do not think that this means allowing the bully to win because it’s not a competition. You have to make the decision that’s best for your health and peace of mind.
  • Try to distance yourself from the bully and if you can’t physically distance yourself, it’s certainly possible to emotionally distance yourself. Here’s how: if you have to be around the bully, imagine that you are writing a book on bullies and whenever you are in the bully’s presence, continuously run a commentary in your head about the behaviour of bullies, what their life must be like if they spend so much of time trying to make others lives miserable, what insecurities they have, their mannerisms, techniques, etc. It might amuse you and also lead you to pity them
  • You cannot change other people, but you can choose what’s important in your life and put more energy into that. So choose to focus on what’s truly important in your life and that’s where your rewards will come from.