Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 41;   October 19, 2022: Bullying by Proxy: I

Bullying by Proxy: I


The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies.
An owl of undetermined species

An owl of undetermined species, possibly a Great Gray Owl. Its shape and coloring provide it with near-perfect camouflage, making it almost indistinguishable from the tree in which it's perched. So it is with bullying by proxy. The proxy arrangement makes the bullying activities of the primary bully difficult to detect, dramatically reducing the effectiveness of anti-bullying policies.

When we consider workplace bullying, the scenario that comes to mind most readily involves a perpetrator inflicting harm on a target. Compared to the target, the perpetrator usually has greater power, either socially or organizationally or both. The methods employed might be physically violent, but more often they are psychological. They involve tactics such as career damage, humiliation, isolation, threats, resource deprivation, undesirable assignments, or combinations thereof. Or worse.

When the bullying is recognized as bullying (sometimes it isn't), a common response is to wonder why the bully's supervisor lets it persist. Some targets and some witnesses actually intercede by reporting incidents to the bully's supervisor. Sadly, too often, their efforts are in vain. In some cases, the bully has actually bullied his or her own supervisor, who then dares not intervene. But that scenario is one for another post.

The cases of interest for this post and the next are those termed bullying by proxy. In bullying by proxy, the bully's supervisor leads the bully in a conspiracy in which the bully's supervisor plays a largely background role. In these cases, the person we usually regard as the bully is actually a proxy bully — one who bullies on behalf of another. The proxy bully's supervisor, the leader of the conspiracy, is the primary bully.

For clarity, let me define carefully what I mean by workplace bullying and workplace bullying by proxy. Then we can explore in some detail how the conspiracy forms. In the next post, I consider implications for designing and enforcing anti-bullying policies.

Defining bullying and bullying by proxy

Workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others. Workplace bullying need not occur in the workplace (it need not occur "on site"), though it can. It need not involve abuse of power, though it can. It need not be part of a repeated pattern, though it can be. It need not even cause physical or psychological harm to others, though it can. All that's required is that it be aggressive, associated with work, and that it be primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm.
This definition seems to be at odds with widely accepted definitions. For example, Einarsen, et al., state explicitly that, "…bullying is normally not about single and isolated events, but rather about behaviours that are repeatedly and persistently directed towards one or more employees." [Einarsen 2020] The widely accepted definitions require that the aggressive behavior be present in a persistent pattern, whereas the above definition has no such requirement. My own experience as a target, and the experiences of clients who have been targets, suggests that persistence of the aggressive behavior is not a defining factor. A single incident can permanently impress on the mind of the target the sense that another incident can occur at any moment.
Moreover, most definitions of bullying focus on the target's perceptions rather than the perpetrator's intentions. The above definition focuses on the perpetrator's intentions, for two reasons. First, the perpetrator is likely to keep trying until the desired results are achieved. Second, even if the perpetrator fails, targets rarely fail to perceive the perpetrator's intentions. Perpetrator intentions are fundamental. They eventually lead to target's perceptions, which are derivative.
From this perspective, the definition above coincides with the widely accepted definition of Einarsen, et al.
Bullying by proxy
In direct bullying — bullying in which there is no proxy — bully and target interact personally with no intermediary. Bullying by proxy differs from direct bullying in that two people conspire in the role of perpetrator. In the workplace form of bullying by proxy, one of the pair, the primary bully, is politically or socially more powerful than the other, who is the proxy bully. Usually, though not always, the primary bully is the supervisor of the proxy bully. The primary bully usually plays a background role in any observable incidents of bullying involving the target. The proxy bully is the one who engages the target in any exchanges observable by others.
There are other terms that apply to bullying by proxy. Vicarious bullying or abetting bullying denote the bullying the primary bully engages in. The proxy bully is sometimes referred to as the secondary bully. [Hollis 2019] [Hollis 2017] I prefer the term proxy bully because a single primary bully might have several proxies.

How primary bullies and proxy bullies find each other

Voluntary proxy bullies
Some proxy bullies would seek out bullying opportunities of their own if their primary bullies hadn't recruited them. These voluntary proxy bullies are likely driven to bullying by the same compulsions that afflict non-proxy bullies. They are compelled to arrange to personally witness the suffering they cause. But as proxy bullies they have an additional motivation. They inflict harm on behalf of the primary bully so as to fulfill the primary bully's need to witness suffering. A common rationalization of this behavior is that the bullying serves as a tool to ensure that their business units meet performance goals. The idea that bullying enhances performance is controversial among researchers, but my unscientific personal observations suggest that it is regarded as a universal truth among those engaged in bullying by proxy.
Some In bullying by proxy, the bully's supervisor
leads the bully in a conspiracy in which the
bully's supervisor plays a largely background role
independent bullies realize that they can receive protected status if they work as a proxy bully for a primary bully. In these cases, it is often the proxy bully who recruits the primary bully. However, even in these cases, the superior power position of the primary ensures that the primary bully is in control.
Conscripted proxy bullies
If the primary bully recruits the proxy bully, the situation is more complicated. Most often, when the proxy bully is conscripted, he or she has little choice but to accede to the demands of the primary bully. Examples:
  • The primary bully coerces the proxy bully using a variety of bullying techniques to compel the proxy bully to abuse the target.
  • The primary bully offers (sometimes implicitly) inducements to the candidate proxy bully, in the form of status, emblems of status, desirable assignments, favorable performance assessments, or financial compensation. These inducements become available only if the proxy bully engages the target using methods that satisfy the primary bully. Accompanying the inducements can be a suggestion, explicit or not, that if the candidate declines the "offer" to become a proxy bully, coercion will compel agreement.
  • The primary bully subtly directs the proxy bully in ways that enable the primary bully to deny any role in the bullying.

Last words

In the next part of this exploration of bullying by proxy, I consider the fascinating ways in which this form of bullying complicates design and enforcement of anti-bullying policies and procedures.  Bullying by Proxy: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Bullying by Proxy: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Einarsen 2020]
Ståle Valvatne Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, and Cary L. Cooper. "The concept of bullying and harassment at work: The European tradition," in Bullying and harassment in the workplace, CRC Press, (2020), pp. 3-53. Available here. Retrieved 22 September 2022. Back
[Hollis 2019]
Leah Hollis. "The abetting bully: Vicarious bullying and unethical leadership in higher education" Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education 3 (2019): p.1-18. Available here. Retrieved 22 September 2022. Back
[Hollis 2017]
Leah P. Hollis "Higher education henchmen: Vicarious bullying and underrepresented populations," Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal 4:12 (2017), p.64-73. Available here. Retrieved 22 September 2022. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A multi-function phoneDeniable Intimidation
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
A polar bear, feeding, on landResponding to Threats: III
Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
A mixed stand of aspen and pine in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and Washington stateHow Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I
Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
Feeling shameShame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.

See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.