Business law

12 signs that you are being bullied at work



Richmond Times-Dispatch is business law columnist Karen Michael

In investigating countless cases involving workplace bullies, I’ve seen a common theme emerge from the targets of this behavior. A workplace bully can be a supervisor, peer, subordinate, or even a customer/customer.

If your employee tells you things in the following list happen, listen to the employee and check them out thoroughly.

1. Work means misery. Although many people don’t look forward to going to work – because it’s work, after all – people who are bullied feel intense fear, anxiety and loss. Some have reported having a panic attack when they pull into the parking lot. One woman said she drove an hour to work, vomited in the bush, then turned around and drove home. Another employee said she got up at 2am just to pray for the bully so that God can fix everything in his life that causes him to treat her this way.

2. Chaos. The target employee will report feeling like they’re on a hamster wheel — they’re always running to go somewhere, but don’t know exactly where. A bully changes rules and expectations quickly — and all the time. The target frantically tries to keep up with the bully’s whim while desperately trying not to upset the bully. The bully sets the target to fail, so the target will fail. It’s impossible to succeed when the bully hides and changes what success looks like.

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3. Manipulation. The bully has manipulated the “up” of the chain pretty well, and everyone above the bully thinks the bully is cool and competent and doesn’t see any problem. The target will report that the bully manipulated HR, so when the target goes to HR to complain, the bully has already led HR into thinking that the target is the problem.

4. Gas lighting. The target will report that the bully will say, “I didn’t tell you to do X” or “You have my full support to do Y” or “You have complete independence.” Meanwhile, none of this is accurate. The bully has complete control over everything the target does and does not give the target any autonomy to make any decisions or do the task. All of this leaves the target wondering: Is that me? Am I the problem?”

5. Micromanagement. The bully pays attention to the target’s every move – from the target’s daily activities to the target’s arrival time, departure time, and lunch and break schedule. The bully watches the target and pays close attention to it all the time.

6. Gossip and lies. At the beginning of the target’s work in the organization, the bully confided in the target saying things like “Your co-worker Alice is an alcoholic; Alice’s co-worker is an alcoholic.” Fred suffers from depression. Sally gets one final warning. This seems strange to the target, but the bully is trying to entice the target to gain trust, as well as pit the employees against each other.

7. Constant criticism and undermining. No matter what the target does, it is wrong. always. The bully will tell the employee to do “x” and then the employee will do “x”, but the bully will feel upset because the employee did “x” and not “y”.

8. Scream. This is not always the case, but a bully will often be described as aggressive and will raise their voice. Sometimes, however, a bully is described as “nice-nice”, where the person is very nice on the outside, but incredibly passive-aggressive and manipulative on the job.

9. Underestimation and humiliation. In public and private meetings, the bully will engage in demeaning, condescending, and disparaging behavior—undermining and humiliating the target.

10. Knowing the employee’s family about the bully. The targets will report that their friends and family know about the bully, and they will try to convince the target to report the bully, to quit, or to change departments. Family and friends will notice a physical change in the targets’ appearance, which they will refer to as a shell of their former selves. Unfortunately, the bully has eroded the employee’s self-esteem to such an extent that the employee has now lost so much confidence that it is difficult to look for another job. The bully has convinced the target that the target is worthless or incompetent.

11. The employee is suddenly on medication/is undergoing treatment. For the first time in a target’s life, the target is suddenly taking anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants, high blood pressure medication, seeing a therapist, or taking a vacation. Recently, an employee told me that she was contemplating suicide.

12. It’s an abusive relationship. The target feels bad about reporting the bully. When the good times are good, they are really good. But when the bad times are bad, they are really bad. This is why it is a classic abusive relationship created by a bully. Sometimes a bully is really supportive.

The target employee will have a hard time explaining exactly what happened because it is constant and all the time. This makes it difficult to investigate and why organizations wrongly take no action against a bully. When an investigation is conducted and there are no consequences for the bully, the bully becomes emboldened, feeling untouchable.

Employees who are bullied at work face severe trauma. While there is no law that protects against bullying in the workplace, organizational policies must be sufficient to hold bullies to account, and bullies must be removed from the workplace.

Karen Michael is the Richmond-based attorney and president of Karen Michael PLC and author of Stay Hired. It can be accessed at


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