Master of Communications Management

The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Identifying and Addressing Bullying in the Workplace

Nicole Longstaff is a Senior Project Manager of Strategic Initiatives and Special Projects in the Office of International Affairs for McMaster University and a candidate in the McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management program.



It’s likely that at some point in our lives we have all inadvertently enabled, and possibly been the victim of, bullying behaviour. Your first taste of bullying likely happened during childhood. 


First Taste 

My first childhood taste of bullying was grade one at a new school. I arrived shy and soft spoken with a protruding extra thumb (Chrysalids anyone?), nose in a book, dutifully wearing a pink plastic pirate patch (now say that three times fast!) to school every day to correct amblyopia, a condition more commonly known as lazy eye. I was noticed as ‘different’ and became a target for exclusion and ‘othering’ by several of my peers. I was called names, and picked on such that I dreaded recess and lunch hour, much preferring the classroom and library. Books, writing stories, and animals were my friends. Many recesses and lunch hours I’d spend playing by myself under a tree, or lying on the ground watching the birds and squirrels in the tree canopy with rapt attention, finding solace, acceptance and a sense of belonging in nature that I struggled to find with my six year old peers. 


Now this, is to the best of my recollection, my first childhood taste, and I’m sure for those of you familiar with bullying you remember your first taste as well. But how prevalent is it? Well, about one-third of the population has experienced bullying as a child with 72% of kids reporting that they have observed bullying at school. That’s a lot of people! And as we all know, bullying is not unique to the wonder years of childhood. In the first study of workplace bullying over twenty years ago, it was found that bullying behaviours observed in the playground among children were very similar to bullying observed in the workplace.



Bullying in the workplace

Bullying seems to tag-along with us into adulthood, tucked away in our workplace environments, sadly not receding when we age, as our hairlines do, and where found, it negatively impacts the mental health of victimized employees and the health and productivity of our teams.


According to one study, 40% of Canadians are bullied in the workplace every week, with some studies indicating that nearly 95% of employees have had some exposure to bullying behaviors in the workplace. Numerous studies have established that workplace bullying negatively impacts outcomes like communication, creativity and leadership in teams which hinders performance. Further, workplace bullying has been found to have a devastating effect on team members, with victims reporting an increase in turnover intention, and reduced work performance and job satisfaction. In the results of a 2020 study, a high turnover rate and increased absenteeism is correlated with bullying in the workplace.


Jonathan’s story

Jonathan is now a successful C-suite executive leading IT for a large international company. He gave me permission to share his story with a pseudonym and the name of the company he worked for kept confidential. Early in his career he was a rising star at a large national retailer with headquarters in Toronto, Canada. Moving up much faster than his peers, he was singled out by the senior executive team for his exceptional work on several successful projects and initiatives, leading to a promotion. Once promoted, he identified a significant risk to the company, leading to a major project initiated to mitigate that risk and as a result he was recognized individually by the CIO. Shortly after these successes, his supervisor decided to move him out of the high profile portfolio he had successfully been supporting to a more junior file with less visibility.



She told him he was no longer allowed to speak with the key stakeholders he needed to consult with to be successful in his role. In one on one meetings she began repeatedly telling him that he wasn’t giving her what she needed, but refused to tell him what she was looking for. She then hired an external consultant to do aspects of his job, inviting the consultant to critical meetings instead of including him, and then berating him for not knowing what was going on in his file. Jonathan decided that he better apply for another role within the company. In order to apply he had to tell his boss. She told him that she would not support his application for the new job, and that if he applied she would tell his new employer within the company not to hire him. At this point Jonathan was now suffering from a deepening depression and crippling anxiety, forced to go on medical leave to recover. He eventually left the company, and this large retailer lost one of its rising stars. This is what bullying in the workplace can look like.


What is bullying exactly?

Bullying as defined by the National Centre Against Bullying is an “ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm.” This can be an individual or a group leveraging their power, over one or more persons who feel unable, due to a real or perceived power differential, to stop it from happening. Bullying can be very obvious, or more covert and hidden.


What does bullying in the workplace look like?

An adult bully in the workplace can be characterized as somewhat of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.



The behaviour is usually covert and somewhat hidden to those who are not targets, likely due to bullying being socially unacceptable, and the sophistication and experience of adult bullies in navigating around workplace norms and rules. Examples of workplace bullying may include:

  • Excluding and ignoring people
  • Minimizing an employee’s contributions
  • Overloading people with work
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Regularly undermining someone
  • Denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

Who are targets of bullying in the workplace?

You may be surprised to know that your highly skilled and well-liked workers may be particularly vulnerable to workplace bullying. Bullies may feel that these employees threaten their popularity and social status and in a fear-based response attempt to form allies and target them. Tall Poppy Syndrome, a term originally popularized in Australia, refers to the phenomenon of people in the workplace who are cut down by colleagues for being successful. If you are interested in learning more about this, Dr. Rumeet Billan’s study, The Tallest Poppy explores this silent systemic syndrome and the devastating impact of it on high performing individuals as well as the significant cost to organizations.



Also targeted may be employees that are successful at creating a caring, social and collaborative teambuilding environment. Workplace bullies thrive on control and typically feel most safe when they are calling all the shots. Teamwork is not their cup of tea. A collaborative workplace environment threatens their power and they may tear down employees who they perceive as threatening that. Bullies may also be motivated by a variety of prejudices, targeting others because of a person’s medical condition, disability, gender, age, race, sexual preference, religion, etcetera.


What drives an employee in the workplace to bully?

Employees who engage in bullying of colleagues thrive on power and control. An inferiority complex is common and worry that their work and control may be threatened by another employee’s work and abilities. Sometimes this may manifest as a supervisor targeting skilled workers by undermining their employee’s work and stealing credit.


What are the effects of bullying on employees?

Workplace bullying can slowly chip away at your employees’ self-esteem, motivation and lead to more serious health consequences such as difficulty sleeping, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Workplace bullying can also negatively affect the overall morale of a team and their productivity for your organization. Bystanders to the bullying of a team member, particularly if they are empathetic to what they are witnessing, may also experience stress and anxiety from watching, or hearing about their colleague being bullied. Numerous studies on workplace bullying have established the negative effects of such behaviour on organisational functioning, victims’ health, work-related attitudes and behaviour that affects team performance.


Now, what to do?

Here in Canada we collectively acknowledge the problem of bullying and affirm our collective commitment to end it with Anti-Bullying Day, more popularly known as ‘Pink Shirt Day’ on the last Wednesday of February every year. But what do annual awareness events like this actually accomplish as far as preventing and stopping bullying behaviour? Beyond the pink, there are actions we can take, motivated out of care and compassion for our employees that honour our commitment as leaders to creating healthy, thriving, high-performing, creative and innovative teams and work environments.


Below are three actions you can take to prevent bullying generally and address it in your workplace:

  1. Cultivate empathy and compassion in children now – an investment in our future According to research done by neuroscientists and psychologists, bullying can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Childhood, starting in infancy, is now known as a critical time for the development of empathy. The more we can support children to be empathetic and compassionate in the playground today, the more likely we will see an increase in employees with empathic, compassionate and prosocial behaviour in future workplace environments. Know that if you are a parent, relative of children or teacher, you play an important role in leading by example and in helping to nurture and develop these prosocial characteristics in children. For expert resources on how to start, check out the The Harvard Graduate Education Making Caring Common Project which shares five tips for cultivating empathy with children.
  2. Don’t turn the other way – I know, this is a hard one, and we’ve all done it at one point or another. One of the reasons why bullying behaviour can thrive in some organizations and teams for many years is because workplace bullies figure out how to use fear and power to keep their behaviours hidden. Further, when we finally do see signs of what may be happening to our colleagues, fear strikes – again. Our fear of getting involved and potentially being damaged by fallout from the bully for speaking up. Some of us will go so far as to accommodate and enable the bully out of fear of what they will do if not acquiesced. Although it’s tempting to keep one’s head down and ‘look the other way’ or give-in to a workplace bully’s demands, know that it’s imperative to speak up and commit to being an ally for those being victimized, if you want to see behaviours and systems change for the better. Your colleagues and organization need you.
  3. Don’t be a laissez-faire leader: Leaders who avoid making decisions and prefer to avoid conflict, are known as laissez-fair leaders. Through their lack of action they tend to create a hospitable environment for bullying behaviours to flourish. This style of leadership favors bullying in the workplace by not setting clear boundaries and limits for unacceptable behavior. Instead, cultivate a transformational and transactional leadership style to create a healthy and productive work environment.