Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 42;   October 26, 2022: Bullying by Proxy: II

Bullying by Proxy: II


Bullying by proxy occurs when A bullies B at the behest of C. Organizational control of bullying by proxy is difficult, in part, because C's contribution is covert. Policies that control overt bullying are less effective at controlling bullying by proxy.
"Approaching the fowl with stalking-horse", an 1875 illustration of a cut-out horse shape used in hunting

"Approaching the fowl with stalking-horse", an 1875 illustration of a cut-out horse shape used in hunting. From this practice comes the phrase "stalking horse." To use a person, object, or idea as a stalking horse is to test its popularity or acceptability, and from the results of that test, to project the popularity or acceptability of an unspecified person, object, or idea.

In effect, the stalking horse is a proxy. Anyone skilled enough to use the stalking horse ploy might be expected to be skilled enough to recruit a proxy bully.

Image from the collection of the British Library, courtesy .

This exploration of bullying by proxy began last time with definitions of workplace bullying and workplace bullying by proxy. If you haven't yet seen that post, I recommend starting there. In this post I examine how the practice of bullying by proxy complicates design and enforcement of anti-bullying policy.

How primary bullies respond to reports of bullying by the proxy

Typically, supervisors play a critical role in enforcing anti-bullying policy. That's why the enforcement mechanism is at risk when the primary bully is the supervisor of the proxy bully. Because the primary bully and the proxy bully are co-conspirators, and because the primary and proxy conceal the bullying activities of the primary bully, the primary bully has a conflict of interest relative to enforcing anti-bullying policy vis-à-vis the proxy bully's activities.

For example, the primary bully might "deal with" a report of the proxy bully's behavior by schooling the proxy bully in the need to be more sophisticated or covert about bullying. With greater sophistication, the proxy bully can achieve the shared objectives of the primary and proxy while reducing the probability of any targets or witnesses filing complaints with the primary or with Human Resources (HR).

The futility of filing complaints with either HR or the primary bully can become so well known among the target population that they adopt a stance relative to the bullying that can best be described as learned helplessness. [Maier 2016]

In effect, reports of bullying by the proxy that do reach the primary bully, either directly or through HR, serve largely to help the primary and proxy "improve" their approach to bullying. Over time, they become more effective bullies by taking steps to avoid detection and to deter the filing of complaints.

The role of the primary bully's supervisor

In what Bullying by proxy complicates design
and enforcement of anti-bullying policy
is perhaps the simplest case, the supervisor of the primary bully might be unaware of any bullying activity by the primary bully, because the proxy bully insulates the primary bully from any bullying incidents in which the primary played a role. In this case, there are few, if any, third-party reports of bullying activity by the primary, because these activities are so rarely observed by anyone other than the proxy bully.

Moreover, when investigators interview the proxy bully, the proxy is unlikely to reveal the primary's role in the bullying. Because the primary is the supervisor of the proxy, the proxy quite rationally might fear retaliation. And even when bystanders do witness the activities of the primary, learned helplessness can reduce their motivation to report their observations.

The fundamental attribute of the nightmare scenario

To describe more complex configurations, let the notation S(A) represent the supervisor of individual A. Let P(A,n) denote the nth proxy bully for primary bully A. (A might be directing more than one proxy bully.) Consider a report chain A-B-C, where A = S(B) and B = S(C). Then, for example, A = S(S(C)). If B is the jth proxy bully for A, then B = P(A,j). And if C is the kth proxy bully for B, then C = P(B,k) = P(P(A,j),k). In that case, which we might call the nightmare scenario, its characteristic attribute would be that it contains this structure:

A = S(B)

B = S(C) = P(A,j)

C = P(B,k)

When bullying by proxy has permeated the organizational culture to the extent that such notation is useful, the complexities of the dynamics can be difficult to contemplate. In these situations, a more promising approach to managing bullying activity might involve cultural considerations. [Pheko 2017]

Nevertheless, the above speculations about how bullying by proxy can create difficulties for enforcement of anti-bullying policy in the simplest case would seem to be even more significant in situations like the nightmare scenario. Specifically, any reporting chain that contains a subchain of the form C = P(P(A, j), k), or subchains of even higher orders, could potentially present insurmountable challenges to policy enforcement programs that are restricted to using conventional investigative techniques that depend for their effectiveness on the role of the supervisor.

Recommendations for policy and enforcement

In terms of behavior observable to third parties, bullying by proxy is indistinguishable from direct bullying by the proxy acting alone. For this reason, any direct bullying incidents that are detected must be presumed to be bullying by proxy until there is evidence to the contrary. From that presumption we deduce the need for four principles that act as safeguards.

Collect data regarding prevalence of bullying incidents in a given organization
A pattern of reports of bullying within a single organization reporting to a single manager is an indicator of bullying by proxy. An impartial investigator can investigate such patterns. The manager of the implicated organization is presumed not to be an impartial investigator.
Direct all reports of bullying incidents to an impartial investigator
Assigning a single investigator (or investigative group) to receive all reports of bullying is an essential element. It supports pattern recognition and learning at the organizational level. The supervisors of the alleged perpetrators are presumed not to be impartial investigators.
Bullying is a performance issue for both the bully and the bully's supervisor
In the case of non-proxy bullying, regarding the bully as the sole perpetrator is an enforcement error. The bully is a perpetrator. The bully's supervisor had a duty to ensure compliance with the anti-bullying policy, and for some reason did not fulfill this duty. Investigation is required.
Bullying is a performance issue for both the proxy bully and the primary bully
In the case of bullying by proxy, regarding the proxy bully as the sole perpetrator is an enforcement error. Both the primary and the proxy are perpetrators, though the primary's responsibility is probably the greater.

Last words

Tracking the incidence of reports of bullying is an essential element of anti-bullying programs. In some cases, the trail of reports might be the only observable indicator of the activities of a primary bully, as he or she moves from unit to unit, through reorganizations, and upwards in the organizational hierarchy. A dedicated investigative element of HR is likely necessary. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Collaborations or Cooperations?  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
[Maier 2016]
Steven F. Maier and Martin EP Seligman. "Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights From Neuroscience," Psychological review 123:4 (2016), pp.349-367. Available here. Retrieved 22 September 2022. Back
[Pheko 2017]
Mpho M. Pheko, Nicole M. Monteiro, and Mondy T. Segopolo. "When work hurts: A conceptual framework explaining how organizational culture may perpetuate workplace bullying," Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 27:6 (2017), pp.571-588. 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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Rescheduling is what we do when the schedule we have now is so desperately unachievable that we must let go of it because when we look at it we can no longer decide whether to laugh or cry. The fear is that the new schedule might come to the same end. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
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