• Sarah Rossmiller LPC

Work Work Work...Workplace Bullying

Do you dread going to work? Is there someone there who just won't leave you at peace despite your history of good work?

Bullying doesn't stop with grade school.

It happens to adults too, particularly in the workplace. This is where my research began, however I soon realized findings reflect life experiences outside of work too. For instance, I've encountered clients whose own family members have bullied them out of their families, broken or attempted to break once close relationships within the family, and in general turned everyone against each other in order to fulfill their own narcissistic agenda. It's quite heartbreaking and the damage can be devastating.

You don’t have to be a victim, even when you’re a target.

Read through here to learn the ins and outs of bullying so you can identify when it’s happening to you, when you’ve been sucked into it by the bully, and how to cope.


►Workplace bullying is an unfortunately common experience that is often misunderstood and ignored, even by those targeted. The process can be quite insidious and subtle – the target may not realize it’s happening until it’s gone on for a very long time. It’s often very difficult to prove. Therefore, frequently it goes unreported and when it is reported, usually little is done. When a target speaks up about it, they are often accused of being irrational or paranoid and retaliated against while the bully is defended. Often is the case, targets must choose to leave their job in order to save their sanity, while the bully remains unreproved.

►Young adults may be particularly vulnerable to personal health and professional damage when facing workplace bullying as they have less corporate experience and often more stress to juggle as they strive to establish themselves in their careers.


► “Psychological Violence.” It’s also not in the same class as having a “personality clash,” “dealing with a difficult person,” or “disrespect and incivility/rudeness.” These involve inadvertent social mistakes, not purposeful targeting of another. Note that these terms are often used to trivialize and minimize bullying.

►Workplace bullying is similar to domestic violence. “Being bullied at work most closely resembles the experience of being a battered spouse. The abuser inflicts pain when and where she or he chooses, keeping the target (victim) off balance knowing that violence can happen on a whim, but dangling the hope that safety is possible during a period of peace of unknown duration. The target is kept close to the abuser by the nature of the relationship between them -- husband to wife or boss to subordinate or co-worker to co-worker.”*


The Bully:

Someone who hasn’t fully morally developed. May have narcissistic, sociopathic, and/or antisocial personality traits. While it can be “fun” to psychoanalyze the bully and may even serve to externalize the problem for the target further, ultimately it doesn’t help solve the problem.

  • Usually a superior or manager.

  • Often operating unconsciously - unaware they’re a bully

  • Often choose someone “different” in some way or someone they feel threatened by - the assertive, confident worker who may have unintentionally or unknowingly stood in the bully’s way of getting what they want

The Target:

Probably are good at their work and just want to be left alone to do it! Research shows “altruistic individuals are ostracized by groups because the high moral standard they set by exemplary do-good-for-others conduct is considered threatening because it is unattainable by most group members. WBI studies have repeatedly shown that bullied targets possess more technical skill and likability than their perpetrators. They are kinder and more empathic, too.”*

The Abuse:

Strategies used by a bully: confirmation bias, control and domination, the silent treatment, accusing the victim of errors they haven’t committed or magnifying minor errors while ignoring quality work, defaming the target’s character, isolating the victim from coworkers, unreasonable demands, discounting the target’s feelings and perspective, excessively harsh criticism.

  • Common Experiences as a Target:*

  • You attempt the obviously impossible task of doing a new job without training or time to learn new skills, but that work is never good enough for the boss

  • Surprise meetings are called by your boss with no results other than further humiliation

  • Everything your tormenter does to you is arbitrary and capricious, working a personal agenda that undermines the employer's legitimate business interests

  • Others at work have been told to stop working, talking, or socializing with you

  • You are constantly feeling agitated and anxious, experiencing a sense of doom, waiting for bad things to happen

  • No matter what you do, you are never left alone to do your job without interference

  • People feel justified screaming or yelling at you in front of others, but you are punished if you scream back

  • HR tells you that your harassment isn't illegal, that you have to "work it out between yourselves"

  • You finally confront your tormentor to stop the abusive conduct and you are accused of harassment

  • You are shocked when accused of incompetence, despite a history of objective excellence, typically by someone who cannot do your job

  • Everyone -- co-workers, senior bosses, HR -- agrees that your tormentor is a jerk, but there is nothing they will do about it (and later, when you ask for their support, they deny having agreed with you)

  • Your request to transfer to an open position under another boss is mysteriously denies


Physical Harm:*

Cardiovascular Problems: Hypertension (60%) to Strokes, Heart Attacks, Adverse Neurological Changes: Neurotransmitter Disruption, Hippocampus and Amygdala atrophy, Gastrointestinal: IBD, colitis, Immunological Impairment: More frequent infections of greater severity, Auto-immune disorders, Fibromyalgia (21%), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (33%), Diabetes (10%), Skin Disorders (17%) Mental Health Harm:* Debilitating Anxiety (80%), Panic Attacks (52%), Clinical Depression: new to person or exacerbated condition previously controlled (49%), Post-traumatic Stress (PTSD) from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%), Shame (the desired result of humiliating tactics by the bully) - sense of deserving a bad fate, Guilt (for having "allowed" the bully to control you), Overwhelming sense of Injustice (Equity - the unfairness of targeting you who works so hard; Procedural - the inadequacy of the employer's response to your complaint), Suicide

Social Harm* -Ostracism, shunning, rejection and abandonment - “There is also neuroscience evidence that social exclusion triggers pain and trauma pathways in the brain.” -Friends and family of the target grow weary and resentment builds -Coworker responses to target being bullied (WBI online sample of 400 website visitors)

0.8% banded together and confronted the bully as a unit; stopped the bullying

7.1% offered specific advice to the target about what he or she should do to stop it

28.4% gave only moral, social support

15.7% did and said nothing, not helping either the target or bully

13.2% voluntarily distanced themselves from the target, isolating him or her

4.8% followed the bully’s orders to stay away from the target

12.9% betrayed the target to the bully while appearing to still be friends

14.7% publicly sided with the bully and acted aggressively toward the target

2.5% Not sure

“A 2010 study found that groups tend to expel members whose generosity exceeds their own. The group throws out altruists because, by comparison, the greedier and more self-interested within the group, can't stand the goodness of the one person. So, they expel them so they stop looking bad. The other reason is that people think the altruist fouls up the group's norm, pushing the group to be better than it actually is. It pushes the group toward a higher ethical standard than the average group member wants for the group.”*

Economic Harm:* -Forced to transfer from loved job, often a punitive transfer (13%) -Bully blocks transfer to a safe job or makes target so miserable they quit (24%) -Target quits to reverse decline in health and sanity (40%)

Impact on the Family

  • Displacement of anger and shame or emotional withdrawal

  • Disrupted sleep and appetite affects ability to be present with family members

  • Family schedules, routines, traditions, and vacations are disrupted

  • Resentment builds in family members having to accommodate the target

Impact on Coworkers:

“Social inclusion, belonging to a group, is a fundamental human need. When coworkers are driven to ostracize one or more of their own, they are cutting out part of their own soul. In the long run, despite rationalizations to defend the anti-social acts, the team is less cohesive, more a collection of individuals.”*

  • Coworkers can experience bullying vicariously as a witness

  • Coworkers often pressured to isolate the target and are prohibited from helping on work-related tasks, fraternizing socially, or even taking breaks at the same time.

  • Coworkers may experience FEAR of being next target, GUILT at having betrayed target or for not acting to help



►Legitimize and externalize the problem. Educate the target on the nature of bullying – validate their experience as a target and allow them to share their feelings without fear that they are crazy and making it up. Identify and label the bullying behavior when the target hasn’t done so already. Remind them: it is not their fault, they didn’t invite it, and they are not alone.

►Provide empathy – never utter words of blame. Phrases such as “two sides to the story,” referring to the target as a “player in the drama,” implying they “should” have responded or acted differently, etc are not acceptable replies to the psychological violence a target has experienced. Encourage self-compassion. Caution against the belief they are “stupid” for not seeing the bullying sooner or “handling it “better.

►Encourage use of positive coping skills. A target may turn to a variety of coping strategies to offset the distress. Many of these may be unhealthy and further detrimental to their health, such as overeating, under sleeping, abusing alcohol and drugs, gambling, withdrawing, or displacing distress onto others rather than:

  • Increasing engagement with religion, faith, spirituality, and/or community

  • Physical activity: Exercise, Yoga or Tai Chi

  • Increasing time with family & friends

  • Starting a new hobby or sport

►Encourage attention to physical health, visiting their PCP when needed, and taking medication as prescribed

►Provide resources and information on workplace bullying

►Support their informed choice towards addressing the bullying, which may include:

  • Taking time off work to heal and develop plan of approach

  • Documenting the abuse

  • Launching a “counterattack”

  • Seeking legal counsel and researching legal options

  • Exposing the bully (a step-by-step how-to on this can be found at

  • Research new job and career options

  • Seek a transfer or quit


* (information, quotes, statistics, and studies cited in this paper originate from this invaluable resource, the Workplace Bullying Institute- WBI)

Workplace Bullying Institute’s Podcast

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