Busting the bully

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2004, 12:00am

Do you know someone like this? He (or she) is a colleague, maybe senior to you, but not much senior. He's constantly looking over your shoulder pointing out what a mess you've made of things, even finding errors you'll make before you've even thought of making them.

He's so good at this, the mere sight of him is enough to make you collapse into incompetence, or boil with anger, neither of which improves your work. You hate him and some of your peers sympathise, calling him a snake and a manipulator. But others think he's nice and your bosses think he's marvellous. He knows how to show himself in the right light and to point out how effectively he's on top of you and your error-making ways.

In the bosses' eyes, if it weren't for him, the place would be a shambles. But in your eyes, any shambles going on is his fault.

If you haven't encountered anyone like this, consider yourself lucky. According to recent Australian research this creature has a favourite habitat: the workplace. And he's classified as the systematic bully. Bullying has become a big issue in Australia and other western countries - in schools and the community, as well as the workplace. It's a problem people are more willing to speak up about and even, in a number of cases, take legal action over.

We, too, are recognising the problem in our schools, but are taking longer to look at what might be going on in our homes (plenty of that in the employer-domestic helper relationship) and workplaces. Australian research into workplace bullies, by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, has found that almost 70 per cent of employees surveyed said they'd experienced some kind of bullying by a supervisor or manager.

Many people lapse into so-called accidental or destructive bullying when things go wrong, deadlines are tight or stress gets the worse of them. Although this isn't pleasant or healthy for the victims, it's not intentional.

But the serial bully is doing it deliberately. It's a planned part of his ascent to power, and you, his victim, are carefully selected because you're not powerful and are unlikely to be able or willing to do anything about it. He may also see you as possible competition. So, he makes sure he damages your promotion prospects while supporting your less threatening peers who he believes can help him on his upward journey. You can end up not only being relentlessly bullied, but also isolated and paranoid, because everyone else seems to think he's a nice guy.

People who are regularly bullied suffer loss of confidence and self-esteem. Their work performance suffers because they no longer believe in their ability. They may also develop serious illness such as heart disease, hypertension and depression. In too many cases, people who are bullied, including children and adolescents, take their own lives.

What can you do if you or someone at work or school is experiencing bullying?

First, you have to point out that it's happening - to both the bully and those who have authority over the bully. While this sounds simple, it's very difficult to do. But it's far worse to do nothing. Next time there's a confrontation in your office, ask yourself: what am I really witnessing here?