By Martha Knox Haly MAPS
Principal organisational psychologist, MKA Risk Mitigation

Traditionally, workplace bullying has been thought of as ‘oppressive behaviour' from a supervisor to a subordinate. Bullying certainly does arise from a power imbalance, but we tend to somewhat simplistically conceive of power as being administered through a traditional management hierarchy. However, power can be held in many forms. It can include the power of the mob or group, the tyranny of expertise, and the dominance of the older, articulate worker over the younger, vulnerable, less socially resourced worker. The variations are endless.

This article is offered as an introduction to resources and strategies for managing workplace bullying that I have found to be useful in twenty years of consultation and research in demoralised work environments. For the purposes of the article, the topic is most usefully categorised in terms of a) organisational level interventions; b) work team level interventions; and c) individual therapeutic goals.

Organisational level interventions

There is no legislation that specifically deals with workplace bullying. Conversely, workplace bullying is a phenomenon that has been dealt with in many Antidiscrimination Tribunals, Industrial Relations Commissions (with respect to safety prosecutions and unfair dismissals), as well as criminal and civil jurisdictions. In terms of organisational level interventions, there have been three particularly informative cases. These are State of New South Wales v. Mannall (2005), Inspector Gregory Maddaford v. Graham Gerard Coleman & Anor (2004), and Graham v. Brisbane City Council (2001).

These cases illustrate that industrial tribunals view workplace bullying as a problem that can be conceptualised as one of poor organisational culture. The main theme of organisational level interventions is to create monitoring channels for employees to voice their concerns around bullying in the workplace and to subsequently deal with identified issues of bullying through supervisory support and disciplinary processes. The following list is not exhaustive, but does provide some sense of the breadth of possible organisational level interventions.

  • Management role modelling of consultative behaviours
  • Implementation of 360 degree feedback performance appraisals (where there is genuine confidentiality of feedback)
  • Broad workplace climate surveys of the workforce
  • Fully developed policies around bullying, discrimination and harassment which articulate organisational mechanisms for responding to bullying, grievances, safety concerns
  • Instant management responsiveness to complaints of bullying through commencement of a formal or informal investigation into any allegations of bullying
  • Provision of adequate supervision and training around the prevention of bullying
  • Clear cut performance management and disciplinary processes
  • Attempts to provide training/counselling/support to the perpetrators in the interests of helping them change behaviour
  • Ensuring that the perpetrators are provided with enough information to refute the claims, without the safety of complainant employees being compromised
  • Tests by corporate legal counsel to ensure that all investigative statements consistently support accounts of employee participation in bullying 
  • Ensuring that managers and supervisors understand the whole process of return to work plans, and that they are expected to be supportive of injured workers

Team level interventions

Workplace bullying is typically associated with an inadequate leadership structure. If the manager is a bully, the inadequacy can stem from an inability to motivate staff through positive means. If the bully is a co-worker, or there is a case of ‘upward' bullying (where staff are bullying their supervisor), then the root difficulty is a perception that line management is inadequate. This can arise from line management being undermined or inadequately supported by more senior levels of management, or when the line manager is personally inadequate through lack of confidence, difficult temperament or poor insight into the contribution of his/her own behaviour to problematic interactions in the workplace.

The first challenge in resolving a bullying culture is to strengthen the line management function. If the difficulty is an aggressive line manager, then a consultant's first challenge is to explain to senior management how this can be a liability to them personally. It is a case of highlighting that even though the problem may stem from a line manager, company directors are ultimately seen as being responsible under Occupational Health and Safety legislation.

Quite frequently consultants will encounter senior management reluctance to take action against the bullying line manager. This reluctance usually stems from the pretext that the problem manager is a ‘highly valued performer'. In these situations, the consultant needs to explain that the optimum approach for the business is to obtain the high performance, without the liability. If senior management is not prepared to face the possibility that they may need to let this valued performer go, then there is little possibility that initiatives will succeed. In these circumstances, it is better for the psychologist to maintain their professional integrity and reputation, and to disengage themselves from the contract.

Similarly, if the bully is a Managing Director, and there is no higher authority to draw on or incentive to change, then the chance of success is going to be limited. Again the consultant has to seriously consider the ethics of continuing to provide a service which is unlikely to be able to deliver an outcome.

If senior management support has been obtained for the intervention, then it is a matter of implementing a structured program of coaching. Ongoing employment security is to be made contingent on achieving coaching program outcomes. An excellent resource for working with bullies at any level of the organisation is the text When anger hurts: Quieting the Storm Within (McKay, Rogers & McKay, 1989).

If the bully is a coworker, then one of the challenges is to break the collusion of silence amongst colleagues about the truth of what is happening to the victim of bullying. This is a matter of strengthening the management function, and ensuring that line management becomes the most influential force in the workplace.The best way of commencing the process is to conduct a workplace climate survey and interviews with all coworkers and supervisory staff.

Results can be presented back to staff in a graphic format creating an evidence basis for the need for change. A senior management representative should also be present during the feedback session. Ideally this senior manager should speak to the issues around an organisation's Code of Conduct, to express the need for individuals to treat each other with respect in the workplace, and provide examples of appropriate and inappropriate behaviours.

The feedback session should include appropriate training in conflict resolution and should also outline the concept of an issues register. The issues register should be maintained for a period of three to four weeks, and then a review needs to take place. Typically, either a bully will try to use the register to raise numerous issues against their victim or the bully's behaviour will begin to be featured in issues raised by more than one worker. At the end of the review period, the supervisor and a representative from senior management need to meet with the bully. It is critical that the employer offers the bully the opportunity to either attend suitable training or receive counselling. As bullying behaviour is a performance issue, the employer must offer the bully every assistance possible (in good faith) to improve and change his or her behaviour. Frequently the bully will not make use of such offers of assistance, but the main issue is that the employer has made the offer and if the bully's employment is subsequently terminated, then these offers can be taken as evidence that termination was not unfair and unreasonable.

If the bully continues to behave inappropriately, then the matter needs to be handled through the organisation's disciplinary processes. It is useful to note that there have been cases where an employer has been criticised by the courts for failing to terminate a bully's employment. For those readers who are interested in knowing more about this, the relevant case is State of New South Wales v. Gary Donald Jeffrey & Ors (2000).

Individual therapeutic goals

There are three main therapeutic tasks associated with working with the victims of chronic bullying. Often individuals can cope with years of abusive behaviour in a workplace through denial. It is only when victims begin reporting to a decent manager that the victim becomes fully aware of the pain and suffering that he or she has endured. Quite often depression sets in, and in extreme cases, the victim can decompensate. Realisation of the damage and humiliation can take years to overcome before the individual is stabilised enough to recommence his/her working life. Helping such individuals to recover is work that should be reserved for very experienced clinicians and therapists. Stabilisation is the first therapeutic task. The second therapeutic task is to help the recipient of the bullying process to deal with the events associated with the bullying.

The third therapeutic task is to help the recipient of bullying to make sense of what has happened, as for any trauma victim. Recipients will scour aspects of their experience and their identity, trying to answer the question of "Why me, what have I done wrong?". The therapist needs to constantly reinforce the message that the bully's behaviour is not acceptable and can in no way be justified.

In some instances the therapist will be working with a victim of bullying whilst it is still occurring. If the recipient wishes to remain in the workplace and confront the bully, then the therapist takes on the role of ‘marathon coach'. Surviving the process of bullying is about endurance, encouraging recipients to maintain social networks, management of emotional wellbeing and perspective, and teaching them to assert themselves through a combination of humour and deflection. For those who are interested in further reading about the psychology of overcoming this experience, the text Bully in sight: How to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying (Field, 1996) is a useful first account with practical strategies.

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Field, T. (1996). Bully in sight: How to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying. Oxfordshire, UK: Success Unlimited Books.

McKay, M., Rogers, P.D., & McKay, J. (1989). When anger hurts: Quieting the storm within. CA: Harbinger Press.

State of New South Wales v. Mannall (2005). NSW CA 367. Retrieved from

State of New South Wales v. Garry Donald Jeffrey & Ors (2000). NSW CA 171. Retrieved from

Inspector Gregory Maddaford v. Graham Gerard Coleman & Anor (2004). NSWIRComm 317. Retrieved from

Graham v. Brisbane City Council (2001). QIRComm 173; 168 QGIG 170. Retrieved from