Battling the office bully

14th December 2004, Comments 0 comments

Bullying in the workplace is often ignored or even condoned in the Netherlands. We look at ways to regain control - without resorting to the bully's tactics.

Working in an unfamiliar environment can be difficult enough. Throw bullying into the mix and coming into the office can become a 9-to-5 nightmare.

If you are being bullied at work — and you are a foreigner — you probably do not know where to seek help. The psychological pressure you are undergoing could mean you become sick and take leave from the company. If you lose your job, you could be without an income and ultimately have to leave the country.

When compared to a Dutch employee, the expat is probably in a weaker position at work, resulting in a lot of extra stress. But there are ways to regain control and fend off bullies.

One positive way to approach your problem is to seek mediation. "Bullying occurs a lot," says mediator Karin Iest, affiliated with the Netherlands Mediation Institute NMI. "The person who is bullied becomes sick or looks for another job."

Many expats tell stories of being bullied by employers or colleagues. In some cases, a person is picked on because he or she is the "newbie" and doesn't speak Dutch or isn't familiar with business procedures in the Netherlands.

Highly-skilled professionals, who are recruited because of their expertise, can also experience bullying — even in internationally-orientated companies or organisations.

"I feel it is so disillusioning to leave your home country with the dream of working abroad and to be faced with something so malicious. It is draining, energy consuming, I feel my wings are totally chopped," explains Mary*.

Dutch people aren't immune either. "I was good at my job — in fact I worked harder than the rest of the people on my team. But the boss didn't like me and was always putting me down. He would criticise me for mistakes, although he knew one of the others was to blame. In the end I got the message and left," former catering manager Helena* explains.

There are volumes of anecdotal evidence, but such incidents are rarely mentioned in official reports. Statistics are hard to find.

A mediator at Element Consult, Linda Reijerkerk, explains that differences in culture, sex and the power relationship between people can be the cause of a conflict. The role of the mediator is to reveal what these differences are and to discuss them.

Reijerkerk states that mediators are encountering problems regarding cultural differences more often. One cause of a "culture clash" is miscommunication via language. Another can be an invalid assumption of another culture or the expectation that the person should conform to "our" (Dutch) values.

Iest explains that a (Dutch) person might boycott an idea because this person is actually afraid of a new notion emanating from another culture.

An old Dutch saying "Wat de boer niet kent, dat eet hij niet" (What the farmer doesn't know, he doesn't eat) is applicable here: some people don't trust anything they do not know.

This person might express fear by bullying the foreigner who comes up with a novel idea. After being made fun of, your enthusiasm about a creative solution might plummet. Your interest in working for this company might also dry up.

Other examples of bullying are: hiding dossiers, menial jobs, not communicating information to the other and mobbing (systematic intimidation).

Dutch people, said to be a tight-lipped and reserved people, have the tendency to be "achterbaks", to act and/or gossip behind your back. People of other nationalities, Americans for example, might show a more open and assertive approach, by asking: "What's bugging you?"

Sometimes a person starts bullying in order to belong to a group. It is a way of showing off and acting "macho" at the expense of the other. Generally, the bully is someone who actually feels powerless. It's more of a game than something such as (sexual) harassment — which is a far more serious offence — in which boundaries are crossed.
Reijerkerk works to explain the other two differences said to cause bullying, sex and the power relationship: by mentioning the differences between the two sexes and by making it a subject of discussion, both parties can come to an understanding.

By looking at what each party's interest or concern is and what they have in common, the mediator tries to help them bridge the gap. When it comes to power conflicts, an important job of the mediator is to identify and restore the balance of power at the mediation table.

One of the first questions you should ask yourself is: why are you being bullied by your boss or colleague? What is the reason behind the bullying?

The second question is: why do I undergo this bullying? What does this say about me? Iest: "You have to make the switch from the 'hate line' to the 'love line'. If you talk about your problem it becomes smaller".

According to Iest, if you want to try mediation to solve your conflict, you should take the following steps: discuss the bullying with your boss or the HR department, state that you would like to do mediation with a specialist, (the "bully" has to be willing to co-operate) and consult a mediator. The NMI in Rotterdam has a list of certified specialists (

As Mary found out, it is not an easy process. She spoke to the HR director of her organisation about being bullied by the head of another department. After the management had spoken with both parties, the promised meeting to discuss the issue never took place.

Like many others subjected to bullying, Mary felt let down because the company wanted to ignore the problem rather than tackle it. It is said that managers prefer not to acknowledge the problems mentioned because it reflects upon them; that the management is not doing a good job.

In Mary's case, the head of the other department is not willing to co-operate, so mediation at this moment is not an option.

A legal solution is not always an attractive option either. "If you lodge a complaint by a judge, then it generally means the end of your working contract, because the employer feels that you have insulted him or her," explains Iest.

Unlike intervention via the courts or arbitration within the organisation itself, the mediator doesn't lead the discussion, but rather stimulates communication between the parties. With mediation, you receive counselling by an impartial expert outside the company in how to negotiate.

The expert's role is to inspire both parties to drop their standpoints and to look at their real concerns. The mediator pays attention to the nature of the conflict as well as to the relationship between the parties.

Reijerkerk — who speaks six languages and has lived and worked in 20 countries — said: "If parties seek a mediator, it is desirable, though not really imperative, that the mediator has experience with intercultural aspects at the mediation table.  The most important element is that the mediator has an open attitude/mindset to all cultures represented at the mediation table".

* Mary and Helena are not their real names.

Useful links:

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (fact sheet)



Bullying can take many forms


  • Direct verbal and physical threats
  • Unfair use of disciplinary and assessment procedures
  • Blocking access to promotion, training, overtime, etc
  • Setting impossible deadlines and targets
  • Withholding information essential to do the job properly
  • Excessively tight supervision
  • Public humiliation including being shouted at
  • Persistent and undue criticism including inaccurate accusations about quality of work
  • Undermining responsibility
  • Abusive references to age, sex, race, disability or other personal characteristics
  • Spreading malicious rumors
  • Physical isolation from other workers


What you can do?

  • Speak to the bully and explain the behaviour is unacceptable and must stop
  • Tell a friend or work colleague. You might well find out you are not the only one who has suffered
  • Tell your union or works council representative
  • Keep a diary. This will give a vital record of the nature of the bullying and when it occurred. It will be important when the bully is confronted
  • Tell your manager or supervisor
  • Seek a mediator or another form of intervention

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Working in the Netherlands, bullying in the workplace

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