When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip

Image: Mersea Island Judo Club

Workplace bullies are good at this

We’ve seen it countless times: Workplace bullies claiming to be the victims of workplace bullying. And the smartest aggressors often are experts at doing this.

There is no foolproof method to prevent bullies from alleging victim status, but at the very least we don’t want to help them make their case. Here is some advice toward that end:

Don’t retaliate or act impulsively

I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it in this context: Being bullied at work sometimes leads targets to retaliate or act impulsively, saying or doing things they’d like to take back. It’s a natural response, but resist doing so with all your might. Otherwise, it may provide a reason for the bully to say she’s being victimized.

Don’t mob the bully

The bully may be engaging in horrible mistreatment of you and maybe others, but trying to organize a mob to go after him may lead to excesses that validate his claims of martyrdom. While it can be very helpful to document abuses visited upon multiple co-workers and to act in concert carefully and strategically, being perceived as an organized mob can undermine efforts to stop the behaviors or remove the bully. It’s also the wrong thing to do.

Don’t vent online

Consider the risks of posting specifics about your own bullying situation in public places such as Facebook, particularly when it comes to naming names. Repeatedly doing so, especially in angry, emotional tones, heightens the possibility that the aggressor may find out and claim that he’s the victim of an online vendetta.

The risks of direct confrontation

I’ve written before about the hazards of directly confronting workplace aggressors, Here’s how and why some of them apply here:

First, bullying targets usually (and understandably) are not in the best frame of mind when dealing directly with their abuser. People in these circumstances are more likely to say or do something that could fuel the bully’s claim of victimhood.

Second, if there’s no third party to observe the conversation, it’s the target’s word against the bully’s as to what transpired. Especially if the bully is a boss who has mastered the art of “kiss up, kick down,” management is more likely to believe his allegation that he was the actual “victim” of the encounter.

Third, when bullying is covert or indirect, it’s doubly hard to confront the tormenter, who often will deny there’s any such behavior going on and may even act like she was wrongfully accused. The conversation may trigger the target’s anger and frustration and lead to behaviors that will be turned against her. (This dynamic also may relate to the bullying tactic of “gaslighting” that I wrote about last December.)

Document, document, document

As many readers know, some bullying situations require attention to detail merely to understand. Time lines and sequences of events matter. Maintain a chronology of everything that happens. Save e-mails, notes, and any other physical evidence, while taking care not to obtain anything in a manner that could lead to discipline or worse.

Easier said than done

Yup, it’s easier for me to give this advice than for someone in a bad work situation to follow it. Nevertheless, if you’re being treated horribly at work, it’s especially important to keep your wits about you. This includes taking steps to help ensure that your tormenter(s) cannot claim victim status at your expense.



Although I’m not in a position right now to provide individual counseling or coaching, the Need Help? section of this blog contains other resources for bullying targets, their families, and their friends.


Clip art: Mersea Island Judo Club


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29 responses

  1. Unfortunately, ALL of my carefully written documentation, with times, dates and actions, some with witnesses were TOTALLY ignored by my supervisors and HR. Not a single reply back. It did not help.

  2. My bully told administration and HR that I slashed her tires. Within three days I was transferred to another location. During the deposition, my attorney asked for receipts for the slashed tires. She stated they were not slashed, someone let the air out of her tires. Yet, I had no knowledge of the lie until the tapes were released from Internal Affairs eight months later. My bully falsified documentation to place me under investigation with thirteen lies. After the investigation, Internal Affairs found me guilty of one charge. Failure to cooperate with internal affairs.

    • I am going thru something very similar at work. A former porn star was hired and she has been bullying me since. She got the job thanks to her influences and pretends to be the victim. I was removed from my civil service job after she filed a complaint about me. Internal affairs closed the case as unfounded. Please help me. I need your guidance. I have not been able to find an attorney, since they say I have to get help from the labor union which is not of much help.

  3. GREAT information!

    When are we going to be able read your book on this topic? I hope you are putting all of your work on this blog in a book! I’m looking forward to reading it!


  4. As for my experience of trying to protect myself, I tried so very hard to document everything, including sending e-mails to both my bullying supervisor, as well as her supervisor, in order to make sure that all of us are on the same page.

    Gosh, I have a folder that is at least two inches thick of messages sent. I was terminated almost five weeks ago, now, and it was based on a flat-out lie.

    Because I had just came back to work from an eight day sick leave, due to my daughter having a major surgery, I was preoccupied with her recovery process and the sheer volume of work I had to catch up on, I found myself off balance with my bully’s antics. When I came back she pursued me without mercy and because I wasn’t completely up with her tactics I didn’t send out an e-mail that might have saved me.

    However, in the final analysis, she had been and would continue hunting me until she could fire me, due to the severe damage that my family and I endured over the years that would make me eligible for seeking compensation when the Healthy Workplace Bill is finally passed, since I did keep detailed records.

    As an employee I brought a very positive attitude to the setting, along with a finely tuned skill set. There really wasn’t any reason to hammer on me so, except to tear my spirit down.

    These offending individuals truly need to be held accountable for the profound and life-changing damages that the targets and their families are impacted with. For my family, the firing has been devastating and I truly feel broken by all that I have endured. There are times when my daughter will say to me that she doesn’t feel as though she has a mother any more.

    Currently, I am at risk of losing my home and my pets. My daughter stays with some friends, which is a band aid, for now.

  5. I’m going to try to respond to these points about documentation together. Unfortunately, documenting events is not a panacea, and I understand the exasperation and anger that can result when presenting an accurate, honest summary of events leads to nothing…or worse.

    This is the environment we’re dealing with when there are so few legal protections for bullying targets or clear incentives for employers to respond fairly to allegations of bullying. While the Healthy Workplace Bill also is not a panacea, at least it places liability on both employers and abusive co-employees (including supervisors).

    • I’m starting to believe that the healthy workplace/anti-workplace bullying campaign should take in consideration the bullies. In my experience many display signs of mental illness or a corrupted/diseased personality.

  6. I my never in my entire life ever thought that I would become a victim to what seems like literally adults trying to relive their lives from junior high again.

    I was working in the healthcare industry, specifically healthcare insurance directly with Medicare and Medicaid claims and provider records. I was a Senior Analyst for a corporation which I will not name but I know everyone has heard of this company.

    I started working at a this company and was there for over 8 years and was moving up, getting constant reviews showing that I was growing in every way possible which is why I didn’t believe that I would end up where I am now.

    My supervisor made it clear (and everyone saw it, talked about it, would try to talk with me about it, and people would of course gossip) she hated me. I never understood why due to I was always doing extra work, working overtime everyday, taking work home to finish it, allowing myself to be available to our customers 24/7 because they were in the process of a big change and didn’t like it which made them not appreciate us who were trying to help. I in all honesty have reviewed in my mind over and over why I was forced into taking a leave of absence (and I do mean forced) because I was apparently all of a sudden looking overworked, did I for one second think that I was going to be fired while on that leave. Now let me make something known real quick about my leave, I was first on FMLA (protected of course, up until it ran out) and then they switched me to short term disability.

    I also want to point out that for months I was going to my supervisor requesting option to work from home for a couple of reasons, one, my husband is a 100% disabled veteran going blind, two, I have ADHD (yes an adult with ADHD) who works better with out having distractions all around me, meaning co workers standing around either doing nothing, or talking about people that they have no idea what the situation is with the person so in my own opinion I would be working and thinking to myself, just sit down, shut up, and do your job. I also found out people were taken into conference rooms and my supervisor would talk about me with other co workers as well she did the same with me, the only difference was that I always stopped her and said that I was not there for that and had work to get done or a meeting to go to soon so was there for the reason the meeting was set up for.

    Now back to when I was on my leave of absence, I was never advised nor told that I was going to be terminated from my position, I never received anything. I found out when I had to make a call to HR to ask why I didn’t receive my short term disability check that day, and that was when the HR person told me that it showed in her system as being an involuntary termination but no other information was listed. I then found out when I requested a copy of my HR file that somehow it had been misplaced and nobody could seem to find it. This was all done on July 2011. After months of trying to get anybody to help me, meaning co workers who knew that my supervisor was going to do this, it ended up with all of them abandoning me. I tried to find lawyers who would look into it as well but of course could not afford to pay one upfront and because of this specific healthcare organization nobody wanted to even touch it.

    I now luckily have found a lawyer (actually a group of lawyers) who finally listened and have taken part of my case and it is currently in the process of what I hope will be a good outcome.

    This I will say is not even the half of it though, I watched this supervisor use her power to performance manage out employees who did not deserve it, the fact that she would talk about people on her own team to other co workers on the same team about others health conditions is absolutely not acceptable. The greatest and most terrifying information I found out was certain people that we were told would be our so called compliance officers and so everyone thought were safe people to speak with actually were not, so going to the compliance line, going to HR, going to Employee Relations, trying to talk with the department manager, and even the department managers manager did nothing other than tell me I was someone they knew they could depend on, gave me excellent reviews and raises, also blackballed me and then terminated me with no cause.

    Do I believe that workplace bullying needs to be stopped, Yes! However, now seeing first hand what it not only has done to myself, my family, others who actually were terminated with no just cause prior to myself has now made me believe that it does not matter who or what your status is in a corporation because it is nothing more than a place that everyday you will continue to go to work and wonder if you will leave there having a job or even show up to work praying that you still have one. Or like myself have it happen when you think that after being told I was needed and I had nothing to worry about but just to go take this leave of absence and my job would still be there, I know is probably happening to others and if it hasn’t yet, I know that it will. I to this day still cannot find a job anywhere, I have been trying since I found out about my termination and after a year and a half of trying to find a job within the same field realized that there is more going on than I can even find out about. I cannot even get hired at Wal-Mart for crying out loud and that to me is pretty bad. I had my entire career destroyed (literally), and my family and I now suffer because of a person not liking that I could perform a job better than her even though I continued to have her back whenever she needed it.

    I really hope that other people start standing up for themselves and start now because as bad as the market is right now, people are going to continue to be fired for unknown reasons or reasons that make no sense what so ever. Our Government needs to see these facts, see the jobless rate continue to skyrocket, and start realizing that places like I was working, a health insurance corporation so well known that the president of this corporation was one who regularly was at the white house, point being that they need to start helping us, the ones who are being put in situations that are destroying families because of (in my case one individual) but I am sure there are others who have several after them for no reason and believe me I have notes, recordings, emails, text messages, all kinds of proof but yet still can’t get that half of my law suit heard.

    Not sure if this will be of any help or even if anyone will see it but I am wanting to have people hear me and I want it to start now.

    • Gosh, I know that our stories need to be told and we need to be heard. I wonder if there are a few of us on this thread that would be interested in reaching out to Michele Obama, perhaps, as well as the talk show circuit. Perhaps, Dr. Phil or someone else would be interested in hearing our stories, as well as interviewing David, I was hoping, if you would be willing, David.

      I am not sure what the legal parameters are in terms of libel/slander laws when it comes to publicizing our woes. I understand that we can keep the company anonymous, however, those who view it in our locale and who know us would recognize the company we are referring to.

      Yesterday, I spoke with my senator, Benjamin Downing, and told my story. I told him that in the past I was worried about approaching him because he knows my offending supervisor and the CEO.

      I asked him if he would consider co-sponsoring the bill. He admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to consider it, as yet, but he would look into it, by contacting one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

      Also, I mentioned you, as well, David, and how sad and tragic the endless stories are that I read about on threads such as this one.

    • Dear Bethany,

      Your story sounds like mine in so many ways. I am a Nurse, and cant find a legal firm to take on the Healthcare organization…I’ve tried for three years. What country do you live in? Thanks for sharing.

  7. Bethany and everyone else who is suffering right now… take heart. I also felt as though my entire career was destroyed. As it turns out, it wasn’t. It just took a new turn.

    I found a job that draws on all of my previous experience. I am far more satisfied in this position than with anything else I’ve done. Somehow, the wicked experience I went through got me here and I am grateful for the way it changed me.

    Here are a few things that helped me; I hope they can help you too. Allow yourself to vent and grieve. Ignore the blithe “put-a-happy-smile-on-your-face” advice and let yourself feel. Who wouldn’t be enraged and depressed after being bullied? Too bad if people don’t like those emotions. Find a good counselor, someone who understands the issues. Eventually, stop asking yourself why you were targeted. The reason you were targeted has to do with the soulless abuser, not you. Given that you can’t control the universe, *^%# happens. Stop focusing on your perceived flaws. We all have them. When you get past the anger and despair, decide that YOU ARE a person worthy of happiness. Take a step back and consider what in your life makes you happy / unhappy. Apply for positions that you would ENJOY! Skip the “should” jobs. You might find, as I have, that you will end up in a sunnier place, with a good salary, good benefits, decent coworkers, and enjoyable work. Do good. Be happy. Help people. The best revenge is living well.

    • Many years ago, a friend who was being savagely mistreated at her job asked “Why me?” I shared with her that one of the most important points that Gary Namie taught me when we first began working together is that bullying is not rational. It also means that one should not continually second-guess decisions or even “mistakes” they made in trying to deal with it. It’s a no-win proposition, especially if you’ve been dealing with an aggressor bound and determined to target you.

      I agree with Been There that, if at all possible, the best thing to do is not to obsess about what happened but rather to look ahead and act accordingly.

      This may not be possible if you’re in the midst of PTSD-type reactions to what happened. A good therapist can help, but for some it’s an ongoing process.

      None of this is easy, so I’ll reiterate that it’s much easier to read this advice than to follow it.

      • So true David. I feel as though I am on the other side of this experience, but know I am still fragile. Nothing about this is easy.

      • I just found this blog. I’m having PTSD type reactions in my new dream job after having been forced out of a previous job by some truly cruel people. How can I move forward without being terrified? I was blindsided in the job before this one, so I find myself being so self-conscious and tentative that I might as well be paralyzed.

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  15. I have been reading your blog for awhile now. It is very helpful, and often comforting. Perhaps I have missed it, but I am wondering if you have written about, or just heard about, what I refer to as ‘bullying in plain sight.’

    What I mean by this is the evil genius approach of bullying someone in front of colleagues. I worked with a female engineer who, on an almost daily basis, would voice her opinion about large people. They are disgusting. Dirty. Difficult to look at. An embarrassment. They can’t get seat belts to fit. Why did they gain so much weight since high school, what is wrong with them?!

    And she would share this in front of me, or directly to me. Now, someone said, she must not think of you as fat if she says these things to you. But this is not so. Rather, by stating them to me, particularly in front of colleagues, and even managers and directors, she is bullying in plain sight.

    Perhaps she is only voicing what others are thinking, but I think it is more likely that they are thinking, oh, she didn’t notice Jane, or she wouldn’t say this in front of her. Or, oh, she must mean someone even larger than Jane, or she wouldn’t say this in front of her. Like many bullies, she relies on the good graces of decent human beings to assume that what she is saying can’t possibly be intended in a mean way, therefore, she is not a bully.

    And th referencing other poor souls in front of me does not negate the actual bullying document, but it certainly confuses it or renders it suspect. And so with, oooh, she wouldn’t be bullying her right in front of our noses, after all she’s a professional (insert profession here) – therefore she’s not bullying at all….well, the bully has pulled a sly one and gotten away with it again.

    And now I’m into part two of this exorcise, where my new team leader likes to talk at length about mortality and obesity and food choices, but enjoys this very much in the presence of another team member who talks great joy in body shaming women.

    Have others experienced this? The articulate, yet seemingly clueless bully who can’t possibly be cruel and intentional – as the victim knows they surely are?

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