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  • Writer's pictureSumbella

How *not* to become a Professional Bully

Updated: May 3, 2023


If there was a course you could take to become a certified professional bully, I am sure it would have been accredited by exactly the same institute.

Because no matter whether I am hearing about negative incidents by a 4 year old or a 44 year old one, they all seem to be qualified in this particularly ugly skill:


It is remarkable that no matter whether I hear about a horrible incident in a school setting or see something in a workplace, the traits of both subtle and overt bullying are remarkably similar.

Why does bullying happen?

According to an experienced school owner based in the UAE, bullying happens because of:

"Lack of compassion, selfishness, or an inflated sense that they [the bully] are more important than everyone else."

Some people I have spoken to also say bullying stems from:

"A delusion the bully has about their own ideas, believing that they are in the right, all the time."

Regardless of the reason, the reality is that it is ugly behaviour and it causes immeasurable stress.

If we are to thrive in our workplaces and schools, we need to be able to call it out and correct it.

The problem is, sometimes bullying can be so subtle.

What is subtle bullying?

It can be a kind of deliberate, covert, exclusion of a particular person.

It can also be a deliberate, often covert manipulation of a situation or a person or an outcome in favour of the bully.

It can be as small as not receiving a reply to a WhatsApp message.

It can be as big as being shouted or physically attacked in front of colleagues.

The reality is, bullying can be many things. It takes many forms.

And it is often very, very subtle.

That’s why I wrote this list.

To shine a light on all the precise ways I have seen and heard people tell me this is happening.

And to analyse the ways I’ve seen it show up at various points in my career to date, and in my interactions in school settings and with education professionals.

[The List] Bullying behaviours: a working draft

This list I am creating contains examples of subtle bullying.

It is designed to help educators and professionals with navigating bullying behaviours in their school or workplace.

This list is not exhaustive, but it's a start to naming and labelling bullying behaviours.

It is intended to be a practical working draft that provides the instance of the bully's behaviour, followed by a suggestion for what to do instead.

The focus of this list is about correcting behaviours, not judging people and their hearts.

Here goes.

1️⃣ Overloading a team member.

What is it?

Throwing a colleague undue or exaggerated amounts of tasks that are not their own. Right down to the details of setting up meetings or mundane admin tasks.

It is also a forceful delegation of their own work to someone else or the specific person based on their nationality or otherwise.


❌ A member of staff fails to attend several training sessions on a new product. When it comes to a presentation they need to deliver based on the training, they convince an already overburdened member of staff to do it.

Try this instead:

✅ If you don't want to be that person overloading someone else, be brave and do your own presentations or work tasks.

✅ If you're on the receiving end of being overloaded, be brave, say no politely. If it still happens, say more than 3 times, start documenting evidence of instances of this pattern of subtle bullying. You will need this if you are going to raise this issue with your or their line manager.

2️⃣ Delayed replies, careless replies, blunt replies, or worse still - no replies at all.

The Gottman institute describes that in a relationship, the strongest ones are developed by each person’s bid for attention being met and acknowledged.

A professional bully is going to deliberately ignore your messages and never acknowledge you sent anything or apologise about it, even if you say it upsets you.

Bids for attention are very important between humans. We want to know the person we are interacting with sees us.


❌ A bully would ignore comments on a WhatsApp group, even when tagged.

❌ A bully will never ‘like’ a post, even when it specifically tags and mentions them in a positive light. They will avoid showing any kind of support publicly, unless it is to their advantage.

❌ A subtle bully might always reply to work related messages but completely ignore a set of more personal / friendly messages on WhatsApp.

Try this instead...

If you're the bully: try replying. Even if it’s a short quick response, it matters so much in easing team dynamics.

If you are the bullied: sometimes this is difficult because you do need a reply as a task depends on an answer from the person, say: “I noticed you didn’t reply to my messages on xxx, is everything alright? I'll need to know about XXX in order to do XX. Please let me know when you can.” Again, if this keeps happening, you may want to keep a record and start documenting it when it happens, in case it needs to be escalated to line managers or otherwise.

3️⃣ Deliberate exclusion from a conversation using another language or dialect.

What is it?

A professional bully is going to use language that they know you can’t understand in order to dominate and control, steer and guide a conversation to their comfort and advantage.


❌ In meetings about key decisions, a subtle bully consistently shifts into another language - giving the benefit of the doubt, they will not realise that it is excluding others from a conversation. Subtle bullies will frequently pretend not to notice they're doing it. However, if unintentionally excluding members of the team, here are some ideas:

Try this instead:

✅ Consciously ensure that all issues are discussed in the key language. If you are someone who easily forgets, find a person in the team you are comfortable with and ask them to prompt or remind you when you switch languages.

✅ If you are on the receiving end of this exclusion, ask if what was said can be translated. If it happens again and again, you might need to make a more definite statement by physically leaving the room or table where the language exclusion is taking place. If that doesn't work, log the complaint with a trusted senior who can enforce a policy or statement that you may not be able to.

✅ Note to HR: ensure that teams are hired diversely. Make sure that the people in the team are inclusive. Ensure that written policies and announcements are clear to remind people of the policies. Practice the policies yourself and make yourself a model of good inclusive language practice.

4️⃣ Love bombing

What is it?

Deliberately showering attention upon a person - being there at their every waking moment.

"Love bombing is the practice of showing a person excessive affection and attention as a way of manipulating them in a relationship." (

It might sound like it is for romantic relationships, but this happens a lot between colleagues, and in friendships. e.g. One friend dominates and manipulates another friend by showering them with undivided attention.

It might look like a colleague suddenly expressing a lot of admiration, offering help, assistance, lots of calls and lots of showering with attention and 'love'.

But at the root of this behaviour is a desire to control and manipulate the person. It is toxic. It is bullying.

5️⃣ Name calling

What is it?

I once heard about a principal in a school who had a ‘secret’ nickname for every member of staff he didn’t particularly like. He used this nickname to describe each one behind their backs, but never said it to their faces.

It is sad that 4 year olds probably do more dignified name calling than 44 year olds. 4 year olds would at least do the name calling to the person's face. A 44 year old would do it behind the person's back, repeatedly.

This is a toxic behaviour trait intended to shame.

It is pure meanness.

6️⃣ Backbiting

What is it?

Backbiting happens in playgrounds and it happens in staff rooms and it happens in offices.

It is usually the first sign something toxic has begun.

It is when negative comments about team members are shared or discussed, usually to senior members of staff, without the knowledge of the person involved. e.g. 'Behind their back'.

Probably we have all heard or been witness to this, but professional bullies spend most of their time simply saying negative things about others. This is also backbiting.

7️⃣ ...[Stay tuned...]

The next ones are on the way. Circle back to see when it's updated.


In these cover photos I am in the desert wearing a traditional Uyghur doppa. What does this have to do with bullying?

Reason 1: The Uyghurs are one of the most subtly bullied peoples in the world today. While I can't change China's policies in Xinjiang, I can call out bullying when I see it closer to home and in schools and workplaces I have a direct contribution to.

Reason 2: To me, the desert is a place with such a sense of space. It is a place where you feel free, to be yourself. In the desert you remember your name. And when you remember your name, and who you are, you can usually hear your own voice again. Just using our voices we can do so much.

The single biggest antidote to bullying is for those experiencing it to stand up, speak up, call it out, and/or find advocates who will help them do so.

That's what this article is for.

That's what these photos represent.

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