Making sense of workplace bullying

An important part of moving forward from the workplace bullying I experienced was trying to make sense of what had happened to me. I wasn’t even sure if bullying was the right word, and I had limited familiarity with the range of behaviours that workplace bullying can encompass. I came up with the idea of doing a research project to capture the process of sense-making, and the first step in doing that was to examine what the existing research literature has to say about the phenomenon. What I found resonated very strongly with me, and helped me understand what I had experienced and why it affected me the way it did. Here are some of the things that were most meaningful for me.


This refers to bullying by a group. In the workplace, this is often with the intent to force someone out of the workplace.

“Being mobbed can result in a profound sense of shame and powerlessness on the part of the victim who may not know the language of mobbing and therefore does not know how to name what has happened.” (Duffy and Sperry, 2007)

“Victims of mobbing are usually individuals who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishment, integrity, innovation, and intelligence and competence.” (Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott, 1999)

Organizational factors:

“Change processes… provided an effective smokescreen for bullying behaviour. One of the most common tactics used by bullies was to threaten targets using the current organizational changes as a ‘reason’ to threaten jobs, careers, and professionalism.” (Hutchinson et al., 2005)

“Sadly, the organization’s response to bullying often serves to exacerbate the target’s experience of being bullied, especially if their reported experiences are minimalized, dismissed, ignored, disbelieved, or allowed to continue without action.” (Vickers, 2006)

“Even although organizations may well have developed high profile policies and procedures to respond to bullying, we suggest that informal organizational alliances and work group norms tolerant of bullying may serve to counteract these policies and ensure reports are minimized, ignored or denied.” (Hutchinson et al., 2010)

Attacks on professional competence and reputation

“Erosion of professional competence and reputation” is a significant type of workplace bullying that includes “damage to professional identity and limiting career opportunities” (Hutchinson et al., 2010) and “may be a strategy to reduce those targeted to a state of powerlessness and worthlessness. (Hutchinson et al., 2008)

“Denigrating another’s competence… without apparent anger or aggression, harms the targeted individual without bringing attention to the intent of the perpetrator… Employing balanced arguments as to the deficiencies of the target, while concealing any hostile intent, rationalization can convince others of the information put forward against the target. By offering convincing arguments to others, further exclusion or hostility towards those targeted can be made to appear justified.” (Hutchinson, 2013)

“One of the things that bullies also do is to encourage others to see the target as a ‘troublemaker’ and a problem.” (Vickers, 2001)

Consequences of bullying

“Mobbing results in the humiliation, devaluation, discrediting, degradation, loss of professional reputation and, usually, the removal of the target from the organization with all the concomitant financial, career, health, and psychosocial implications that one might expect from a protracted traumatizing experience.” (Duffy and Sperry, 2007)

Targets of bullying have reported feeling “‘destroyed’, ‘paranoid’, ‘hopeless’, ‘worthless’, ‘hostile’, ‘ill’, ‘tearful’, ‘bewildered’, ‘isolated’, and ‘alone’” (Burnes and Pope, 2007).

“The bullying reported here resulted in unprovoked, planned, aggression and cruelty, which participants reported ‘killed their spirits’ and ‘shattered their lives’. The unrelenting, calculated and deliberate nature of the bullying resulted in profound psychological harm, physical illness, and professional and financial destruction for many of those interviewed. The patterns of bullying also continued past the point where it was clear the psychological will and physical health of the targets had been broken.” (Hutchinson et al., 2006)

Mikkelsen and Einarsen (2002) found that targets of bullying “perceived the world as less benevolent and other people as less supportive and caring”. The significant stress of bullying “may pose a serious threat to victims’ assumption of a just world where people get what they deserve, and where one may positively influence the outcome of events.”

At least there is some comfort and reassurance in knowing that I’m not alone in my experience.

Image credit: johnhain on Pixabay

Originally published at on June 5, 2018.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |