Accused of being a bully: “I meant'” vs “They heard”

I have been involved in many bullying cases from the point of view of the target. Interestingly I have been approached twice in the past week by individuals who have been on the other end of the accusation spectrum. They told me in horrified tones  “I have just been accused of being a bully.” Both were delivering feedback related to poor performance  to a member of their team.

Charlotte’s story

Charlotte is a confident, vibrant, authoritative and dynamic young woman in her early 30s. Already a Regional Communications Director in an international organisation she has recently taken over responsibility for a small communications unit.  One of the team, only slightly younger than her, has made a series of errors and has been in Charlotte’s view underperforming.

Charlotte believes she dealt with the performance situation in a professional way, drawing the errors to the attention of the direct report by email. This  young woman has now filed a formal complaint with H.R., located in the company headquarters. Seemingly the employee took exception to Charlotte’ approach, which she perceived as being micro-managing and bullying.

Charlotte told me “I believe it was a straight forward disciplinary and feedback issue. I don’t think it would have been dealt the same way, if I was a man, nor would I get accused of being a bully or harassment.”

Simon’s  story

Simon, a somewhat introverted and measured Finance Manager, has recently given a poor appraisal to a report following a series of errors which impacted performance. These errors compromised the accuracy of the monthly reporting information presented to senior management for business planning. There were also time keeping issues.

He was accused last week of racist bullying, being notified that he treated other team members, all of Caucasian ethnicity, more leniently. Simon was mortified but adamant “The individual’s timekeeping was consistently erratic and record keeping sloppy which accounted for the errors. I’m appalled that a race card has been presented” .


It is easy to underestimate the impact accusations of bullying can have on an individual. Many feel this is a direct attack on the very core of their integrity, character and interpersonal skills. Charlotte was very upset by this news and now finds herself dreading going into work. Simon is having difficulty sleeping.  Bullying in the workplace is clearly a critical issue, but organisations also need to be able to ensure that managers and supervisors are able to communicate poor performance  without bullying accusations. What to Charlotte and Simon was routine performance feedback, has now escalated into a major H.R. issue.

There are three possible scenarios in cases like these:

  • the behaviour is bullying,
  • the behaviour is received as bullying
  • the accusations are entirely spurious.

Instinctively anyone finding themselves in this situation is likely to be defensive. It may be hard  and no matter how hurtful and outrageous the accusations are,  the “accused” have to dispassionately examine all possibilities to consider the experience of the complainant neutrally.

The behaviour is bullying

Most organisations have guidelines for what constitutes bullying behaviour and ACAS certainly does. A critical analysis and audit is vital to check if firm management could have crossed the line into bullying. It is possibly best done with the support of a coach or other neutral professional. This can happen in organisations with a top-down, embedded bullying corporate culture. If the answer is no – go to the next step of analysis.

The behaviour is received as bullying

In my lengthy experience most people accused of bullying have no idea that this is how their communication style is perceived and received. Very often we all forget to factor in how our behaviour is experienced, especially if we are nervous, busy or stressed. It is therefore always subject to misinterpretation.

One person’s assertiveness can be another’s intimidation. Factor in gender issues when authoritative women managers are perceived more harshly by women reports than male managers. With a new manager such as Charlotte, this situation of resentment is possibly exacerbated.

Self- assessment

But where do we draw the line when there is a “I meant” / “They heard” situation?  The first responsibility of the person accused of bullying is always to carry out an honest  self-assessment  in two key areas which lay the foundations to what happens next :

  • Content  – is the nature of the appraisal 100% accurate? Make sure you have all the facts documented and covered. Accusations of “you are always late” might factually be twice because of a train strike. Establishing the facts is the cornerstone of the process. Do your reports have clear objectives, departmental standards and goals or even job descriptions?


  • Communication style review – this  can take place via mediation channels, with a coach or even independently.  Getting neutral feedback is important. Be honest, has anything similar happened before? Carry out a litmus test with colleagues or reports. Do you have a tendency to be overbearing/aggressive/heavy or high-handed? What is your feedback style?  Do you deliver feedback to your reports or colleagues in an accusatory tone? Are you inclined to make assumptions before asking questions?

Research from the CIPD suggests that those who experience bullying or harassment (or feel they do) are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers and senior managers, and want to leave their current job. There is an increased likelihood to react badly to poor performance appraisals. Are you completely sure that your communication style is neutral and constructive?

It won’t go away

Managers are also doomed if they ignore a problem within the team.  ACAS report that a manager’s failure to tackle poor performance impacts team harmony, causing friction if one team member is seen to ” get away” with errors and sloppiness. Setting clearly defined boundaries and communication expectations from the outset is critical to avoid this. What is perceived as constructive communication and firmness  by the manager maybe received as aggression by the report. It is also key to remember that the messages contained in 80% of email communication are not received as they were intended.

If you are accused of being a bully what can you do?

In addition to the content and style check above the following guidelines are helpful.

  • Check the internal organisation policy. Most have an established grievance policy. Make sure all response are within the official guidelines.
  • Always ask to be allowed to formally present your own experience of events to the hierarchy and confirm in writing.
  • Establish the exact nature of the complaint requesting precise details relating to the time, location  and content to gain full insight into the “victim’s” experience of the events. This can even be done informally over lunch in a business neutral manner possibly with a third- party present. In more sensitive and extreme situations, a formal in-house meeting with a third-party present recording the conversation might be advisable and more appropriate. Most spurious cases simply disappear at this point because of a lack of factual information.
  • Separate the managerial behaviour from the personal. This can help distil the problem into specific issues. Personality clash can be a core factor and it’s a card H.R play: sometimes correctly, sometimes to make a problem go away. This is where the data issue is critical.
  • What are the complainants communication and performance expectations? Where are the gaps? What if anything can be changed?  Create a blue print going forward.
  • Request coaching or mentoring support during what can be a challenging time.
  • Ask judiciously for feedback. This is when trusted colleagues can be helpful. Being alert and empathetic to the reactions of others is vital because it is the only way to understand how you are perceived

Spurious accusations

If after thorough examination there is no room for compromise, then following a formal disciplinary/grievance procedure will be the only option. If poor performance continues then the appropriate official warning systems should be invoked which could lead to termination of the report.

All organisations should have clear guidelines for disciplining employees and notifying them of under performance. The last things that any manager wants is a need to mount a personal and professional defence as a result of what should be routine performance feedback.

As the manager you should be allowed to expect your team to meet clearly communicated, reasonable, measurable and achievable departmental goals and standards.


If you need support on bullying and harassment issues – get in touch NOW


One thought on “Accused of being a bully: “I meant'” vs “They heard”

  1. Pingback: How to outlaw harassment with cultural change - 3Plus International

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *