Reverse bullying

Article updated on 15 March 2024 [Originally published in 2020]

What is reverse [or upward] bullying?

Simply put, reverse bullying can be described as a situation wherein the person engaging in bullying suddenly finds themselves being targeted in retaliation. When managers are subjected to bullying by subordinates, it can be termed reverse or upward bullying.

For instance, a manager could find themselves with a team member who inherently spurns instructions and resists executive decisions. In turn the line manager may have had no involvement or input to the executive decision.

In a journal article published in 2021, Bosses Get Bullied Too: Exploring Upwards Bullying to Learn More About Workplace Bullying, there is a clear demonstration of how upward bullying can instil shame and helplessness in managers/supervisors by fellow managers who perceive them to lack management skills.

On the flip side, line managers and supervisors who become victims of reverse bullying hesitate to lodge a complaint as it will be seen as a sign that they are not capable or competent to run their own team or deal with their own problems.

Who is affected by reverse bullying?

Middle management are often the face of management and have the most interaction with staff. Their role requires them to have difficult conversations, provide feedback on performance, and manage inappropriate behaviours in the workplace, 

And most often, they are ill equipped, unprepared to handle complaints, or lack the sensitivity around appropriately managing a workplace conflict.   

Factors behind reverse bullying?

Reverse bullying can often be instigated by an agitator seeking to exercise their own power (real or perceived) and may try to rope others into joining them. People who have a strong need to ‘fit-in’ either join to fuel the bully’s behaviour,  fail to report, or simply refrain from calling out or interrupting when the poor behaviour is exhibited.

A ‘reverse bully’ may act in this manner for self-gain and have little regard for the reputation or career prospects of any colleagues who join them. This is because a bully has their own workplace agenda, they may promote their own beliefs, values, and opinions without consideration for the impact on individuals or the organisation.

Usually, this type of personality feeds off their need to showcase their own power so it’s highly unlikely that they will change their behaviour themselves.

In an exclusive workplace survey conducted in October 2023, it was found that 50% of Australian workers reported being bullied in their workplaces. The survey identified five factors responsible for increased mental health risks in the workplace:

  • Work pressure and burnout
  • Working excessive hour, Shift work and rostering
  • Job insecurity
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Exposure to workplace violence or traumatic events.

SafeWork Australia identifies additional psychosocial risk factors. The ones listed below often effect managers and front-line supervisors:

  • Low job control
  • Poor Support from the leadership group
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Poor organisational change management

Line managers and supervisors, as mentioned above, are frequently on call and their job demands ‘working beyond normal work hours’. However, with the recent right to disconnect laws taking effect from 26 August 2024, most organisations may apply this to managers, at the very least in their employment contract and while designing their job expectations. 

This means organisations need to thoroughly review, particularly the roles of those managers whose employment may be covered by a Modern Award or other industrial instrument.

Can strong leadership help prevent reverse bullying?

The straightforward answer to this question is yes: strong leadership behaviours and practices can prevent the spread of reverse bullying. However, it can only be achieved if leaders understand what it takes to become a ‘strong’ leader.

Bullies often fill a void created by a lack of strong management and good leadership. To transform into a strong leader, one should avoid:

  •     Creating a workplace culture that may have harsh authoritarian divisions between executives, management, and employees. This kind of leadership style is likely to result in an “us vs them” mentality at all levels; and
  •     Deprioritising communication, which fuels distrust in the workplace and turns it into a fertile breeding ground for bullying at every stage.

On the contrary, strong leadership fosters a culture of inclusivity, transparency, and open communication. Furthermore, a strong leader ensures policies and procedures are well- established and communicated to staff, which in turn, encourages staff to ask questions and provide input where necessary. Strong leadership can build a positive team culture throughout the organisation and develop open lines of communication.

Finally, strong leadership fosters a sense of security, which boosts productivity and loyalty among staff.

The industry experts at iHR Australia often reiterate the need to have robust and well-developed policies and procedures to avoid the development of a working environment where personal agendas supersede productivity, respect and optimal practices which clearly set out the role of line managers and supervisors including processes for them to make complaints.

How to address reverse bullying successfully

Great organisations proactively schedule regular staff anti-bullying, harassment, and discrimination training as part of their strategy to proactively promote a positive workplace culture and mitigate risk.

If your business has repeated incidents, it may be time to revise your policies around workplace behaviour and communicate them to your entire workforce. Everyone must be made aware that all forms of bullying are unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

It is imperative for employees to feel empowered to raise their concerns, including line managers and supervisors.

In relation to reverse or upwards bullying, managers frequently hesitate to lodge a complaint or grievance against subordinates who mistreat or intimidate them. Managers fear that doing so may be seen by more senior management as them being perceived as incompetent to run their team .

Hence, clear channels and processes to handle any allegations must be established and all staff, including managers must be encouraged to report instances of bullying, including reverse bullying without prejudice.

Depending on the nature of the bullying allegation or complaint, an inquiry, facilitated discussion, mediation or investigation may be appropriate.

Where to next?

Organisational culture plays a significant role in managing and eliminating workplace bullying, including reverse bullying. Get the conversation started about managing repeated patterns of toxic behaviours and avoid bullying [and reverse bullying] complaints through our Anti Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment training for:

  1. Executives, board members and senior leaders
  2. Front-line managers, supervisors and team leaders
  3. General employees, contractors and casuals

While bullying and reverse bullying have damaging effects on your people and their wellbeing, it is imperative that they feel encouraged and secure to raise their voice at times of unharmful conduct. Our in house training around complaints handling processes focuses on strengthening your internal team to become:

  1. Contact officers – who is a trusted individual that listens and openly addresses harassment, bullying, and discrimination claims 
  2. Workplace Investigations Officers -who knows the key legislation and guidelines relating to running trauma-informed investigations

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