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.  Next 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

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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