8 types of subtle workplace bullying

by Oct 5, 2017

Subtle workplace bullying is rife but hard to identify – so what do you look for?

    Patterns of abusive emotional behaviour in the workplace can cause mental and even physical health problems.   

Subtle workplace bullying is an insidious pattern of behaviour involving emotional and psychological abuse or manipulation. Today, workplace bullying is rarely overt and physical.  Obvious bullying can include raging, door slamming, swearing and even  throwing files or papers. Although violence to people is infrequent, everyone can see and hear it and know it for what it is. Subtle workplace bullying is harder to identify and even more difficult to  prove. The signs are minimal and deliberately employed to trigger an emotional reaction including humiliation, anxiety and stress. This can be about concerns over performance, professional reputation or even job security, which plays right into the perpetrator’s hands, giving them a feeling of control and superiority.

Many targets take some time to realise that what they are experiencing is unusual and even longer to naming it as bullying. There is usually a delayed response giving the target months or even years to feel insecure and undermined. It can lead to depression as well as physical and other mental health issues.

How to identify subtle workplace bullying

And these are probably only a starting point of the tactics that workplace bullies employ. Not being certain if you are imagining things is part of gas lighting techniques that are involved in subtle workplace bullying.


Recover from bullying

1. Undermining work

This is a common tactic. Deliberately delaying and blocking an employee’s work, career progression, sabotaging project or assignment success, reneging on promises commitments and fluctuating between supportive and critical behaviour. It’s very difficult to deal with if the bully is your boss.

2. Creating conflict

Subtle workplace bullying can involve creating conflict between peers, playing team mates off against each other or even turning reports against their manager. It can be about making situations competitive rather than collaborative and fostering an atmosphere of distrust, in a divide and conquer way.

3. Removal of responsibility

Re-designating a role, removing someone’s responsibilities, re-assigning interesting pieces of their work to leave low-level job content, moving objectives and targets with minimal guidelines. “Just get it done” and then being critical if the protocols don’t meet some mythical and unstated expectations.

Download. When does female rivalry turn to sabotage 

4. Isolation/exclusion

Intentionally excluding a team member from meetings or email lists to isolate them, withholding vital information to achieve their objectives can all be part of the plan. Excluding them from key decisions and discussions or even deliberately misinforming them can also take place. It can involve physical isolation including re-locating office to an inferior or remote location. Failing to give constructive precise feedback or carry out performance reviews  and spreading gossip about them all serve to undermine and induce anxiety.

Nadia was told of an anonymous email of complaint about her performance. It was taken as seriously as a formal complaint with no real effort made to find out what had prompted the mail, who the sender was and why the person wouldn’t come forward.

5. Intimidation

Making veiled threats about future career progression, employability or professional reputation to create fear-based reactions are more weapons in the subtle workplace bullying arsenal. As is both outright lying or lying by omission, failure to support or endorse.

6. Rationalization and minimizing

Minimizing is a common tactic to defend behavior “You are too sensitive” or “take things too seriously” and failing to address legitimate concerns. This makes an employee feel that the problem is exclusively theirs and induces crazy making thinking to improve their performance – but they don’t know how.

Barbara was told to improve her inter-personal skills, but not which ones and how.

Download: How to cultivate empathy in the workplace

7. Inconsistency

Erratic behaviour and frequent emotional shifts are very common with subtle workplace bullying. This can be accompanied by unfounded criticism and unwarranted blaming. Unreasonable requests including attendance at late night or early meetings, cancelled holidays, giving unachievable deadline are all weapons in the covert bully’s arsenal.

Susan was taken to task in a large meeting by her boss for not providing greater support on a project to which she wasn’t assigned.

Withholding recognition or taking credit

Taking credit or withholding recognition or assigning the success of a project to a third unrelated party are all subtle workplace bullying tactics.

The problem with all of these behaviours is that many are associated with poor management skills rather than deliberate and conniving bullying. Either way – no one wants to work for a bully or a jerk.  Because most targets can’t believe that something this insidious is going on, they very often delay getting support to start taking the necessary action of tracking the behaviour to see if there is a pattern.

The general advice to anyone – if it feels off …it probably is. Better to be attentive and record what’s going on, than be dragged under. Don’t go through this alone. If you are stuck find a coach or a mentor to support you.


If you are struggling with bullying in your organisation or personally contact 3Plus NOW


Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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