How to detect bullying

Bully detection

Dr Mary Casey outlines the telltale signs of bullying and key action points and tactics on how to effectively combat these unsettling social scenarios.


Telltale sign: The person doing the discrediting will do it in a way that appears okay. They might say, “Oh she can never get anything right” – and laugh as they are saying it so it
sounds trivial.

Action point: Act immediately and confront the person.

Tactic: A firm, non-emotive tone denouncing the behaviour but not implicating personal character (self-conscious emotions such as shame may make things worse). Think, “That’s not nice, please don’t speak about our colleague like that.” This sends a message that you know their game and won’t tolerate them discrediting colleagues.


Telltale sign: Threats can be difficult to detect because master manipulators are very skilled at making covert threats. They may cloak them in humour.

Action point: Keep a record of exchanges and exact wording in case you need it later for reporting.

Tactic: Be aware of the tactics manipulators use, like covert threats, and document these situations, however minor they seem. You may then detect a pattern and your documentation will serve as evidence should you need it.


Telltale sign: Overt accusation.

Action point: When you hear blaming or accusing, act immediately and discuss the situation with the person accusing or blaming. Ask them to tell you the whole story.

Tactic: Letting the bully know what they are doing is wrong and unacceptable is often effective.


Telltale sign: By definition, hard to detect and may segue to so-called ‘gaslighting’ whereby behaviour is designed to make you seem – and feel – crazy if you call them out or report them.

Action point: Be alert, not alarmed and maintain professional conduct when dealing with the bully and others in the workplace who may be recruited to their cause. Remain observant and document any instances of deceit – however minor.

Tactic: If you do catch them out lying to or about you, let them know that you will discuss the matter with someone in authority.


Telltale sign: Flattering comments about your clothes and invitations to social events that make you feel accepted, loved and special. Sudden, extreme friendship behaviours can foretell chaotic and damaging patterns. Resist divulging your deepest personal secrets before you know whether the person is trustworthy and maintain your own comfort level with the new relationship rather than feeling you need to reciprocate the best friend sentiment.

Action point: Patterns of idealisation and devaluation can be symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder. In this case, devaluation may involve slurs against your work or name or other means of punishment. Maintain strong relationships with colleagues and superiors as a means of fortifying your reputation against false accusations.

Tactic: Some people praise or flatter just to be nice, so resist knee-jerk conclusions but if you suspect your new fan is driven by something other than a wish for friendship, take note of any connections between their charming tactics and problems in the workplace. Often people with pathological behaviours are both charismatic and tend to be involved in conflict and drama. A classic warning sign is coercing a new ‘friend’ into doing their work and claiming it as their own.


Have you experienced?

  • Repeated unreasonable behaviour in the workplace?
  • Behaviour in the workplace that is having a detrimental effect on your health?
  • Having to make a complaint about bullying or harassment?
  • Further unreasonable behaviour?
  • Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace?
  • Physical assault in the workplace?
  • Discrimination on the bases of race, sex, age, disability, pregnancy, union or industrial activity, religion, sexual orientation or employment activity?
  • Repeated bullying and harassing text messages and emails?
  • Are you being singled out for adverse treatment for no legitimate reason?
  • Is your boss purposely making work unreasonably difficult for you?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be experiencing workplace bullying and harassment and need to report it to your HR department, or visit

If you’re experiencing cyber bullying outside the workplace, visit the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) website for information and contacts.

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