Behind the online denigrating comments – bullying



Written by Tim Field Foundation, Serial Bullies’ Attitudes to Life and Work,

Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviours, etc on to other people to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies and to avoid facing up to the same. The vehicle for Projection is blame, criticism and allegation.

The serial bully can explain away just about anything, and frequently blames others and distracts attention from the real issues.

The common objective is power, control, domination and subjugation, the only difference being the way they express their violence.

The cold-heartedness and manipulativeness of the psychopath are reported to be the traits that are the least discernible to others and this allows them to gain other people’s confidence and facilitates their entry into positions where they can gain most benefit for themselves and do harm to others (Mahaffey and Marcus, 2006).

The serial bully appears to lack insight into his or her behaviour and seems unaware of how others perceive it. There is also a possibility that, rather than being oblivious, the bully knows exactly what she is doing but is so audacious that she doesn’t expect to be challenged, and so behaves in a way that she knows is outside the moral and ethical constraints by which normal people are bound, e.g. openly denying that she said something, to the person she said it to the previous day.

The focus of this section is serial bullying in workplaces. However, the character profile fits most types of abusers, including:

  • [online bullies – denigrators]
  • abusive and violent partners and family members
  • abusers of people in care
  • bullying neighbours, landlords, authorities, etc
  • confidence tricksters and swindlers
  • (religious) cult leaders
  • child bullies who are impervious to corrective action
  • racial and sexual harassers
  • sexual abusers and paedophiles; rapists
  • stalkers
  • arsonists
  • violent offenders including serial killers

The common objective of these offenders is power, control, domination and subjugation, the only difference being the way they express their violence. Offences committed by people in this list are typically regarded as criminal and arrestable.

Virtual immunity from correction

Serial Bullying at work is unlikely to lead to an arrest or even disciplinary proceedings because their most common offences don’t involve physical violence or are shrouded in doubt: The serial bully can explain away just about anything, and frequently blames others and distracts attention from the real issues. Few would have the patience to investigate as incisively as necessary. Finding someone with the courage and integrity to investigate impartially is even harder. Any investigator, whether an internal employee or director, or an external investigator, may well fear of adverse consequences from upholding a complaint about a serial bully, the potential consequences being personal (e.g. damage to their own career prospects, not being paid etc.) and corporate (e.g. identifying evidence of actions for which the organisation is vicariously liable).

The writer has studied the results of several investigations into alleged bullying, conducted by internal and external “investigators”. Only one was objective and thorough. Of the remainder, the best was superficial in the extreme, with the worst ones obviously intended to destroy the complainants’ reputations. Only the objective investigation correctly identified the root of the problem.

One possible explanation for investigators and fellow managers being so easily manipulated by a serial bully appears in a research paper by Clive R Boddy, entitled “Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace” (2011):

“The cold-heartedness and manipulativeness of the psychopath are reported to be the traits that are the least discernable to others and this allows them to gain other people’s confidence and facilitates their entry into positions where they can gain most benefit for themselves and do harm to others (Mahaffey and Marcus, 2006).”

Consequently, the workplace is enveloped in a climate of fear in which the bully’s offences are denied and tolerated, allowing them to get away with:

  • negligence, incompetence, dereliction of duty;
  • breaches of rules & regulations, codes of conduct etc;
  • chronic failure to fulfill obligations;
  • maladministration, misappropriation of budgets, financial irregularities;
  • discriminating against others because of their competence, popularity, status, achievements or any personal characteristic;
  • blaming others for their own mistakes, and taking credit for others’ work.
  • using employer’s resources to run their own business on the side;
  • moonlighting for employer’s clients or competitors;
  • leaking confidential information to people who should not be in possession of that information;
  • nepotism: awarding contracts or jobs to family and friends;
  • demanding unreasonable price cuts by suppliers; refusing to pay suppliers according to agreed contractual terms;
  • impropriety and corruption, e.g. offering or accepting bribes;
  • fiddling expenses, falsifying time sheets;
  • petty pilfering – e.g. filling a petrol can for a private car when topping up the company car and paying with the company’s fuel card;
  • stealing, diverting, skimming, or “losing” clients’ money and investments; embezzlement;
  • claiming fraudulent qualifications and misleading or bogus claims of professional affiliation;
  • duplicity: e.g. claiming to be concerned about someone or something, but privately regarding the same with contempt;
  • fraudulent misrepresentation – e.g. making false claims to gain income or respect;
  • conspiracy – e.g. spreading rumours or actively colluding with others to create an alternative reality, where bad looks good and vice versa;
  • falsifying witness statements and documents for use in legal proceedings;
  • turning a blind eye to malpractice by friends and associates;
  • blaming others – concocting false allegations (of anything or everything in this list) and disciplinary charges to justify elimination of innocent employees;
  • deliberate victimisation of people who express disapproval or “blow the whistle”;
  • feigning victimhood and bringing inappropriate legal action if held to account;

Business stakeholders take note: A serial bully is likely to be doing more damage to your business than just destroying the health and careers of your most competent staff.

Response when held to account

Tim Field noted that when called to account for their actions, serial bullies instinctively respond with Denial, Retaliation and by Feigning Victimhood. He described this as a deliberate, learned strategy with a clear purpose:


Bullies instinctively deny any allegation made. Sometimes the denial is direct and robust, and sometimes it involves avoiding discussion of the matter that has been raised, never giving a straight answer, deliberately missing the point and creating distractions and diversions. Variations include trivialization of the concern, and offering the target a “Clean Slate” or “Fresh Start”. Where a target has hinted their dissatisfaction with a serial bully’s conduct towards them, they can expect to hear:

  • This is so trivial it’s not worth talking about, and I’m not going to discuss it;
  • It is my job to manage you. No-one else has complained;
  • I don’t know why you’re so intent on dwelling on the past. You don’t drive looking in the rear-view mirror do you?;
  • Look, what’s past is past, I’ll overlook the very serious accusations you’ve made and we’ll start afresh.

As well as being a form of denial, this false conciliation is an abdication of responsibility for any damage done.

This approach may be effective in a workplace but it does not (or should not) work in court, but the problem for the target, and the advantage for the bully, is that reliving the conversation in a courtroom environment is literally years away from this un-moderated discussion at work.

The best a target can do in this situation is to keep accurate notes of the response to their allegation, since a serial bully can probably out-talk anyone who argues with them.

Corporate denial

Denial is not the sole preserve of the serial bully. Wherever there is a serial bully, there will always be people around them who are prepared to deny the fact, either out of pure ignorance, desire for self-preservation or to gain political advantage. Bullies rely on this denial by others and the likelihood that any report of abuse will not be believed. Abuse cycles often last for years and frequently, targets don’t report it because they don’t think they will be believed. Sadly, they are often right. The Jekyll & Hyde nature, compulsive lying, and plausibility means that no-one can – or wants – to believe the target. Those who report that they are being bullied can expect to hear phrases such as:

  • Are you sure this is really going on?;
  • That isn’t possible!
  • She isn’t a “bully”!;
  • I find it hard to believe – are you sure you’re not imagining it?;
  • It is obviously very real to you, but we all have different perceptions of reality;
  • It is “just your perception”.
  • I can find no evidence at all to corroborate your allegations;

Denial features in most cases of sexual assault, as in the case of Paul Hickson, the UK Olympic swimming coach who sexually assaulted and raped teenage girls in his care over a period of 20 years or more. When his victims were asked why they didn’t report the abuse, most replied “Because I didn’t think anyone would believe me”. Abusers arrogantly rely on this phenomenon for self preservation, and often tell their victims “No-one will ever believe you” when they first commit an assault and whenever the need arises thereafter. The degree to which abusers are protected from comeback has been illustrated by events following the death of UK TV personality Jimmy Savile. Hundreds of people came forward claiming to have been sexually abused by Savile; Those who had done so while he was alive were not believed. Since Savile’s death, several other UK TV personalities have become the focus of similar allegations dating back 20 years and more, which initially made no progress for the same reasons but which became credible once society accepted that it was possible for celebrities to commit sexual abuse on a grand scale.

Targets of workplace bullying are frequently not believed when they report a bullying colleague and there is always someone who will back up the bully’s denial when called to account. Of course, the fact that some do not, cannot or do not want to believe it does not mean it is not true.

If you’re questioning someone who is evading the issue, let them finish, and ask them the question again. When they have not answered the question at the second or third attempt, let them know that you’re aware of what they are doing and their purpose. Then calmly ask the question again. Denial, and particularly corporate denial, is very difficult to overcome. No matter how powerful the evidence, no matter how well drafted the anti-bullying policy, employers which decide to deny the existence of bullying become entrenched and will not change their view. Grievance and appeal procedures are a completely inadequate means to have complaints dealt with if the employer is unwilling to accept that bullying is occurring. Not being believed is an injustice that many targets understandably find very difficult to accept. It can destroy their trust in their employer and be more stressful than the abuse they reported. Targets who are victims of denial, who cannot just walk away, need to be patient and preserve their evidence to show to a higher authority (e.g. a court or tribunal or perhaps the shareholders)


Also known as “counter-attack”. Denial is followed with firm criticism of the target, including counter-allegations based on distortion or fabrication. Lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy and blame are the hallmarks of this stage. Retaliation is an extension of straight denial, primarily meant to divert attention away from the bully and onto the target. At some point after standing up for themselves, a target can expect the bully personally, or the employer, to:-

  • Say they have discovered misconduct, which could be very serious or very trivial;
  • There may be multiple allegations;
  • The allegation(s) may be very non-specific, so the target does not know what they are being accused of and so cannot prepare a defence;
  • The alleged misconduct will be old or very old;
  • There might be a grain of truth in the allegation(s). The root of the allegation will not be evidence that there has been misconduct (e.g. a broken window) but evidence that misconduct was a possibility (e.g. the target might once have held a stone with which he could have broken a window);
  • There will be no substantive evidence to support the assertion that any specified misconduct has been committed;
  • Whatever the allegation, however futile it may seem, the bully/employer will say they are treating it very seriously;
  • Although it will be obvious that the allegation is in retaliation, it will most likely be superficially unconnected and the discovery of it will have been purely accidental;

An alternative (or supplement) to accusing the target of misconduct is to allege that their job performance is below standard, and to implement a performance management procedure. The bully or someone acting on their behalf will operate the procedure so as to ensure there is a documented list of mistakes made by the target, where the target does not have a say in what is documented. Only the target’s mistakes are logged, and so while their performance might be equal to or better than their peers, that information is never considered by the disciplinary panel at the end of the process. Similarly, the disciplinary panel does not get to hear about what the target has done right. The disciplinary panel is presented with a very negative overall picture of the target’s performance, and in the hearing, questions are put to the target in such a way that whatever the target says means they are guilty as charged. There will be an allegation that has a grain of truth in it, and the target will be asked: “Do you think this is mistake is acceptable?” If the target says “yes”, they are deemed incompetent, and if they say “no” they are deemed to have admitted that their work is below standard.

The target feels the urge to defend themselves, typically with long and detailed explanations to prove the falsehood of the counter-allegation. All the attention goes onto the target and off the bully. Even if the target’s defence is successful, by the time they’ve finished, everyone else has forgotten the original issue.

The serial bully and cohorts may think that Denial and Retaliation are assertive, but they are not: They are acts of aggression. Assertiveness is the ability to express emotions and needs without violating others’ rights and without being aggressive. Aggression is behaviour aimed at causing harm or pain, whether psychological or physical. Aggression can be passive and indirect, and this form is typical for a serial bully in a situation where witnesses are present. Notably, throughout the bully’s passive-aggressive response to a question, the answer to the original question is conspicuous by its absence.

Retaliation should ideally be dealt with by not responding to the substance (if any) of the counter-allegations, but the fact of them. Respond to the intent, not the content. Targets should ideally endeavour not to engage with, explain, justify or defend counter-allegations, but instead should respond by pointing out that the retaliation is a continuation of the bullying, and insist that the retaliation is added to the target’s original complaint.

Feigning victimhood

This is the third stage which may occur even if denial and counter-attack were sufficient on their own. The bully feigns victimhood by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt. Expect to hear phrases like:

  • I’m the one being bullied here;
  • I am deeply offended;
  • If it wasn’t for me, you (would not be so fortunate/wouldn’t have your job/wouldn’t have been promoted etc);
  • You don’t know how hard it is for me;
  • I’m the one whose under stress;
  • You think you’re having a hard time…;
  • After all I / we have done for you…;
  • etc

Feigned victimhood can include bursting into tears (which is guaranteed to make people uncomfortable and lead to a comfort break or even an end to the discussion), displays of indulgent self-pity, feigning indignation, pretending to be “devastated” or “deeply offended”, being histrionic, playing the martyr and generally trying to make others feel sorry for them – a “poor-me” melodrama.

Other tactics include manipulating people’s perceptions to portray themselves as the injured party, with their target being the villain. The bully may respond to a difficult challenge by claiming to be suffering stress and go off on long-term sick leave. They may say they have a heart condition and cannot stand any more. A bully may exploit his own ill-health (real or feigned) to gain attention and sympathy. For suggestions on how to counter this see the advice on the FAQ page.

As with denial and retaliation, feigning victimhood allows the bully to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for what they have said or done. This pattern of behaviour was learned at a very early age and while most children grow out of it by the time they start school, some do not, and by the time they become adults, it is a well practised strategy.

Feigned Victimhood should be responded to as with retaliation: i.e. not responding to the substance of the poor-me drama, but the fact of it. Respond to the intent, not the content. Targets should endeavour not to be moved by, feel sorry for, feel guilty about or get angry about the bully’s histrionics, but instead should respond by pointing out that the it is a predictable continuation of the bullying, and insist that the feigned victimhood is added to the target’s original complaint of bullying.

Exploiting others’ anger

Feigning victimhood has the further effect of engendering an unusual level of anger in the target – the true victim – which the bully uses to his or her advantage. Anger is an emotion that bullies (and all abusers) use to control their targets. The target may have been bullied for months or years, and they might only have challenged the bully out of sheer desperation, and then they see their tormentor getting away with it by blaming them. If the target loses his or her composure at this point, the bully uses that as evidence that the target is to blame for everything. By provoking a release of pent-up anger, the bully plays their master stroke and casts their victim as villain.

The only way to avoid being exploited in this way is to remain calm. Better still, remain calm, polite and 100% reasonable, irrespective of the way you are being treated.

Responsibility for own actions

Nobody’s behaviour is perfect, and many normal, well intentioned people will at some time unjustifiably upset others. When this is drawn to their attention, they are usually horrified and will do what they can to make sure it isn’t repeated.

Serial bullies, on the other hand, do not want to know about the negative effects of their behaviour. Denial, retaliation and feigning victimhood are some of the ways that bullies express their antipathy of anyone who is able to describe their behaviour, see through their mask of normality or help others to do the same.

Serial bullies who have to appear as if they are opposed to bullying – for example if they are responsible for operating an anti-bullying policy – will fail to understand but may make trite expressions of approval if doing that would gain them some advantage. On the other hand, the self-aware serial bully does not approve of this website at all. Over the years, a handful of individuals have challenged the makers of over its content with outright denials, bitter personal attacks, talk of “cyber bullying”, massive attempted use of guilt and, at one stage, a libel suit.


Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviours etc on to other people to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies and to avoid facing up to the same. The vehicle for Projection is blame, criticism and allegation. Once a target realises this, they can take comfort from the fact that every time they are blamed, criticised or subject to another specious allegation by the bully, the bully is implicitly admitting or revealing something about themselves. A target’s awareness of Projection can help them translate whatever they are being accused of into an awareness of the bully’s own misdemeanours.

  • Allegations of financial or sexual impropriety may indicate that the bully has committed these acts;
  • Bullies who steal will accuse others of stealing;
  • Allegations of poor performance may relate to poor results which, in all likelihood, are the consequence of the bully’s poor performance at managing the target’s work.

This is not a precise science but targets and investigators should be open to the possibility that the “substance” in a false allegation might not reflect the bully’s imagination, but their lifestyle.

When a target admits to being stressed and becomes unable to remain exposed to the source of the stress, bullies (and their supporters) will very often claim that their target is “mentally ill” or “mentally unstable” or has a “mental health problem”. The implied (or expressed) message is that the target has diminished control of their cognition, behaviour and judgment. This allegation may well be another example of projection, with the bully being subconsciously aware that they are not mentally healthy.

A key identifying feature of a person with a personality disorder is that when called to account, they will project blame onto their victims and will typically accuse their accuser of having the personality disorder.



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