Covert Bullying in the Work Place

Growing up I dealt with my share of malicious bullying. Every single day I remember waking up and being absolutely terrified to go to school. I was followed, targeted, slapped, spit on, pelted with basketballs, stolen from, and called names that still haunt me today. I can still feel the debilitating anxiety I felt on a daily basis as I walked from one class to another. With God’s help I was able to persevere. I was the only child in the middle school with a 4.0 and I was chosen for the Principal’s award; where one child is picked from the whole middle school due to outstanding character and grades. As a child, the one thing I found hope in was I thought there would be no more bullying in adulthood. I thought that was a time in my past I was able to overcome, heal from, and forget forever. I was wrong; bullies have to grow up too.

I found that even in adulthood there are cliques and bullying. However, I found the bullying is not as overt as it was in middle school. Bullies in adulthood become strategic to preserve their reputation or image by targeting their victims covertly. When I say “covert”, that means bystander’s can easily excuse and dismiss the bully’s behavior as something permissible. This can make the victim feel helpless, alone, or insane. If you’re feeling hurt and targeted by your coworkers, and your peers or superiors are rationalizing or excusing the bully’s behavior, chances are that you’re being covertly bullied.

Many people believe that those who are unpopular are the ones who get bullied. In my experience, that is not the case. Don’t get me wrong; there are shallow, immature bullies out there that prey on their coworker’s weight, appearance, clothing, etc… However, most of the time, it’s someone who is actually popular. Someone who has a distinguished reputation and receives recognition and adulation from other coworkers or their superiors.

Covert bullies feel threatened and insecure and will do anything they can to undermine or discredit their target to try to make them doubt their capabilities and sense of reality. Examples of this would be:

  • Excessive fault-finding
  • Micro-managing/nitpicking
  • Undermining your success
  • Gaslighting- psychological manipulation in order to make the target question the truth and their sanity
  • Purposely criticizing your work performance, even when it’s not admissible
  • Dismissing or challenging your viewpoint or judgement
  • Leaving you out of conversations or work activities
  • Presenting a mistake that you’ve made in front of everyone at a department meeting instead of consulting you in person. For example; “Guys please make sure we always remember to take the trash out on Monday’s” and you were the only one that happened to forget to take out the trash last week.
  • Exaggerating the mistakes you’ve made
  • Being passive aggressive (purposely arriving late, neglecting to finish tasks, giving the silent treatment)

These behaviors can leave the target feeling demeaned, insecure, harassed, or as if they just can’t do anything right. This is how covert bullies want you to feel. If you are experiencing covert bullying in your workplace, the first option is going to your superiors. If your superiors fall for the bully’s trap and dismiss or excuse their behavior, then removing yourself from that toxic work environment would be the best thing to do. However, not everyone can just pick up and leave their job. We all have families and responsibilities, and it can be difficult to just quit and leave. If you’re like me and are forced to stay in a toxic workplace, ignoring the bully’s behavior would be the the optimal approach. Acting like it does not phase you (even though it’s psychologically damaging) will eventually cause the bully to lose interest and move on. Avoid giving them the reaction they want (seeing you angry, upset, hurt, etc…). Keeping your distance and setting major boundaries would be a wise thing to do. I would usually encourage direct communication, but the covert bully will always be dishonest by defending, disguising, or covering up their behavior with an excuse or a dishonest justification. Some people even pretend to not remember a situation or behavior when confronted. Covert bully’s are cowards and will always avoid any direct communication to resolve an issue. I would strongly encourage not stooping down to their level and targeting back because then it will just turn into a pissing contest (trust me, I’ve done this). I had to take a step back and recognize that was not who I was and engaging in that behavior makes you just as bad as your bully.

I do want to remind my readers that most of the time, hurtful behavior is unintentional. Most people don’t realize how their behavior is impacting others. Covert bullying is such a tricky and complex issue to understand; but that doesn’t mean it does not exist. There are even people who experience covert bullying but choose to dismiss or excuse the behavior to escape or avoid what may be a painful reality. We never 100% know some’s true intentions but you can be smart enough to see the signs of bad intentions. If you feel bullied or targeted, your feelings are valid and real. I know there are people out there that have the sensitivity, wisdom, and discernment to know if a behavior is intentional or unintentional; pay attention to the signs and listen to your gut. Those who do not have that discernment might not identify with this post, but you might know someone who is going through this. If you want to help others, I’d encourage taking initiative, standing up for the person being targeted, report it, and make sure those people’s voices are heard. Even though some bystanders can be just as bad as the bully, it is up to us to see what is going on and choose to do the right thing. For those who have endured covert bullying, I hope this helped you. You are not alone.


2 thoughts on “Covert Bullying in the Work Place

  1. Very true! Those feelings are valid! I had a coworker I suspected to be passive aggressively trying to sabotage my work and would leave unfinished work she sat on all day for me to do.
    It sucks but, it moved me to get my education (so I’m not a lifer there) and found a part time job away from the toxicity.


    • I know there are many other people out there like us that have endured bullying in the workplace. I’m so happy to hear you identified with this and was able to overcome it ♥️ so proud of you


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