Why people bully...and what you can do about it (#44)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Why do people bully each other? Wendy Harpur, a HR professional, has written on LinkedIn about workplace bullying and talks about her own experience.

Highlights from this week’s interview

This week Jean interviews Wendy Harpur, who has written on LinkedIn about bullying. Below are some of the highlights.  

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Jean opened by welcoming Wendy, “I'm so happy for you to be here finally!”

Q:  When did you first become aware of bullying?

Wendy: I grew up in southeast London, a place called Sidcup in Kent. My parents were both Scottish. So I grew up really in a working class household, not being English and having a certain different culture to those people around me. The Scots are from Celtic backgrounds, very different, and English people are Anglo Saxon by background, but of course we're all a bit of mixed. But the thing is we look the same. My sister and I spoke a little differently when we were at school. I got through it by becoming very good at sports.

[I was bullied in school.]  Some action was taken against people but it's very, very hard to do. Because at the end of the day, you are the one that has to go into school every day. You have to see these people. And as soon as you raise that as an issue, you're potentially more of a target.

Wendy leans on her experience in studying bullying in the workplace. She says in many cases, the point is to get the target fired. This is often a no-win for the target, for several reasons:

  • The bully might be a member of senior management
  • Bullying can be subtle and hard to prove
  • The bully might be spreading false narratives about the target to senior management
  • Sometimes the bully is too valuable to be let go 
scared little girl sitting with a man's fist in view
Cerdit: The Stock Footage Club

When bullying is escalated to HR, their dilemma is not knowing all perspectives. Granted, the employee feels bullied, but it might be their manager is simply trying to correct their performance. Or an untrained manager could be projecting their own, unrelated issues. Sometimes there’s a personal relationship between the bully and management. Then if HR goes directly to the manager, the manager feels attacked, and any relationship built up with HR is gone. An additional wrinkle is when a member of the HR staff reports bullying. Who do they report to?

Q: How do you recognize bullying? How do you know when there’s a diversity dimension to the bullying?

The first sign to look for is exclusion.

Wendy: They exclude somebody where the person may not know why that is. They're not invited to lunches for some reason, or they’re not invited to go for a promotion, or they're not afforded the opportunity to work with certain types of clients to develop their skill sets and experience. It could be unconscious. They're not giving opportunities to a woman for example, because they feel that the clients might be typically male, and want to go and socialize down a pub, you know, lunchtime to do business. So somebody might unconsciously, think well I’m going to send Fred instead of Jane. 

Q: How do you distinguish it from gruff behavior or sticking to standards?

Wendy: If it's kind of systemic, and it's always directed at one person unfairly. If it's unwelcome, and it's unfair, then that could be bullying.”

An employee becomes aware that they are being criticized excessively, and no one else is being criticized for the same actions.

Jean tells her story:

I was in a situation like that, and I have gone back and forth as to whether or not it was bullying. But it was serious enough that my colleagues came to me and said So and so has something against you. You better watch out. This is a different situation because in university settings, tenured faculty have some protections that are not in your regular workplace. What I did was I went to So and so. And I said people are telling me this. So, there's something that you are doing that's causing alarm among my colleagues.

And the person changed on a dime.

Stopping the bullying at the beginning is the key for regaining control. Going to the source and saying something isn’t right, I’m not comfortable, for example, gives the source a chance to save face and make changes. Confrontation does not generally work. 

If the bully refuses to change or doubles down, it then becomes necessary to consult HR, keeping in mind this can escalate the problem. It’s the nuclear option, and some people would rather leave. Yet if it’s not addressed, the company ends up with a hostile environment or toxic culture. Some companies really want to know about this and follow their own procedures; some do not.

Q: What is the solution?

For the target, it is empowering to have the backing of colleagues, not only for self-confidence, but for the extra voices. For colleagues, be alert to signs of bullying. Notice if someone changes, becomes quiet, takes a lot of sick days. If a colleague assumes their burden of speaking up, it can spare the manager-employee relationship.

Q: How can bullying be prevented?

It has come from the top, with a zero tolerance policy where they have to educate themselves about bullying, what that looks, what kinds of situations might arise.

One can use engagement surveys to see how engaged people are with their work, with each manager being held accountable for their department’s scores. Managers need to be trained; some are promoted for technical reasons and have no training in people management.

Wendy’s graphic pulls all this information together.

Beat Bullying infographic

Q: Any closing thoughts?

Wendy: Talking about it is the key, really educating people. Look after your colleagues, treat them like you would your friends. They're human beings, and they're deserving of respect. We're all adults, aren't we?

Jean: Many of us really are not taught how to be human beings. And so it takes people like you who are willing to come forward and do something about a situation and to help people learn how to handle them. So thank you, Wendy.

Wendy Harpur headshot

Wendy Harpur

Director of Human Resources, BKL

Wendy is a versatile human resources professional with transformation, talent management, and learning and development experience with a lean approach to project management and HR services provision. She is head of HR at BKL – what she calls a “lovely accountancy firm” – based in London and has 20 years’ experience in the field of human resources. Wendy did a series of posts on bullying on LinkedIn and has become an expert in the field.


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What do you see about bullying in the workplace?  Have you been a target? A bully? A manager who doesn't want to deal with it?
  2. Can you think of anyone in your workplace who may be a target of bullying? Now that you aware, what is your plan to help them?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • Call in vs call out
  • Conscious use of self
    • Accept responsibility for your own contributions
    • Focus on the other person's strengths
    • Recognize your power and use it responsibly
  • Initiating workplace change
    • Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals
    • Persevere through the time lag of change; recognize small wins along the way
    • Keep in mind revolutionary patience
    • Increase accountability

#BeAccountable    #BridgingDifferences    #ChangeStartsWithMe  #CorporateSocialResponsibility #RevolutionaryPatience

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