Workplace bullying

June 1, 2012
When Michelle took her concerns to their supervisor, she learned that the supervisor was a pal of the bullies

Not just child’s play

By Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, RDH, PhD, FAADH, and Jan Carver Silva, RDH, BA

Note: Because this article deals with difficult and dangerous people, it is important to note that using this information does not create any form of a professional or legal relationship. Please use this information in a safe manner and seek independent professional counseling and legal advice if you are dealing with a challenging person or situation. Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

Michelle enthusiastically started her new job working the front desk at a busy group dental practice. Four months later she was out on disability, diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the interim she was bullied by her closest coworkers, which led to her diagnosis.

It started with the small things. First, they snickered and whispered to one another whenever she was around, refused to tell her how the doctors liked their appointments booked, and told her the wrong fees for the procedures. When she asked questions, they huffed and puffed and rolled their eyes. They routinely strolled in 20 minutes late every day, spent hours at their desks playing on Facebook, and frequently left early at the end of the day without so much as a goodbye. To top it off, they actually complained to management that she was the reason the work wasn’t getting done.

When Michelle took her concerns to their supervisor, she learned that the supervisor was a pal of the bullies and backed them up. At that point the bullying got physical — shoving her chair (with her in it) into her desk whenever they walked by, bumping into her in the hall, closing the door when she approached, and rearranging or removing her belongings. By then they had so destroyed Michelle’s reputation that she was denied a transfer to another office within this large practice. Furthermore, the temps who were friendly and helpful to Michelle were not asked back. Michelle wasn’t sleeping, was constantly on guard, and extremely anxious. Two years later she still suffers from PTSD and has been unable to work since.

Michelle is a victim of workplace bullying. While many trivialize it and chalk it up to mere personality conflicts, bullying is a real problem in the workforce. In fact, it has other terms: psychological warfare (hence Michelle’s diagnosis of PTSD), psychological harassment, and nonspecific harassment (if it is not related to age, religion, or gender). Bullying can be defined as any habitual pattern of aggressive, intentional, negative behavior of someone stronger over someone weaker. Most bullies aren’t as obvious as Michelle’s tormentors. Over the years, bullies hone their subtle skills of deceit, distortion, misrepresentation, and misdirection into a clever stealth operation that many do not see until the damage has been done.

Verbal bullying involves making derogatory comments to or about someone in front of others with the intent to shame, diminish, or harm one’s reputation. An example of this would be making derogatory comments to or about the target at a staff meeting. This leads to social exclusion and isolation, as coworkers either join in to stay on the good side of the bully or remain passive to avoid being the next target. When bullying spreads from one aggressor to more, it is termed mobbing.

Another favorite bully tactic, particularly against a person whose strength threatens the bully, is spreading lies and false rumors, most likely to a supervisor. While using this tactic, the bully usually acts friendly, with the secret satisfaction of knowing she has successfully knifed her target in the back. By the time the target gets wind of the backstabbing, the bully has so convinced the supervisor of the target’s failings that it is impossible to recover.

Bullies will often micromanage and unduly scrutinize their target, with the implication that the target is incompetent and needs constant supervision. This tactic is also used to gather information she can use against the target. A bully may listen in on phone conversations, keep a time log of how long it takes the target to perform her duties, make notes of any tiny errors, count and time her bathroom breaks, etc.

Other forms of bullying include:

• Assigning the target demeaning work in lieu of her normal duties (sharpening pencils or counting toilet paper rolls instead of making appointments and billing the insurance, for example), again to imply incompetence

• Assigning too much work so she can criticize the target as lazy and incompetent when the target is unable to accomplish it all

• Failing to keep the target informed of policy changes that affect her job (changing the hours and not informing the target)

• Repeated interrupting or talking over someone, implying that what the target has to say is unimportant

• Singling someone out for arbitrary reprimands while the same behavior in others goes unnoticed (reprimanding the target for leaving early while others leave early with no consequence)

What we need to remember about bullying is it is the cumulative effect of these behaviors that causes the damage. When taken in isolation, the behaviors might seem harmless or trivial. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to say that a particular incident was the problem.

Bullies may be coworkers or supervisors. Bullies can be men or women, old or young, PhDs or high school dropouts. One common characteristic of bullies is narcissism — everything is all about them. Narcissistic bullies constantly seek attention and exploit relationships for their own gain. They speak endlessly, constantly interrupt, are insensitive, and rarely apologize. They are hypercritical and offer very little if any positive reinforcement. They love to take credit for others’ work. This is all done out of a profound sense of their own superiority. Their feelings of superiority make them feel justified in sabotaging their targets by setting them up to fail, frequently enlisting other coworkers to join the mob to do their dirty work. Oddly enough, their sense of superiority is actually a cover for low self-esteem.

Another type of bullying is known as Machiavellianism, characterized by cold, manipulative, insincere, callous behavior. Machiavellian bullies love to orchestrate behind the scenes. They plant subtle seeds of doubt about their target and his or her work, mostly behind the target’s back and usually embellished or untrue.

Another type of bully is the openly hostile type. They thrive on conflict, want absolute control, and are not afraid of hiding it. These types of bullies resort to name-calling, public criticism, and confrontation. They choose targets who can’t or won’t fight back. Health-care workers might be especially vulnerable to this type of bully because of their helping and caring temperament.

Particularly disturbing bullies are those who are psychopathic and personality disturbed. These bullies lie, cheat, threaten, and want to win at any cost. They have no boundaries and groom their patsies to do their bidding for them. Psychopathic bullies may have a history of bullying, mental illness, and/or addictions. Some are low-grade sadists. They are deceitful, have poor emotional regulation, are paranoid, and have a reckless disregard for others.

More often than not, targets of workplace bullying are women. Because of their temperament, health-care workers have been identified as susceptible to being targets, as are people who have experienced childhood trauma. While it is true that bullies target those who are nonconfrontational and those they can dominate, bullies also target those who are good at their jobs, strong, and popular. Why? Because these high-achieving targets draw attention to the bully’s incompetence and threaten their position as self-proclaimed diva queen bees. The high-achieving targets raise the bar. Because they fear appearing “less than,” bullies seek to get rid of those they perceive as “more than” — more competent, more popular, or smarter. With the attention on the target, it deflects attention away from the bully’s shortcomings.

The effects of workplace bullying can range from being extremely unpleasant to debilitating. Like Michelle, targets who are exposed to workplace bullying can suffer from PTSD. As one victim so eloquently described it in an email: “There is a huge difference between the pre-bullied me and the post-bullied me. At present I jump at the sight of my own shadow, am terrified of meeting people, am unable to make eye contact with people, get extremely agitated if people raise their voices, etc. At first glance someone might easily think, No wonder she was bullied. She has no self-confidence or anything! Yes, these things are not the ‘real’ me. It is just the way my trauma manifests itself.”

Such simple tasks as answering the phone or checking email can trigger anxiety and panic attacks. Targets of bullying look for reasons not to go to work, tend to use up all of their sick days, take medical leaves, and may cry a lot. It is not surprising that being bullied can result in unemployment, short- and long-term disability, divorce, and even suicide.

The trauma of being bullied can also result in physical manifestations, such as migraines, fluctuations in weight, ulcers, and GI upset. Sleep disturbances (insomnia, oversleeping, and nightmares) also occur.

In addition to the physical and psychological costs to targets, there are real financial costs. Depending on the recourse the target chooses, there may be legal expenses, unemployment, and bankruptcy from not being able to work.

Workplace bullying negatively affects employers as well. There is the decrease in production: Bullies spend their time tormenting the targets instead of working, while targets have difficulty functioning and concentrating on their work due to their anxiety, headaches, and fear. Employers incur lost productivity from sick days and employee turnover. Targets are forced to spend more and more of their time responding to false allegations and defending themselves rather than concentrating on their job. In a desperate attempt to address bullying, a manager may take aim at the most visibly affected employee: the target.

Too often people trivialize workplace bullying, thinking things will just blow over or dismiss it as a personality conflict. The average length of time a target remains in a bullying environment is 15 to 22 months, depending on the source. This deliberate behavior does not blow over. Moreover, conflict resolution and mediation are not solutions. The reason is because conflict resolution requires trust, and with bullying there is none. The bully does not want an equitable relationship with the target; the bully wants to win. The target frequently tries harder and harder and works later and later to please the bully, but nothing will be good enough because it’s not about the target or how she does her job — for the bully, it’s about winning.

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to make the bully stop her behavior. Since the bullying is likely to continue, it is best, if possible, to get out of the bully’s sphere. If it is essential to work, and there is no alternative employment, one can try to address it directly. Targets can try to fight fire with fire. For example, when the bully starts in with belittling statements or yelling, the target can try the tactic of raising a hand and saying, Stop. I will not put up with this kind of treatment. I want you to stop _________ (fill in the blank). If a target is uncomfortable confronting the bully alone, the target may choose to bring a trusted colleague, supervisor, or, if possible, a union rep. What this does is establish a boundary. The conversation should be a public declaration of what is deemed unacceptable. If it continues, a written paper trail can begin.

With a hostile bully, the target should try to take control away by stating she will not put up with the bully’s treatment and follow up with a formal complaint. This will work best if other coworkers who are also being bullied confront the bully too.

If the bully persists after clear boundaries have been drawn, the next step is to bring it to the attention of the supervisor. However, targets should not be surprised if the bully hasn’t beaten them to it. The bully has likely already gone to the supervisor with a long list of the target’s so-called failings, so the supervisor may be biased against the target. But it’s definitely worth a try, and such a meeting will probably give the target an idea about which way the wind blows in her workplace. If the bully has worked there for a long time, it’s unlikely the current target is the first. The predecessors are gone, as will be the target soon.

So what is the target to do? She can attempt to fight it out, but the odds of success are low. One can’t win a spraying match with a skunk, and this skunk has a lot of spraying experience. Often the best option for the target is to get out while she can, with her health and dignity intact. ( is a great resource for targets who choose to stay and fight.)

If a target opts for legal recourse, it is important to keep a work log and document the bullying behaviors for evidence. Entries should include dates, frequency, forms, context, witnesses if any, and reaction. Unfortunately, despite the real psychological, physical, and financial costs, workplace bullying by itself is not illegal. However, targets have prevailed with claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), defamation, and/or discrimination and harassment if the bullying is tied to protected classes such as sex, age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. IIED does not have to be tied to a protected class; however, it is very difficult to prove.

Targets are encouraged to use available resources: support groups, friends and family, physicians, therapists, attorneys, financial planners, employee assistance programs (know that your chart can be subpoenaed if there is a claim for emotional damage), and human resources departments (again, one must be careful since HR works for the employer).

Naturally, finding another position might be tricky. Not only is the target dealing with the physical and emotional results of being bullied; now she has to explain things to the interviewer of the new position. This could be an opportunity to look for a different type of work or for exploring the possibility of being an entrepreneur. If the target is pursuing work in the same field and the topic of the past employer comes up, it is best to be direct. The target should plan what to say about the former job if asked. Several suggestions could be: “We had different views on a variety of issues and were unable to reconcile them.” “A positive reference is unlikely. Here are some other references.” “My departure was neither whimsical nor arbitrary. I came to find it simply was not a place where I could develop professionally.” Then, go on to explain the positive changes that were made at the last job. If the target believes her previous employer is engaging in blacklisting (malicious actions to keep one unemployed), there are services the target can hire who will check references and report back.

In this economic climate it might be tempting to jump right into another problematic situation, particularly if the funds are dwindling and visions of the bag lady loom. Here are some suggestions on how to avoid being blindsided on the next job:

  • Don’t react reflexively; take time to check out the job.
  • Be flexible but not a doormat.
  • Check in with the manager regularly and talk things out.
  • Pause and check: Am I being defensive or overaccommodating?
  • Remember that the number of hours worked do not equal one’s worth or identity.
  • Don’t be a hero.
  • Stay organized.
  • Delegate and ask for help.
  • “Just say no.”

Targets have already spent too much time and energy doubting themselves, and they have given too much power to the bullies. Targets who have been terminated or forced to quit a dysfunctional job should consider it a blessing. It is the perfect time to focus on recovery and healing professionally, physically, and emotionally. Targets should take this time to evaluate what type of work environment best suits them — their skills, their strengths, and their soul. Targets are urged to see their physician, consult their therapist, and take care of themselves through exercise, meditation, diet, massage, and rest. It is a must to enlist friends who can affirm skills and strengths, and to focus on family and loved ones. They are truly who matter most. RDH


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Futterman S. When You Work For a Bully: Assessing Your Options and Taking Action. Croce: Leona. 2004.

Hecker TE. Workplace Mobbing: A Discussion for Librarians. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(4); 439-445.

Horn S. Take the Bully By the Horns: Stop Unethical, Uncooperative, or Unpleasant People from Running and Ruining Your Life. St. Martin’s: New York. 2002.

Namie G, Namie R. The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job. Sourcebooks: Naperville. 2009.

Spindel P. Psychological Warfare at Work: How harassers and bullies injure individuals and organizations. Spindel: Toronto. 2008.

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Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, RDH, PhD, FAADH, is a professor and former interim director of dental hygiene at Sacramento City College, a CODA site consultant, and owner of Writing Cures (, a writing and editing service. She is coauthor of “The Purple Guide: Paper Persona” and creator of the Career Development Center for Friends of Hu-Friedy. She is a frequent contributor to RDH and has written articles and columns for a variety of publications. Dr. Muñoz can be reached at [email protected].

Jan Carver Silva, BA, RDH, served on the executive board of the faculty union and was an adjunct professor of dental hygiene at her alma mater, Sacramento City College. She currently serves as a California Dental Hygienists’Association delegate and co-vice president of the Sacramento Valley component. Jan is completing her master’s in health education and can be reached at [email protected].

Suggested Resources
(adapted from Susan Futterman’s “When You Work for a Bully”)

Allison & Taylor Reference Checking Services —

Ask the Workplace Doctors — Question-and-answer forum from communication consultants Dr. William Gorden and Dan West

Bad —

Bully Online — A project of the Field Foundation, it is one of the world’s largest resources on bullying and related issues

Employment Law Information Network — A free legal resource site designed for employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel, and human resource professionals

E-proreference — — Consumer information on health and disability coverage and workers’ compensation — Employee rights website — — Your guide to fighting workplace bullies

My Toxic Boss — Website featuring strategies and resources for targets and victims of workplace bullying

National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) — Advocates for employee rights. Provides comprehensive directory of employment attorneys. — Free legal information on a variety of topics.

Psychological Abuse at the Workplace — Published by the University of Adelaide Occupational Health and Safety Site.

The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute — Gary and Ruth Namie’s site on bullying research and education

Workplace Fairness — Legal issues and resources related to fairness in the workplace and advocacy to end psychological violence at work

Yahoo! Emotional Abuse Group — A group dedicated to victims of emotional abuse

Yahoo! Toxic Managers Group — A group devoted to discussion, research, and support related to workplace bullying

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