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Paul Carter


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You can’t handle the truth: Are you being bullied or performance managed?


You’re being bullied, but an inner voice is telling you it’s performance management.

You’re good at your job but whatever you do is never good enough for your manager.

When you try to discuss your concerns, your manager says, “I don’t control how you feel, only you control how you feel”, making you feel victimised.

Or maybe your manager is supportive but clear on what good looks like, making you question your ability and fear for the future.  

Are you being bullied, performance managed or not suited to your job? Your search for the truth might reveal an unwanted answer, but once you know you can take appropriate action to end the ordeal.

The correct procedure

If you are being bullied, you need more than a ‘few good men’ to fight your corner. Your company has to be committed to organisational justice to ensure fairness in the workplace.

An effective disciplinary procedure can penalise bullying, stop bogus bullying claims from preventing management action and resolve personal disputes before battle lines are drawn. HR professionals can help managers deal with bullying cases by guiding them through the disciplinary process to ensure a just and fair decision is made.

HR professionals can help managers deal with bullying cases by guiding them through the disciplinary process

However, organisational justice demands more than policies. Understanding the employee’s personal journey of being bullied or performance managed can help companies create a workplace culture where good performance is a shared goal for managers and team members, and ‘zero tolerance to bullying’ is more than just a headline.

Employee relations

Getting the right people in the right posts is the aim for all companies, but then those people have to work together. If relationships become power struggles or strained by performance and conduct issues, the risk of upsetting the delicate equilibrium between the manager and employee increases. It is the intent and propensity to bully which can distinguish bullying from bad management.

Are the following examples bullying or bad management?

  • Your manager makes you feel you have no control over your working day and will contact you outside of working hours and annual leave to maintain control.
  • Your manager sets their own rules and policies to govern your behaviour, and will only follow the company policies to formalise ‘management action’.  
  • Your manager constantly changes the goal posts of what good looks like.
  • Your manager uses examples of your work to suggest you are not suited to your role.
  • Your manager uses you as a ‘case study’ to fill the gap on their CV – ‘managed out a poor performer’.
  • Your manager belittles you in front of other people to damage your reputation, hoping they will join in the banter and make you appear a weak link.

If you are being bullied

The first challenge of being bullied is to accept you are being bullied, without feeling ashamed by the ‘victim status’. The second is managing the impact it has on your reputation and relationships in the office, as once you have been singled out, you can lose leverage and authority in the office, making it harder for you to do your job and take action against the bully.

Telling your employer you are being bullied can crack the wall of silence

Telling your employer you are being bullied can crack the wall of silence and put the bully in the hot seat. Be open and honest, and the investigator will begin the pursuit for justice by interviewing you, the alleged bully and witnesses to determine if there is a case to answer.

Disciplinary investigations may not always yield a “You're goddamn right I did!” confession from the bully. The disciplinary board will assess the evidence to decide if the bullying occurred and if the balance of probabilities swings in your favour, will decide an appropriate penalty.

Trust your gut instinct

Bullies will not be horrible all the time, as part of the fun is messing with your mind. They want to trap you in the mindset that it’s worth struggling through the bad times to get to the good times.

A bully who plays such mind games and decides when to treat you professionally does not respect you. They would most likely see an informal conversation to resolve the situation as an insult to their superiority over you.  

If you don’t keep a record of the can be a real struggle to describe on paper how you have been bullied

The Acas definition of bullying is ‘Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’. If you don’t keep a record of the incidents and there are no public outbursts, it can be a real struggle to describe on paper how you have been bullied, especially if the ‘my word against yours’ dilemma applies.

Don’t give up as the bullying is likely to continue, providing you with the necessary evidence to substantiate the memories that come flooding back once you lodge your grievance. Have your say and let the disciplinary procedure deliver an outcome.

Managers have to manage

The ‘performance management or bullying’ question is ever-present in organisations, as managers have to address poor performance by having difficult conversations and making tough decisions. This can make people feel they are being bullied by their manager, which may not be the case.

Being managed by another adult for a salary, career progression and job security is the work-life compromise you have to accept when signing a contract. This is why managers are the essential connection in maintaining the mutual trust and confidence between the organisation and its employees.

Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully including managers.

If an organisation has to act fairly and reasonably when investigating employees for misconduct, then managers should uphold these values when addressing performance and behavioural issues to maintain a consistent approach to employee relations.

Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully including managers. They are just doing their jobs and want you to do yours.

Don’t let bullying be a life sentence

Organisational justice is a team effort that requires everyone to play by the rules. Not everyone can get along.

People will argue and get embroiled in office power struggles to jostle for position, regardless of how flat your hierarchy is. Just don’t let bullies infect your organisation as the damage they reap can stain the corporate memory for a long time.

You may have put your bullying experience behind you and continued with your career, but for many the trial continues. ‘Bullying in the workplace’ generates 13 million hits in a Google search. How many hits can your organisation take until it gets a reputation for bullying?

If you want the legal perspective on what amounts to bullying at work then read this article by employment lawyer Gaynor Beckett.

2 Responses

  1. Good article that gets
    Good article that gets straight to the salient points of the topic.

    One of the main difficulties is coming to accept the reality and gravitas of the situation. Knowing what amounts to bullying and that their company will have a policy on Bullying and Harassment should help people check and decide if they victims or not – and not just being oversensitive and or paranoid etc.

    The point on trusting ‘gut instinct’ and that bullies will not be horrible all the time is an important one to follow and identify, again, to be clear in mind about what is really happening around and to you.

  2. Hi Ian
    Hi Ian

    Thank you for your post and positive feedback. As you may have gathered my article is based on first-hand experience, both as a victim and witness of bullying. I always allow people some slack and can tolerate the odd comment, but if it goes too far I will react and encourage everyone else to do the same. I have seen other people use bullying allegations to their own advantage to avoid being managed which is very annoying to witness.

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Paul Carter

HR Writer

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