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Workplace Bullying Essential Knowledge

Some things that you should know ...

The Predictable Cycle of Workplace Bullying

Workplace Bullying is like a house fire without smoke. There you sit in your living room, wiping your brow, surprised by the heat but not recognizing the fire. The sense betrayal is a symptom of your benevolent view of the world, for surely your home is safe. Suddenly, overcome by the heat, you attempt to make a move, but it is too late, you are already engulfed in flames.

The targets in my study were overwhelmingly unaware they were under attack until they were bleeding out from their wounds, psychological injuries inflicted in hospitals, schools, colleges, nonprofits, corporations, government offices, and other institutions they once considered their surrogate home. 

The cycle of workplace bullying, however, is highly predictable – the duplicate plot lines recycled across countless studies. Inside my interviews, victims lamented that had they known the chapters of the bully war, they might have lessened the blow, left the battlefield, or at least better braced for impact. Though researchers have represented the stages of workplace abuse differently, all of the unfoldings follow a distinct path, for as wise Heinz Leymann (1990) often proclaimed, there are only so many ways to break a person at work.

Below is the typical trajectory of workplace bullying as widely cited across research studies (Duffy & Sperry, 2014; Einersen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2020; Namie & Namie, 2011). In the tradition of Arts Based Research, it is presented as a Seven Act Play starring Kate and Sherrie. 


Meet the Superstar

Kate is a compassionate innovator, uninterested in office politics. She possesses exemplary skills and is often sought after for counsel. Kind and compassionate, Kate is well-liked and deeply valued in her work and home community. Over the last decade, she has not had a single negative write-up at work and her office walls are full of accolades.


Jealousy and Casebuilding

Sherrie recently joined the team as a new manager. She is narcissistic, a pro at projecting confidence and competence while offloading her work on those she considers beneath her. Jealous of Kate’s spotlight and creative ideas and perturbed by Kate’s superior performance which regularly recalibrates the status quo, Sherrie starts to watch, gather, and prepare for battle. While outwardly presenting herself as Kate’s confidant, Sherrie actively pulls from her long history of waging war.



Precipitating Event


Kate introduces an innovative new protocol backed by research that charges the organization to amend its current approach to patient care. She garners wide support in the larger medical community but quickly comes under Sherrie’s scrutiny. This precipitating event is not the cause of the attacks but the initial invitation for Sherrie to launch the first grenade and recruit soldiers to join her army. 


Underground Battle Begins

The initial battles are silent – enacted in cafeterias, over after-work drinks, and during hallway chatter. The weapons are fake fawning of concern, innuendoes of incompetence, and gossip of wrongdoing. The secondary low-level attacks are misplaced invitations to essential meetings, project sabotage, and withdrawal of resources to crack Kate’s confidence and weaken her artillery she will require to retaliate. To define the battle lines, Sherrie expresses her concern over Kate’s performance to Human Resources and directs them to initiate the paper trail she knows is necessary for termination. HR initially rebuffs, citing Kate’s unblemished records and stacks of accomplishments, but Sherrie is relentless in her request. Kate’s friends are quietly plucked from their offices for interviews in which it is suggested they should cut contact unless they want to become “part of the process.” In private meetings, Sherrie berates and belittles Kate while offering intermittent complements, just enough praise to unsteady Kate’s perception of what is starting to unfold. 


Escalating Attacks and Mobbing

The war is now well underway, Kate has become a leper in the hallways and completely excluded from all professional and social interactions. With a target clearly displayed on her back, bystanders fully join ranks with Sherrie and openly participate in spreading rumors and icing Kate out. Kate’s blood pressure rises, her migraines return, and just when she needs her friends the most, she is left standing completely alone with zero explanation for her ex-communication. 


Final Resignation

After months of psychological terrorism, amidst the consequence of deteriorating health directly tied to the abuse, atop an HR performance plan which was created for failure, Kate concedes and tenders her resignation. Deeply fearful of reputational damage, her employer offers her a settlement in return for her signing a nondisclosure agreement, thus forever silencing the story of their abuse and allowing them to control the public narrative. 


Coverup and Recovery 

Sherrie gloats as security stands watch as Kate places the last picture frame into her box. The Vice President surveys the battleground, laments over the carnage, and concocts a cover-up. Lacking evidence of wrongdoing, the company leans on Orwell’s doublespeak to cover their crimes – “the stress of the job got to her” or “we wish we could explain but it is a human resource issue.” Bystanders digest and regurgitate the rhetoric to avoid owing the catastrophe they contributed to by omission or commission. Kate suffers reputational damage, financial hardship, loss in her belief of a benevolent world, and symptoms of complex PTSD which will live in her coat pocket for the next five years. Though Kate will not find support nor justice through Human Resources, leaders, or bystanders – she will find her bold voice again in her advocacy for victims of workplace abuse. Her power will be restored by empowering those who too were stripped of their dignity. 



Top 15 Things Targets Of Workplace Bullying Need To Know

Below are some of the hidden facts of workplace abuse. They are the difficult but saturated themes that emerge across studies on workplace bullying. They are the experiences that shock targets the most, because unless you have been burned by the fire, it seems unconscionable that people and organizations would orchestrate and participate in such atrocities: 

1. Targets of workplace bullying tend to be highly competent, principled, innovative, well-liked, nonconfrontational, uninterested in office politics, and possess a benevolent worldview. Bullies tend not to target employees who are aggressive, underperform, and are not perceived as competition (Janoff-Bulman, 2010; Lutgen-Sandvik, 2013).

2. Workplace bullies tend to be narcissistic and self-promoting, crave the spotlight, resist transparency, be adept at offloading work, possess low skill competency, enforce steep hierarchy, treat people differently depending on their rank, practice fear-based leadership, and focus on self over the organization’s mission (Duffy and Yamada, 2017; Namie and Namie, 2011).

3. Though men tend to bully males and females in equal measure, women are far more likely to bully their own. Women and minorities face the greatest risk of being targets of workplace abuse (Namie, 2017). 

4. The goal of workplace bullies is to drive the target out of the organization. The primary tools used to accomplish this goal include – gossip, manipulation, sabotage, isolation, exclusion, mobbing, and gaslighting (Namie, 2017).

5. Targets’ isolation, silence, and shame are necessary components of workplace abuse; therefore, bullies purposely exclude targets from meetings, work-related social events, and participation on important projects (Babiak & Hare, 2007; Duffy and Yamada, 2017; Sutton, 2017). 

6. In the early stages of the bully’s war, while pretending to be the target’s friend, the bully plants seeds of doubt about the target with her bosses, upper management, and Human Resources in order to assure the bully’s protection once the target becomes fully aware of the unethical behaviors and injustices and attempts to go over the bully’s head and appeal for help (Valvatne, Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2020). 

7. The colleagues targets considered friends will likely cut contact with the target and participate in the gossip, manipulation, and abuse either by commission or omission. Many targets lament that what traumatized them the most was not the bully herself but those they counted on and cared for who turned against them and refused to speak up and help (Namie, 2011, Twale, 2018).

8. Human Resources often refuse to advocate for the target and protect him from being psychologically terrorized. Instead of sanctioning the bully or addressing the toxic work culture, they work to mitigate their reputational damage and threat of being sued by pegging the target as the problem, putting the target on a performance improvement plan, and encouraging the target to sign a nondisclosure agreement to silence his story (Ferris, 2004, Harper, 2013).

9. Most workplace bullying cases conclude by the victim losing her job. 65% of targets transfer, resign, or are terminated. Rarely is the bullying addressed nor the perpetrator reprimanded (Namie, 2017).

10. Resigning will not end the abuse. Once the target leaves the organization, the bully covers her tracks by continuing to damage the target’s reputation,  insist that coworkers continue to cease contact with the victim, and direct the organization to craft cover-ups instead of address the toxic culture that lead to the workplace bullying (Harper, 2013; Lutgen-Sandvik, P., 2013).

11. Workplace bullying takes a heavy toll on the target’s body, mind, and spirit. Most endure significant physical (high blood pressure, heart condition, gastrointestinal issues, migraines, etc.) and mental suffering (complex PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, etc.) (Valvatne, Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2020). 

12. Not all doctors and therapists are positioned to support targets’ recovery. It is essential that targets retain a trauma-informed care health worker knowledgeable about workplace abuse (Duffy & Sperry, 2012; Janoff-Bulman, 2010).

13. Workplace bullying creates a toxic culture that inhibits psychological safety, a necessary component of creativity and innovation. Toxic cultures lead to stagnant, underperforming, and eventually obsolete organizations (Edmondson, 2018, Sperry, 2018).

14. Targets must challenge themselves to ask better questions – Instead of asking – How can I make my boss like me? Why are my coworkers ganging up on me?. What can I do to keep my job? Try asking – What do I feel called to do in this world? Is my current job the best place to do that work? If not, what organizations have missions and values that better align with my own?

15. This is not the end. Targets find power and rise again to do good work in institutions that value their creativity, diverse perspectives, and courage to speak up for justice. Many targets find solace by supporting workplace abuse victims, educating institutions, and working toward the passage of protective legislation (Harper, 2013; Janoff-Bulman, 2010).

Work Cited

Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2007). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. Collins Business.

Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2014). Overcoming mobbing: A recovery guide for workplace aggression and bullying. Oxford University Press.

Duffy, M. P. & Yamada, D. C. (2018). Workplace bullying and mobbing in the United States. Praeger.


Edmondson, A. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.

Einarsen Ståle, Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (Eds.). (2020). Bullying and harassment in the workplace: theory, research and practice (3rd ed.). CRC Press.

Ferris, P.  (2004). A preliminary typology of organisational response to allegations of workplace bullying: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 32, 3, 389-395.

Harper, J. (2013). Mobbed!: What to do when they really are out to get you. Backdoor Press.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. Simon and Schuster.

Leymann, H. (1990). Mobbing and psychological terror at workplaces. Violence and Victims, 5(2), 119–126. 

Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2013). Adult bullying – a nasty piece of work: translating a decade of research on non-sexual harassment, psychological terror, mobbing, and emotional abuse on the job. MO: ORCM Academic Press.

Namie, G., & Namie, R. (2011). The bully-free workplace: stop jerks, weasels, and snakes from killing your organization. John Wiley & Sons.

Namie, G. (2017). 2017 workplace bullying institute U.S. workplace bullying survey. Workplace Bullying Institute. Retrieved from

Sperry, L. (2018). Organizational risk factors: An integrative model for understanding, treating, and preventing mobbing and bullying in the workplace. In Duffy, M. P. & Yamada, D. C.(Eds.), Workplace bullying and mobbing in the United States. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Sutton, R. I. (2017). The asshole survival guide: How to deal with people who treat you like dirt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Twale, D. J. (2018). Understanding and preventing faculty-on-faculty bullying: A psycho-social-organizational approach. Routledge.

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