bullying in progress

Why Bullying Can Be Hard To Prove

Do you know someone affected by bullying in the workplace?

Chances are that you do, as allegations of bullying appear to be on the rise. And there are probably plenty more cases that are never raised for fear of reprisal attacks.

Yet, bullying is a tricky thing to define. You can’t define it by judging a person’s level of distress.

One thing is certain:You can’t be an inadvertent bully.

Instead, with the word “bully” we mean to single out someone who is intending to cause someone harm. So we have to attribute motives to certain acts. And working out what someone intended can be hard.


There is no single authoritative definition of bullying. You can find it in a wide variety of behaviour, so the behaviour itself is not the key.

What bullying is not

To get at what we mean by bullying, the easiest place to start is to separate out what we know it is not:

  • Bullying is not mere criticism or feedback from your manager or a colleague. True, some criticism can sting. And some ways of criticising co-workers are more helpful than others. Receiving criticism in the context of our work is a means by which we improve and is something we must all accept. If it is done for the good of the business, rather than maliciously, your employer stands to benefit.
  • Bullying is not a one-off event. A bully will repeat their behaviour, making their victim feel targeted. What is so distressing about bullying is the fact that it is ongoing. So a one-off outburst or harsh remark doesn’t count as bullying.
  • Bullying is not only physical violence. A bully may not even need to say anything. Isolating or looking at someone the wrong way can achieve a wounding effect. More often than not though, the bully will use some sort of threat or action to cause their victim distress.

What a bully intends

The Employment Relations Authority and the Employment Court have attempted to define bullying. In doing so, they usually highlight what bullying is not, as we have done above.

But they also focus on what the bully intends by their actions and the harm that results.

Drawing from these decisions, we can say that for bullying to have occurred.

  • The bully must be attempting to gain power over, dominate, or control their victim; and
  • The bully does this by causing their victim to feel fear or distress.

This is a crucial distinction, because it means that no one can be an accidental bully. You must intend to dominate someone and cause them distress.

That is the primary reason why identifying bullying can be hard. It involves an assessment of the bully’s subjective intent. We have to work out from their actions what their motives were.

If the alleged bully gives a credible reason for why they did something, it may be difficult to attribute a bad motive to them.


There are other reasons why bullying can be hard to prove.

Very often, the bully carries out their behaviour in private settings where no one else is around. Only the bully and their victim are present. It may happen in a meeting room, a car, an office, or a quiet lunchroom. No one else is there to observe the incidents. In that case, it can become a “he said, she said” type of scenario. That makes it hard for an employer to know whom to believe.

In many cases, the bully is someone senior in the business who the employer implicitly trusts. That makes it terrifying for the victim to raise the allegation in the first place – they may fear the loss of their job or that they will not be believed. No doubt it requires a mental leap from the employer to view a trusted employee in a bad light. This will only make it harder for them to believe the allegations are true.


Raising an allegation of bullying does not guarantee that bullying has occurred. There must be intent and real harm caused.

Your employer will need to weigh the competing versions of events with care. They will need to decide whom to believe about what happened and assess whether the alleged bully intended to cause harm.

These difficulties do not mean that proving an allegation of bullying is impossible. Allegations that are formulated in awareness of these challenges may help the employer to reach the right decision.

Before alleging bullying, think about whether the behaviour fits the above framework. If you think it does, document the incidents. Tell others of your concerns immediately. Raise them with your manager as soon as you can. Bullying can cause lasting personal harm and employers must not ignore it.

What has been your experience with bullying behaviour? Does the framework above make sense to you?


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