Blog Post #301 – The Fear Mongers – Dealing with Bullying

Sticking up for yourself can be difficult — especially if it is your boss causing the grief. Workers who ignore being bullied will pay with their health, and employers will be left holding the tab. Bullying is simply bad for business.

Article from the OH&S Canada Magazine

By: Angela Stelmakowich

There it was — that feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was always the same when her supervisor walked into the room.

“If she came out of her office, it was like you’d go back to your desk and shut up because you just felt like you were constantly being listened to and watched,” Natalie Lisik says of her former boss. “You don’t say much because it’s like you’re trying to defuse the situation as much as possible by not saying anything that could possibly escalate things.”

Of course, feeling tense was better than feeling humiliated. One time, Lisik recalls her supervisor suddenly emerging from her office and telling her (and the client with whom she had been speaking) that Lisik had everything wrong. “I was just standing there, kind of stunned, because I had been doing the job for a few years and I did know what I was doing. I felt humiliated.”

Lisik, now president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 2950, doesn’t work there anymore. Her workplace, she says, “was becoming toxic.”

Removing the mask

Lisik is one of the many people who have been bullied on the job. Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health at Warren Shepell in Toronto, prefers the term “psychological harassment,” but says it’s basically any behaviour that makes a person feel demeaned, belittled or threatened.

Bullying can take the form of, among other things, aggression, threats, shouting, ridicule, constant criticism, setting impossible deadlines and targets, excessively tight supervision, and unfair use of disciplinary and assessment procedures.

Bullying knows no bounds when it comes to sector, to gender, to rank in an organization. Psychological attacks — often in plain view of co-workers too afraid to speak up — rarely become physical, but can be subtle or blistering by turns, with long-lasting effects.

Smith notes in a statement that his experiences show that more than 40 per cent of bullying is colleague to colleague, almost 20 per cent of bullies are bosses, and a bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman.

Serial bullies have many common traits, says Tim Field, the Oxford, England-based author of Bully In Sight, who was bullied while working in customer service a decade ago. Bullies are convincing, practised liars; excel at deception; use excessive charm; will verbally outmanoeuvre most people (especially at times of conflict); and will never give a straight answer, Field offers on There are four types of serial bullies.

* Attention-seeker: generally, but not always, female; emotionally immature; lacks competence to do the job on her own; very manipulative and deceptive.

* Wannabe: predominantly male; craves respect for being a professional, but lacks the intellect and competencies; uses manipulation, deceit and fraud.

* Guru: predominantly male; usually excels in his chosen field (which tends to be scientific, research or technical jobs); regards himself as an expert; has zero people skills; is aggressive and highly dysfunctional, but lacks malice.

* Sociopath/socialized psychopath: usually male, but not always; ruthless; very manipulative; highly deceptive; lies plausibly; gets in a position where he can control the flow of information.

Whoever the transgressor, bullying appears to be on the rise. As with most conditions that have traditionally been swept under the rug, specific numbers remain elusive. “People are embarrassed and ashamed to admit that that’s what’s going on to them at work,” says Tony Fasulo, managing partner of Acclaim Ability Management in Toronto.

Lisik reports that, within her union local, there’s been a big increase in psychological files. “I’d say at least 80 per cent of our people on long-term disability are mental health cases,” she says.

The increase may have something to do with what passes for an acceptable work environment nowadays, one in which mergers, acquisitions and outsourcing are standard and stress among staff has reached the point of distraction.

“Bullying-prone workplaces are characterized by a making-the-numbers mentality, at all costs,” says Gary Namie, a social psychologist and president of Work Doctor Consulting in Bellingham, Washington. “There are no negative consequences to aggressors, only rewards,” Namie says.

Taking aim

Targets of bullying at school and on the job are wildly different. While the young target may lack inclusion in a group, the adult target is often strong, competent and popular. The four top characteristics of a bullied adult are that they are independent, technically more skilled than the bully, more socially skilled, and whistleblowers, Namie says.

It is the bully’s envy that causes him or her to take aim. “Now you’ve got a self-starting, technically skilled, well-liked, ethical worker,” Namie says. “And that’s what can get them in trouble if it’s combined with a personality style to be non-confrontational.”

Feeding off this attitude of not wanting to rock the boat, the bully usually subjects the target to a long period of trivial, nit-picking criticism, Field says. If a manager is doing the bullying, the criticism very often is in the guise of work performance. “The purpose of criticism is power and control and domination, rather than performance,” he says.

“The more I achieved, the more he seemed determined to destroy me,” Field says on

Of course, sometimes adult targets who pose little threat are isolated, particularly when lack of understanding rules the day. Michael Kavanagh used to work with the Newfoundland government. Kavanagh entered the public service through the Open Doors program, which encouraged hiring people with disabilities.

He had been in a car accident in March, 1981, in which he suffered severe head and other physical injuries, says a 2001 grievance ruling by Peter Darby, a retired professor of law. Kavanagh was in a coma for months and, in all, spent 18 months in hospital. During that time “he had to re-learn how to talk and even to eat,” Darby writes. “By dint of sheer willpower and perseverance [he] disproved the medical doctors’ prognosis that he would never walk again virtually unaided.”

Ken Templeton, Q.C., a partner at Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales in St. John’s, and Kavanagh’s former lawyer, says “he’s a person who you have to admire because he overcame such adversity to get himself back into the workplace.”

Kavanagh’s disabilities were thought to be entirely physical. But his mental faculties had also been affected — a fact with which the employer was unaware because it had failed to investigate that possibility, Darby notes repeatedly.

Kavanagh was hired as the public service was being downsized. And even after he had gained a full-time position, through years of work and good performance, some co-workers continued to believe he enjoyed the iron-clad protection of those in the Open Doors program.

After moving to a new office, Kavanagh lasted only a few years before rough treatment by co-workers drove him from the workplace and, ultimately, from the province. “These people deliberately took on Kavanagh,” Templeton says. He was embarrassed by crude cartoons and was the brunt of mean-spirited pranks.

Among the wrongs against Kavanagh that Darby cites in his decision were defamation, assault and battery, libel and personal harassment. Co-workers called Kavanagh cowpoke (which he took as an accusation of bestiality because another man who lived in his area had been convicted of having sexual relations with a cow); he was accused of stealing a fax machine while president of the Head Injury Association, which was a lie; and he was grabbed and rammed up against the wall by a co-worker.

“The level of vindictiveness and, indeed, viciousness revealed through these cartoons is a sad commentary on man’s inhumanity to man,” Darby writes. He found that the employer discriminated against Kavanagh by reason of his physical and mental disability.

Kavanagh is the first person Templeton is aware of who has been “rendered permanently unemployable through harassment.”

Confront or back away?

Some say facing up to your bully will set you free; others advise against it unless your preparation is rock solid.

Acclaim’s Fasulo is of the mind that targets must stand up, as early as possible. “A lot of those bullies will back down because, at the end of the day, the bullies are cowards,” he says.

But Field considers standing up a risky proposition. “In the majority of the cases I deal with, the moment you assert your right not to be bullied is when the bully decides that [he or she] has to get rid of you.”

The one bright spot, Field says, may be if a target takes a stand very early on. Then, there’s “a good chance that the bully will then leave you alone because you’re not going to be an easy prey.”

The problem is that it takes time to come to the realization that you’re being bullied. For Field, that hellish ride took a year and a half.

By the time Field confronted his bully, the stress was so great, he ended up taking leave a few weeks later. “My brain finally collapsed under the strain. I burst into tears and sat there, trembling, repeating for nearly 10 minutes, ‘I can’t cope. I just can’t cope,'” he says. Twelve years on and he still feels the effects of fatigue, exhaustion and a mild depression.

If a person opts to confront, Smith says preparation is key. Lisik likens it to preparing a court case. Documentation will show chronology, patterns in behaviours or words, dates, times, who was involved, description of events and the target’s feelings.

Keeping a diary “also helps maintain your sanity,” Field says, “because people who bully tend to live in what’s called a second reality and they make things up as they go along. And that has a destabilizing influence on anybody that they’re bullying because you start to doubt yourself.”

Legal matters

Some say plenty of law already exists to deal with bullying — from the Criminal Code of Canada to human rights laws to language within anti-harassment policies and collective agreements. Templeton says people “have to start acting within the law as it is now.”

And then there’s general duty clauses in oh&s acts, which can be used broadly enough to cover bullying, says David Law, a partner with Emond Harnden LLP in Ottawa who specializes in oh&s and workers’ compensation issues. The challenge is that bullying “is a low-buzz, corrosive kind of problem that’s easy to ignore,” Law says.

Last year, Quebec took a step to incorporate language about “psychological harassment” in its Labour Standards Act. It is defined as vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affect an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment.

Field says Quebec has taken a good step in the right direction, but Namie suggests that “vexatious behaviour” is rather vague. “People respond to traumatic events differently and not all people are traumatized, given similar circumstances,” he says.

What will happen, Law predicts, is more specific guidelines for dealing with bullying will be defined through cases, “which will be slow and painful.” But some standard is required, “otherwise people will spend an awful lot of time and money arguing about whether what happens fits within that very general language.”

Templeton says “most of these cases are so bad, there’s no misunderstanding as to whether or not the conduct was appropriate.” Namie adds that people are not driven to depression over rudeness or offensiveness or the social clod. “Bullying is a systematic and intensive focused, laser-like campaign of destruction,” he says.

Smith believes it’s only a matter of time before the definition of harassment becomes more liberal to clearly include bullying. Still, Kavanagh would like there to be greater protections within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to recognize the needs of mentally disabled individuals.

Says Namie, “We’re in the sad situation of waiting for employers to voluntarily care about this.”

A toll on health

Bullying can sap the will and health of targets. A 2003 survey from the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute offers results from self-described targets. It found that stress effects range from severe anxiety (76 per cent), disrupted sleep (71 per cent), loss of concentration (71 per cent), clinical depression (39 per cent), and panic attacks (32 per cent).

“I felt like an alien in the workplace,” Kavanagh says in an interview. “They used me as entertainment.”

Field laughs wryly. He calls his bullying experience “horrific.” “It makes you almost completely incapable of thinking straight, of doing anything. I reckon my productivity had fallen to less than 10 per cent toward the end.”

The harassment had an overpowering impact on Kavanagh’s life. He now relies on sleeping pills. Unfortunately, nightmares make sleep yet another aggressor. “They’re the most horrific things that were done to me, things you wouldn’t do to an animal,” he says.

Bullying is “a form of psychological torture,” Field says. “There’s no bruises or broken bones or blood,” he says. “It usually comes down to one person’s word against another.”

If you’re a target, Fasulo says, you must listen to what your body and mind are telling you. “How are you feeling about going to work? Are you being productive at work? What’s your situation in terms of relationships with your supervisors?”

Namie suggests that targets take the following steps:

* Name the bullying — naming the problem helps stop the cycle of self-blame.

* Take time off work — targets, because of their strong work ethic, actually stay in harm’s way an average of 22 months.

* Check physical health — it’s usually the doctor who first detects bullying, which may take the physical form of hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, hair loss or sleep disorders.

* Check mental health — unremitting anxiety, clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder may result from bullying.

* Research avenues of relief — get some legal advice and research your employer’s policies.

The way in which a bullied person leaves work can have long-lasting effects on mental health, Namie says. People who have aired their concerns leave proud, he says. “People who leave shrouded in secrecy tend to take well over a year to get out of bed and find the motivation, once again, to believe in themselves and [move] on.”


Bullying also takes a toll on business. “Toxic people — controlling, manipulative, hostile personalities — are hugely exhausting for everybody around them,” Law says. “There’s a drip, drip, drip. And eventually people crack,” he says.

In all, Namie says 17 per cent of targets transfer, 37 per cent are constructively discharged, and 33 per cent voluntarily quit.

As is often the case, getting bullying onto the front burner will likely come down to the bottom line. That’s no surprise to WarrenShepell’s Smith. “I think people understand numbers and if they understand how high the numbers are, then they can be almost instigated into action,” he says.

Try to affix a cost to turnover or absenteeism caused by the bully, Namie says. “When you go with an emotional argument, you scare everybody away. It sounds like conflict. They write it off as personality conflict, personality differences, and you’re discounted and not believed.”

Field estimates his being bullied cost his employer “in excess of a quarter of a million pounds.” Among others, costs related to sick leave, re-recruitment and loss of knowledge.

“Don’t pick people as supervisors who just have technical skills,” Smith cautions. “Pick people who are really good at recognizing the behaviours that influence the workplace around them.”

Employees, for their part, must take ownership by seeking help and learning to set up barriers, Lisik says. “Don’t wait until you’re sitting there, depressed and on medical leave, with a bunch of pills,” she says.

Knowing what she knows today, Lisik says “I would have gone into her office afterwards and said, ‘I feel that was completely inappropriate. The tone you used was very harsh and I don’t mind being called on my mistakes, but the way you did it in front of the client was humiliating. If you want to talk to me about information, I prefer that you did it in a more appropriate manner.”

“We all become enablers when we witness it and we cringe and we do nothing,” Namie says. “Because of that timidity, the bully sinks the claws in, and then it takes a policy and eventually a law to extract them,” he says.

End of the tunnel

Namie is optimistic, however, that the issue of bullying is beginning to gain the attention it deserves. “First of all, it’s a term that no longer draws snickers,” he says.

A business must consider if it is emphasizing, through workplace culture and standards, respectful treatment and conduct among co-workers, Law says. “Not the big chill. Not a completely frozen, humourless life where we can’t kid around with each other,” he says, “but where we are kinder, decent to each other.”

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, Fasulo says. “But that tunnel’s long.”

78 thoughts on “Blog Post #301 – The Fear Mongers – Dealing with Bullying”

  1. It’s difficult to find knowledgeable people about this subject, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!


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