How many times have you approached a business, organisation, institution or a government department and been shuffled around by the people who work there, and come out at the other end of the experience no better off than when you commenced? You did not receive answers. You did not achieve any results. You did not find anyone remotely interested in your problem. You felt as if you had wasted your time. How many times have you been dealt with by a whole load of bureaucratic faceless people who in your opinion should not be working there? And when you complained you were met with, “I am only obeying the rules!” or “I’m only doing my job!”

I have been on the end of this so many times that it is heart breaking, and my conclusion is that it is is Organisational and Institutional Bullying, and it s just as harmful as one-to-one bullying, and takes on an almost identical form as one-to-one bullying. The only difference between one-to-one bullying and organisational bullying is that the people who participate in organisational bullying are mostly innocent – and I will explain this shortly..

Traditionally, bullying is generally associated with one person bullying another, and most of us will have experienced or viewed the activities of the schoolboy or schoolgirl bully when we were at school. As we grew older, most of us have also seen bullies in the workplace. The boss who throws his or her weight around unnecessarily and places unreasonable demands on employees, or the peer group bully exerting power over others through fear or threats. Most of us have also viewed overt bullying behaviour in sport.

In recent years, bullying behaviour has come out of the closet and exposed bullies for what they really are: pathetic cowards who get their thrills from exerting power over others. The only reason that bullying came out of the closet was the eventual realisation in the late 1990s that bullying is mostly a lot of small bullying events each of which, in their own right, are fairly insignificant but when spread over a medium to long period of time, becomes unbearable for the victim. Bullying is a bit like the war time Chinese water torture, where drops of water are slowly dripped onto a person’s hands. Each drop, of course, is insignificant, but after three days and ten thousand drops later on the same area of skin, the pain is unbearable – and it has been said that this type of torture is many times more effective than most other tortures. Organisational Bullying is like that – small insignificant power-exerting incidents over a long period of frame. (A long period could be three hours, by the way, if your problem should have been solvable in 3 minutes.)

I looked up the word bullying:-


bullying(n.) The act of intimidating a weaker person to make them do something

bullying(adj.) Noisily domineering : tending to browbeat others

bullying(v.) Be bossy towards : “Her big brother always bullied her when she was young”

Webster Dictionary

Bullying: To treat abusively: to affect by means of force or coercion


Bullying is the act of intentionally causing harm to others, through verbal harassment, physical assault, or other more subtle methods of coercion such as manipulation. …

They are all correct, but they all lack certain components.

Firstly, some of the definitions talk about a bullying person, whereas I will prove to you that bullying can be from a small, medium or large group of faceless people, i.e. an institution.

Secondly the Wikipedia definition states “the act of intentionally” and I will also prove that in organisation bullying bureaucracies, there is often no overt intention – it is the accumulation of many insignificant and sometimes innocent acts such as pushing people from one person to the next, and then the next and so on, that, as a whole, forms the bullying.

Thirdly, the Webster dictionary mentions force or coercion. I will prove that bullying frequently arises from exactly the opposite – apathy, inefficiency and a complete lack of any force from any specific individual. What is lacking here is the recognition that a group of innocent individuals can bully people through the cumulative effect of their innocent actions.

Underneath the skin of organisational and institutional bureaucratic behaviour is a vast ocean of bullying behaviour so insidious and obvious that we’ve all missed it. There’s an elephant in the room – we all know it’s there, but no-one wants to talk about it. It is a bit like the Emperor with no clothes story. This article aims to expose the truth and reality.

Many of the people within a bullying organisation are innocent as individuals, but horrifically guilty when added to the behaviour of the institution in general. For example, let us say that you, the reader, are shuffled around by twelve different people today, from one to the other, and then you do not obtain a solution to your issue and in fact do not even take one step forward. The reality is that you have experienced twelve totally innocent people just ‘doing their job’ within their institution, whilst you, the receiver of their work and their decisions feels after three hours of getting absolutely nowhere, that you have undergone the Chinese water torture and feel like pulling your hair out? This surely is a form of bullying which could be averted had people in the bullying organisation been trained in providing different options.

Think about the last time you telephoned a company and you were met with an automatic answering machine that provides you with a three minutes spiel about the various options you have, none of which apply to you so you have to wait until the message is over before pressing the “other queries” number. Then after waiting around another ten minutes, you eventually get through to someone who tells you that you actually need to be speaking with someone else – not them. So they put you through to someone else. But the phone goes dead. So you redial the first number. This time, you choose a different option and are put on hold for five minutes. When you get eventually get through, the person is unhelpful and suggests you call yet another external number. You ring this new number, only to find a recorded message that tells you that all contact must be made through their web site. And so it goes on.

Make no mistake – this is bullying behaviour, except that in an institution the people will mostly always remain faceless, blameless, and in many cases even innocent as individuals within the institution. We have all experienced scenarios like this on a regular daily basis.

Let me give you another example. I got married in 2005 and, as usual in such circumstances, my new wife adopted my surname. We changed her surname on our joint bank account whereas prior to this it had been a joint account in two separate surnames. Nothing wrong with any of this – this is what millions of people must do every year. However, I also had an account with an online company attached to a well known auction web site who legitimately sucks money out of our joint account when we need to pay for purchases. The computer system of this online institution saw the name change on our joint bank account and immediately placed an alert on our joint account and suspended it. With a bit of wild imagination, I guess you could say that this action might have been reasonable. What followed, though, was horrific and took dozens of emails, numerous heated telephone exchanges, no apologies on their part at all, and several weeks to get it all sorted out. Meanwhile, I had done nothing wrong except get married. I felt like my wife and I were the only people on the planet to have got married. My feelings were no different to those of a victim of bullying, and so I consider I was bullied.

One of my worst nightmares, which has been going on for around six years and is still unresolved, is with an Australian bank where I have had a bank account since the 1970s. (I spent 27 years in Australia, by the way.) Around six years ago, I used to send payments in cash to pay my credit card through the mail to them from the UK and did this for several years. The payments were only around £20, so I figured I would risk it in the mail rather than have to tackle an international bank draft every month which incurs fees of around £7. One day, however, someone in their Melbourne HQ decided they didn’t like me sending cash, and particularly English cash, so they wrote to me to ask me to find a different method. At the same time, they suspended my account due to late payment, which of course was not true because they were holding the cash in their hands. The account has been suspended for over six years now, as I have chosen to use other banks. About three months ago, after receiving statements with a credit balance by the way for all these years, I decided to call the bank from the UK because I thought it was time I followed this up. I was told in no uncertain terms, “We cannot discuss this issue with you because you don’t have an account with us,” despite the fact that I still receive a regular monthly bank statement even today which shows I am in credit with them. I have done absolutely nothing wrong, but the bureaucratic bullying has led them to believe that they are the angels and I am the demon when in fact the opposite is true.

By the way, I have a stack of other similar stories about erroneous stupid decisions made by several UK banks that I have experienced, so it does not surprise me at all that banks are now crumbling. When someone invents an alternative to banks to store my money, then I will be first in the queue.

Why Organisational Institutional Bullying occurs even though individuals within these places are mostly innocent.

Essentially, it is important to recognise that a great many people in hierarchical bureaucracies are incompetent at the jobs they hold down. This is not a theory. It is a fact. You might have suspected it and here’s how I know.

In 1970s, a man called Dr Lawrence Peter wrote a book called The Peter Principle. At that time, it was a world best seller and still is today. Many older readers may have heard of it. The main theme of the book is that everyone in a hierarchy always gets promoted to the level of incompetence. It tells of how people who commence with an organisation and who perform their job well get themselves promoted. In the new position, they perform well again and get themselves promoted again. This is replicated up the promotional ladder until one day, they get promoted to a position they can’t do, and that’s where they stay, are shuffled sideways or they are fired.

Another route up the same hierarchical ladder in government is promotion by length of service, where it is not a concern whether someone can do a job well, it is reward for how many years they have given, so they end up doing something they are incompetent at.

The sad thing about the Peter Principle is that it is very real. As humans, we are basically lazy. We will refuse to see the truth. Ironically, the people above the person who is incompetent are often also at their levels of incompetence too, so instead of dealing with the reality of what is occurring or having the guts to do something about it when they do see what is happening below them, they leave people to do jobs they cannot do, or they timidly shuffle them sideways into other jobs that they also cannot do, but where harm to others is reduced.

We all have experiences of people who are obviously doing a job they should not be doing particularly in government. Sadly, I suspect that there are significant numbers of people working in government who are incompetent at what they do because they have risen to their personal level of incompetence. However, public and private companies are also full of incompetent people hiding behind a shield of competency and pretending to be competent when in fact they are simply hoping that they will never be found out. I have known a lot of people like this. Of course, they are never going to admit it, but you can easily see them when it comes to making business decisions.

It always reminds me of the story of two business men arguing. One is quite old, the other quite young. They argue for a while, and then the older man says: “Listen here! I’ve done this job for 25 years, so you cannot tell me anything.” The younger man ponders this for a moment and then says: “Are you sure that you have not simply done the job for one year and then repeated it twenty five times?” Oh, what a telling little story!

Work hierarchies are full of people who do not do a very good job, and those that do rarely stick around very long. I do, of course, recognise and respect the argument for the poor employee who plods on year after year doing a good job. But I think the Peter Principle is correct and that many people, particularly in government departments, hold jobs they are incompetent at.

I have mentioned this because I believe the latter is the seed of bureaucratic bullying.

The Cyclical Nature of Organisational Bullying

Organisational bullying nearly always follows the same pattern. The bully (the organisation) rarely makes BIG overt moves. Instead they wear people down with SMALL covert moves which no-one else sees or recognises as a danger:-

1. The bullying behaviour might take place over hours, days, week, months and even years.

2. Eventually the victim will file a complaint with someone, usually the manager of the department.

3. The manager interviews the people in the organisation accused of bullying behaviour. The ‘bullies’ (which are usually innocent individually, but guilty as a group) show that they have simply followed rules and procedure and will often use deceptive charm to persuade the interviewer they have not done anything wrong.

4. The manager is faced with his whole team’s word against a single solitary individual, usually with no witnesses and no specific evidence, so he/she will always take the word of his/her staff.

5. The Manager is then hoodwinked into either getting rid of the victim in order to further protect the bullying environment, or demeaning the victim and making them think that everything was the victims fault. Once gone, the manager sighs with relief and forgets the whole incident.

6. With the victim now gone, new victims are selected and the process simply gets repeated over and over ad infinitum. That is when you make a negative comment to someone about a particular institution, and they say “Yes, I’ve heard similar stories form many others.”

Organisational bullying is obsessive compulsive behaviour by mostly innocent (and often incompetent) people who do not realise that their collective behaviour represents bullying. Worse still, employers often recognise much later after complaints have been raised that they did indeed promote a type of bullying behaviour, but unlikely to ever admit it because to do so would incur liability for not properly investigating previous complaints. The organisational bullying syndrome wins yet again.

Over 40 Indicators of Organisational Institutional Bullying

Of interest is that these are also the kinds of words used to indicate a one-to-one bullying:-

  1. When you experience an organisation’s excessive control with a minimum of effective help, or the help they do provide is useless or inappropriate. They exert unnecessary, unreasonable and controlling behaviour on you. They possess an overwhelming desire to apply the rules and control you and fit you into one of their boxes. If you do not fit into a box, you are treated with apathy, disdain and disinterest.
  2. When you are not allowed to argue or complain. Workers in a bullying organisation can keep you waiting for hours and send you through twenty different people. They can take weeks to process something that should take minutes. They can bully you in ways you never imagined and cause you such frustration that wrist-slitting may seem like a good way out. If you try to make a point about their lack of service, you will be pounced upon. Signs such as: “we will not tolerate bad behaviour” are springing up all over the place. (I have often mused about whether I should get a sign made up which I carry around that says “I will not tolerate inefficiency.”) Of course, they will tell you that there is a procedure for complaining, but when you read it, it seems as if that, too, could well be a futile exercise.
  3. When you hear: “I’m only doing my job!” This is the trump card played by all bullying organisations. Another one is “I’m sorry, but I am not authorised to do that!” and then they refuse to let you speak with anyone that is authorised.
  4. When they insist that everyone must conduct themselves within the rules whilst it is obvious to everyone that the rules are silly and need changing.
  5. When you feel you are being harassed continually and getting nowhere. However, the harassment is not clear because they use matters so small that each individual issue in its own right would appear insignificant if taken in isolation. Of course, the bullying institution knows this, so to actually catch an organisational bully, you need to monitor and record the frequency and regularity of the numerous small issues as they build over time into a bigger picture.
  6. When they jump on you when you put a foot wrong, or when you make the observation that you were not getting anywhere with them. Instead of looking outwards to see how they could solve your problem, they look inwards and become defensive. They refuse to be questioned or called to account. All managers hide behind unseen doors.
  7. When they show absolutely no remorse. It is almost as if they are robots without a conscience. They will blame the system as a way of avoiding responsibility for their own behaviour and the effect it has on others.
  8. When they use charm as deception to compensate for their total lack of empathy. They can easily appear plausible and convincing when peers and superiors are around.
  9. When they nit-pick on the smallest things you might have unwittingly done wrong such as failing to tick a particular box.
  10. When they patronise, demean and belittle you in front of others without any conscience or recognition that they are embarrassing you.
  11. They will provide unreasonable requests for paperwork or information that is irrelevant to the issue at hand.
  12. When you see the bullying cycle occurring. With the staff in a bullying organisation, it’s all about survival – they either have to adopt bullying tactics or lose their job. Those who stand up against bullying will be victimised so much that they suffer severe health problems such as stress, breakdowns, and made into a scapegoat for others. If illness does not get them, redundancy, early retirement or unfair dismissal faces them.
  13. When they don’t stop at just YOU. If you feel you are being bullied by an organisation, then you probably are. With a bit of research, it is likely you will find many others experiencing what you have been experiencing with the same organisation.
  14. When they place you under extreme deadlines to produce information or documents and threaten you that your case will die if you don’t meet the deadlines.
  15. When you work for a bullying organisation and they coerce you to leave through threats and other abusive behaviour. If this does not work, they will find other means such as constructive dismissal (which is illegal), early retirement, restructuring, or accusations of ill-health, in fact anything that gets rid of you victim so they can start over again and abuse others.
  16. When they call you at inappropriate times such as 8pm in the evening, particularly if it might benefit them financially, but they are not available to be called at that time.
  17. When you experience total lack of compassion. Compassion is something they do not understand, and instead throw the rule book at you.
  18. When you have great difficulty gaining the attention of a more senior person. Smokescreens start to appear and you will be made to feel unworthy of speaking to anyone more senior than the person facing you right now.
  19. When you are made to feel guilty about yourself, and where they use psychological and emotive techniques so that you truly believe that you are at fault – and not the organisation.
  20. When they demonstrate a need to compulsively criticise whilst simultaneously refusing to praise you.
  21. When they have an overwhelming and unhealthy narcissistic need to grab public attention where possible and to portray the organisation as a wonderful and kind caring institution.. They are almost always totally oblivious to the real discrepancy between how they like to be seen and how they are actually seen.
  22. When you hear their overbearing belief in their own qualities of service which is simply not evident to you.
  23. When they are in constant denial about their own behaviour and everything around them. They abdicate responsibility and attempt to distract victims by using false styles of conciliation.
  24. When they refuse to answer your questions and fabricate without conscience. (I have lost count of the occasions when I was told that something could not be done because of the Data Protection Act – and when I rang the Data Protection Department in London, I found that it was simply untrue.) The purpose here is to avoid answering questions and thus avoiding responsibility for their behaviour.
  25. When they pretend to care about you and will purposely allow you the privilege of giving a long explanation to prove that they are indeed bullies, but when the lengthy explanation is complete, everyone has forgotten the original question and what is left is made out to be trivial. Again, the purpose here is to avoid responsibility for their own behaviour.
  26. When the situation reminds you of the condition Autism, where the people inside the organisation possess few skills of empathy, and fail to see things from another point of view. Instead, they rely on systems, procedures, habit, mimicry and the like to hide their lack of being able to help you.
  27. When you perceive their paranoia. They can perceive non-existent hidden meanings and threats in even the most benign remarks you make, or any situations or events. They frequently perceive that you are attacking them when you are not, and will counter-attack in a peaceful but aggressive manner without realising that there never was anything to attack in the first place.
  28. When they are totally unforgiving of slightsagainst the organisation’s character or behaviour and will fight irrationally to receive apologies. They may even demonstrate an arrogance that borders on contempt.
  29. When you see a rule-ridden organisation filled with procedures which does not promote free-thinking. Staff dare not get too involved in dealing with your problem in-depth because it might expose their own inadequacies and ineptitude.
  30. When you experience bullying organisations being oblivious to their own behaviour. Even if you could prove that their behaviour was unacceptable, they would fight tooth and nail to defend their position. They simply cannot see things from another perspective. Most people who try to expose an organisation as a bully, lose!
  31. When you experience their superiority complex. They honestly believe they are better than you, and that you should go and sit in the corner like a child.
  32. When you experience dysfunctional and inefficient staff not doing what they get paid to do. (or in some cases doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Is it right for cashiers in a Post Office to be made to blatantly sell credit cards and insurance?) The bullying organisation promotes divisiveness and disruption wherever possible, but always in the name of something positive such as increased efficiency. Bullying organisations see their self-image as ‘tough managers’ but in the very game of establishing their ‘toughness’ they alienate most of their staff and customers.
  33. When you see tunnel vision. They may not remember something they did or said a few hours ago, but they are always able to remember and dig up your faults from years ago.
  34. When you see a bullying organisation living in a bubble of their own self-importance. When challenged, for their survival, they will actually believe what comes out of their mouths. That is why it is hard to challenge organisational and institutional bullying behaviour.
  35. When you experience little in the way of communication skills, interpersonal skills or social skills. Instead, the organisation chooses to shuffle you around and hope you will go away so that they can get on with their perceived REAL job.
  36. When it is obvious that the senior managers have no idea of what is going on at the customer interface. For some managers, it might have been decades since they faced a customer eye-to-eye in a completely different technological era. If they did, they would surely change things. Instead, they survive in their ivory towers protected by their own perceived importance and their minions below who will act as gatekeepers so that the truth doesn’t ever get to the top.
  37. When they make mountains out of molehills, and will make a big fuss over small trivial matters whilst totally ignoring important or urgent things (such as your problems.)
  38. When you experience a total lack of empathy. Bullying organisations do not know the meaning of empathy. Any attempts at empathy are superficial and amateur and based upon mimicry rather than genuine concern for your problems.
  39. When you have difficulty extracting an apology from them for their mistakes. Bullying organisations rarely your probvlems.sations do not know the meaning of molehills. and customer eye-to-eye.eir ivory towers protected by their minionapologise for their mistakes, and any apology is insincere, hollow, artificial and usually inappropriate, but sadly often convincing to peers, superiors and the outside world.
  40. When you experience them portraying themselves as disarmingly pleasant when another victim is unmasking them in front of you. Bullies are artistes at making themselves appear anything but a bullying type.
  41. When you experience no sense of humour. Any attempts at humour on their part will usually be shallow, flat and superficial.
  42. When you experience few listening skills and when they ignore you and overrule you. They only know the rules and frankly, they don’t care about your situation. Talking to people in a bullying organisation can be like talking to a brick wall.
  43. When you experience a cruel and sadistic nature. (Rather than admit that they have a potentially deadly problem with their vehicles, many car makers have often denied problems exist and will, instead, force their customers into expensive solutions just to bully people into spending even more money for their inefficiency)
  44. When you see a Bullying organisation diverting attention away from themselves when faced with problematic situations. They will fiercely point their fingers at others, make false allegations, lie, cheat, cover-up and do anything which takes people’s attention away from their own inadequacies. (e.g. software people will blame the hardware people. When you ring the hardware people, they blame the software people.)
  45. When you see a bullying organisation playing the ‘health game’ by claiming that the victim is “mentally unstable” or “mentally ill” or has some other mental health psychiatric problem. Sadly, what is being said is often a reflection of the organisation’s own ‘mental health.’
  46. When mediation and conciliation simply doesn’t work with a bullying organisation. Bullying organisations see mediation as some sort of appeasement, which they take as a green light to carry on as before. Mediation provides the bullying organisation with the public impression that the they (the bullying organisation) are negotiating and being conciliatory, whilst continuing to bully their victims in private.

In the UK legislation was passed in 1997 that states that bullying, which they define as verbal intimidation rather than physical violence, now constitutes common assault and is now a criminal offence. Bullies are running scared. They are now being found out. They are seeking a hiding place – and guess what? The perfect hiding place is in a large organisation or institution where they may not be able to practice their bullying behaviour on peers and colleagues any more because we all recognise individual bullies today, but they can certainly construct situations to bully customers indirectly using innocent co-workers.

Bullying behaviour by organisations now needs bringing to account. It should be as illegal as one-to-one bullying. Too many organisations, institutions and government departments have got away with it for far too long because most people have not recognised the huge elephant in the room. There are quite a few large organisations and institutions out there practicing bullying behaviour – and they need to cease or be brought to their knees. Then it will be a happy day for many of us who will punch the air with a big “Yes!”

Copyright John Edmonds 2009


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