our anti-bullying consultant accused me of bullying him

A reader writes:

The research department at my workplace has a bully and I was recently asked to look into workshops to address it. Emma, my coworker and friend, is also aware of the issues, which have been going on for years without action from management. Emma was frustrated as she had brought the issues up before to no avail. She ended up venting to her trusted friend, Ann (HR background), about the situation. Ann has done remote contract work for the organization, but she has never worked with the research department.

I reached out to Mark, a well-known anti-bullying facilitator in our small town, who is also Ann’s relative. When Mark met with me and my manager, he started by saying, “Ann told me that [Bully] is the problem in your department.” I was instantly uncomfortable and unsure why Mark chose to say this. Neither my manager nor I addressed this statement with Mark at the time.

After the meeting, I told Emma what Mark said and that she may want to be careful about what she shares with Ann. Emma confronted Ann, who then talked to Mark. Mark denied to Ann that he brought up the bully’s name at all, saying I was the one who named them. He then came to our office several days later to address the situation with me and my manager. Mark said that I made an assumption about how he and Ann learned about the bully because neither of them attributed it to Emma at any time. He said I broke confidentiality based on that assumption and he can no longer trust me. He said this was an act of bullying against him. He used the terms “spreading gossip” and “backstabbing.”

I apologized for breaking confidentiality and expressed my regret. However, I disputed that I had gossiped and backstabbed him as my intent was to warn my friend, not to harm him or spread rumours. He told me intent doesn’t matter and to stop being defensive and instead reflect on my actions to understand the underlying feelings that caused me to act like I did. He said in his experience it was usually feelings of powerlessness or worthlessness. I left this meeting feeling confused and ashamed.

I have requested another meeting to try to resolve this as I will need to work with this man in the future. I know I shouldn’t have broken confidentiality, but I was not expecting to be accused of bullying and backstabbing and I would like more clarity about that. My manager thinks Mark just chose his words poorly, but I think he believes I lashed out at him to feel better about myself.

A part of me still thinks maybe I am just trying to justify my behavior and that there is something I am missing here. For the record, I have a history of childhood trauma (for which I am in therapy) and struggle to trust my intuition at times. It doesn’t help that Mark is an expert with decades of experience helping organizations deal with workplace bullying so I want to defer to his expertise, but something in me is resisting it.

Am I justified in questioning/pushing back on the allegations of bullying, gossiping, and backstabbing and what is the best way to handle the next meeting with Mark?

The only person who displayed bullying behavior in this letter was … Mark, the “bullying expert.”

Mark says you “broke confidentiality” by what, exactly? Telling Emma that the bully’s name came up in the meeting? That’s hardly highly sensitive information, when Emma already knows who the bully is and has in fact vented to Ann about it.

But even if Mark thinks that’s info that shouldn’t have been shared, he should have just said, “I realize that your coworkers may already be privy to different aspects of this situation, but I ask that you keep the contents of these meetings private and not discuss anything we talk about here with people outside of this room.” He also, frankly, needed to recognize why you mentioned it to Emma — you were concerned that Ann and Mark had violated her expectations of confidentiality.

Instead he attacked you;  rather than just clarifying the confidentiality expectations going forward, he accused you of bullying him (!), back-stabbing (!), and being defensive, and made baseless assumptions that you feel powerless or worthless (!). He barely knows you.

This is all wild behavior for any outside consultant, but it’s especially wild for someone who’s supposed to be an anti-bullying expert. That’s incredibly nuanced and trust-based work; by starting out on the attack with so little provocation, Mark has demonstrated that he’s spectacularly unsuited to the work your department wants to hire him for. If anything, he’s likely to stir up more drama and more hostile feelings all around. This is not the person you want to hire for this job.

Can you talk to your boss about it from that angle? For example: “I’m really concerned by the way Mark handled our last meeting. He made baseless accusations and assumptions about me and, oddly, seemed to demonstrate exactly the kind of bullying behavior we’re hoping to combat. I want to be clear that this isn’t about me feeling defensive — if I’ve done something wrong, I want to hear it. But he didn’t try to learn my perspective at all and instead made bizarre accusations about me backstabbing and feeling worthless. It was the opposite of a measured or thoughtful approach, and it gave me grave concerns about the impact he’s likely to have on our team; if he handles others the way he did me, we’re likely to end up with more problems than we started with.”

But also, why is your boss bringing in a bullying consultant in the first place, rather than just shutting down the bully with the authority she has as their manager? She’s playing a significant role in the mess here — both with the bullying getting to the point that you’re bringing in outside help, and in not firmly shutting down Mark in that meeting … and in continuing to work with him, if she does.

{ 388 comments… read them below }

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      Right? The reason he said the LW “broke confidence” and was “spreading gossip” was his lie that she brought up the bully’s name rather than him, with a healthy dose of projection.

    2. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      So now the department has 2 bullies instead of just… firing the problem employee and having 0.

      LW, why hasn’t your company just fired this person?

      1. Noncompliance Specialist*

        This! What on earth even is a bullying consultant for the workplace?? I understand in a school or something, but that’s because you can’t just get rid of problematic children. That shouldn’t be an issue in a workplace. Put them on a PIP or straight up fire them, your workplace has the power.

        1. NerdyKris*

          I can see using an expert for something like cultural changes where the problem is deep rooted or to spot problems before they happen, but not for one employee that you can just say “Stop doing this” and fire if they don’t.

    3. Tiger Snake*

      Cynically enough, I’ve found that seems to be the common trait across consultants.
      I wonder if many people who get into it (because consultancy often pays more) don’t actually have the skills needed to come in and quickly establish the trust and authority they think they need to consult, and so they do this instead.

    1. Allonge*

      Maybe (lol, just maaybe) not a very good one and he went ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’?

    2. paxfelis*

      If I recall correctly, one of the problems with marital counseling with an abuser is that the abuser will learn the language and turn it against the partner, as well as manipulating the counselor. I know this isn’t a marriage, but it could be a similar series of motives/actions.

      1. Dark Macadamia*

        There are soooo many people who do this with social justice communities/language too.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Excellent points. People can be very good at trying to justify what they want.

        2. Zap R.*

          Yes. And anti-bullying stuff tends to be social justice adjacent which compounds the problem.

        3. Anon for this*

          Oh so much this! I once worked for an organization that was very much into restorative justice processes, etc. There was one individual that was willfully incompetent yet I was the only one not willing to go along (think “As I mentioned before, I’ll consider approving 1M for your pet project if you would please provide details on what this project is, why we should do it, and how you arrived at the 1M figure” as opposed to the rubber stamp on everything in the past). I got to spend far too much time in mediation sessions hearing about how I should reflect on why this person felt bullied.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Also not in a marital context, but I have known more than one insecure person who weaponized therapy-speak.

        1. Vio*

          Indeed. It’s good that therapy is becoming more socially accepted and less stigmatised but that does also lead to it sometimes being weaponised. Any tool for good can, unfortunately, be used for bad.

      3. Parakeet*

        Yep. This is also a problem in communities where “abuse[r]” is (much like “bully[ing]” in some communities, especially some workplaces and schools) a hot-button, yet often only vaguely-understood, word that makes people feel obligated to side with the first person who says it (which also tend to be communities where people are familiar with, and use, pop-psych terminology). Bad actors are capable of learning the vocabulary and the discussion tropes and how to use them against their targets.

        1. Anna*

          Yup – I have definitely been in communities where “let’s not make ‘abuser’ a magic word for letting people get community support for isolating/stalking/hitting their partner” was something that needed to be said. Because *of course* some abusers learned to use the language of abuse as a get-out-of-jail-free card when questioned: “I had to do [thing that in other contexts would be recognized as abusive] because they were An Abuser (TM), and it’s invasive and invalidating of victims to ask me about how they were abusive or about how my actions protected me.”

          You let them talk for long enough and eventually some will reveal The Abuse that made it necessary for them to inform all friends and business contacts of their partner that it’s wildly unethical to interact with them (and suggest sending them harassment just to be Extra Clear Abuse Isn’t Tolerated). . . were things like basic boundary setting or attempting to leave the relationship. Bad actors can and will weaponize any rhetoric, including that of abuse.

          LW, you did nothing wrong. Mark is pulling a classic DARVO.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            Oh I see you’ve met my ex-SIL. She went behind my brother’s back to every single one of his friends to tell them how he “abused” her, when in fact the only things he did wrong were in reaction to her relentless manipulative abuse and bullying.
            I saw through her from the get-go, because she was just like our mother, only worse. Nevertheless she isolated my brother from me and manipulated my father into thinking that if his only daughter and only son were communicating via private email addresses that SIL was not privy to, it was a very bad thing and obviously we were emailing behind her back in order to speak badly of her. I pointed out to Dad that it was perfectly normal for a sister and brother to communicate privately, after all SIL would leave the room to take a call from whichever of her siblings she was currently talking to, and that if she thought we were badmouthing her behind her back, that meant she knew there was plenty of material to badmouth her about.

        2. I Have RBF*

          Yep. I’ve been the recipient of this phenomenon in online communities myself.

          Someone will be a jerk to me with gaslighting, slurs, etc, I will give as good as I get minus slurs and such (calling someone a jerk for using homophobic slurs is not bullying), and the next thing I know the moderators are treating me like I’m some sort of bully or troll, because the person weaponized their language about it and went crying to mommy first. Most of these people can dish it out but can’t even take a small bit of their own medicine reflected back at them. I will leave those communities rather than submit to weaponized therapy or social justice language.

          Don’t get me wrong here: There is some stuff that should be moderated and/or shut down – racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-trans-ism, eugenics, fat shaming, etc. But calling someone out for abusing others is not that. But bullies will whine if you even call them a jackass.

          1. Saraquill*

            That time a pro social justice group threw jargon at me to pressure me into being homophobic. That other time a different group used racial justice language to convince me I’m racially impure. Yet another group…

            There are reasons I’m wary of such spaces.

          2. Vio*

            “Miss/Sir, Miss/Sir! I’m being bullied by the other kids, they fight back when I punch them!”

      4. Lydia*

        This just happened in a very public way with Jonah Hill and Sarah Brady. He completely appropriated language from therapy to manipulate and control her. Mark is a bully and has done a pretty good job of using his knowledge of the language to become a well-known expert. I wouldn’t be surprised if a LOT of people he’s consulted for walk away with a weird feeling, but don’t know how to bring it up.

      5. User 456*

        DARVO (an acronym for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender”) is a reaction that perpetrators of wrongdoing, such as sexual offenders may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior.
        This happens a lot.

        1. Sara without an H*

          Was just coming here to say this. If the LW really wanted to mess with this guy, she could thank him enthusiastically for demonstrating the DARVO technique.

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            I wonder if he is actually doing that knowingly, like that’s part of his teaching technique or something, and that later he will say “See, this is how bullies act, I was just showing you how it works.” That, of course, is just AWFUL technique (of *course*) so that doesn’t make this situation any better.

            And I don’t really think this is the case anyway, I just wonder if it might be.

            1. MigraineMonth*

              If that’s the case, I hope this guy doesn’t run self-defense courses. “See, this is how it feels when an attacker stabs you with a knife. Now do you understand better?”

      6. Anonyroni*

        Only in this case, it’s not the problem partner using the language against you. Here the therapist is the abuser!

      7. Mongrel*

        You see it a lot in racists & general bigots as well, it’s like they’re speedrunning a demonstration of the paradox of tolerance

    3. Hannah Lee*

      “Are you sure Mark is an anti-bullying expert and not a pro-bullying expert?”


      Though maybe there was just a little semantics issue – Mark isn’t an anti-bullying expert, he’s an anti-bullying *advocate*

      And by *advocate* I mean his bullying behavior is likely to make more people realize they need and anti-bullying program in the workplace. So, yay?

    4. Phony Genius*

      It looks like there’s some dust on his business card. (Blows on it.) A-ha! He’s an anti-anti-bullying expert!

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      It reminds me a lot of the poor reputation of mediation for bullying in the schools–“Joey, you tackled Scott and then punched him three times. Scott, you then punched Joey back. We need to consider both sides and meet in the middle. Scott, how can you be less annoying to Joey, so he won’t feel the need to do this?”

      Everybody aged out and now Joey et al run a consultancy.

      1. darsynia*

        Oh good lord, this. My father died when I was in high school, and my bully had the same path to walking home as I did. She thought losing a parent was a PRIME bullying subject and yelled truly horrid things at me the first day I was back at school after his death. She even threw a rock at me because I was trying to tune her out! I’ll never forget the worst one– she knew my family was religious, so she said I belonged in heaven with my father (but her phrasing was so awful I won’t repeat it). We called the *police* because it was ostensibly a death threat, even though at 15 she probably didn’t realize the implications, but the rule in our state is that you’re still on school grounds until you cross your threshold.

        The school had just implemented a ‘peer mediation’ thing and so they thought the best idea was to punish us equally. Neither of us were to speak to the other on pain of 3 weeks’ suspension, no exceptions. No punishment for her bullying, threatening, exploiting the death of a parent behavior. How did that pan out? She kept bullying me and no teachers would do anything because ‘this isn’t worth making her miss three weeks of school.’ The lesson she learned was she does whatever she wants and by bullying me she got ME in trouble.

        Mediation is the WORST.

    6. Carrots*

      The only tool this consultant has in his toolbox is accusing others. Someone who doesn’t listen, understand, or have any ability for self-reflection cannot possibly train others to prevent bullying. He should be let go.

      1. Zelda*

        This was my thought reading the letter. “When the only tool you have is a hammer…” Apparently, accusations of bullying are simply this guy’s stock-in-trade.

    7. L.H. Puttgrass*

      “In retrospect, we should have inquired more carefully as to what ‘bullying expert’ exactly meant.”

    8. Noblepower*

      This is the second anti-bullying consultant I have heard of that turned out to be a bully themselves (the first one I met in person as my employer used him for years… every time he showed up on campus, at least one person would quit in tears. it was terrible.)

      1. Lisa Simpson*

        What is it with outside consultants? We had an outside safety consultant who worked with our emergency response team and somehow he always just HAD to demonstrate chest compressions on a pretty college-age girl and not the dummy we’d set out for him.

        But if you accused him of sexual harassment you were “anti-safety” and your job was on the line.

        1. Cat*

          Wait, back up a bit.
          The reason those dummies exist is because doing chest compressions properly breaks ribs and does serious damage. In the case where CPR is actually necessary, surviving with broken ribs is better than dying, but no one should be demonstrating on a live person who isn’t actually dying!
          Since you don’t mention screaming and an ambulance, it presumably wasn’t a full demonstration of doing it properly, but still…

      2. Non non non all the way home*

        I know a Canadian ‘bullying expert’ who is a huge fan of a certain orange-hued former U.S. President and will bully anyone who disagrees with her.

    9. Danish*

      Right or maybe just “bullying expert” and everyone is ASSUMING it means “anti-bullying”? Just wild.

  1. Heather*

    I especially agree with Alison’s last paragraph: Why is a consultant being brought in for this? I would think you could consider seeking outside support if your office had a history of multiple bullies; if you’ve had people quit and cite bullying as the reason; if there’s a perception that management and leadership are bullying staff. But you have one bully on staff? Get her under control (which may require firing). You don’t need a workshop about it.

    1. Cordelia*

      yes, even without the issues re Mark – I struggle to see what a workshop would be expected to address. If there’s only one bully, what are the rest of you doing there? Learning how to work with a bully? Work around a bully? Cope with being bullied? I would be very unhappy about having to attend this, as an employee – I want management to stop the bullying, it’s not down to me to change my behaviour.

      1. Bee*

        Right, and I can’t imagine what good an anti-bullying workshop would do for a bully either? This is something that’s helpful in the inescapable pressure cooker of middle school, when minds and behavior are in constant flux and you might be able to show kids that their behavior isn’t ok/the way they’re being treated isn’t ok/how to intervene when they witness bullying and change the culture. If you have one jerk in a workplace, you can and should just deal with them.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yep, by the time they’re in a workplace, the only language they understand is “Shape up or GTFO.”

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Also see the comments on a higher thread about how bad actors can use therapy-talk to sound sympathetic when they’re really just being bad actors. Sure sounds like some of that is happening here with Mark, but also that any kind of training could easily give the bully even more ammunition.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Agreed. Plus, with these types of broad responses, the person or small group of people who need to be told are the least likely to realize that they’re the problem. Conscientious people – whose behaviour is fine – would be the ones worrying whether they were adequately respectful.

      3. Espero Fontas*

        Sometimes there is a widespread cultural problem of bystanders supporting bullies, or standing around uncomfortably rather than supporting victims of bullies, and a “bullying workshops” are designed to address this. That’s not what you should do where such simple solutions as “directly order the bully to knock it off” or even “fire the bully” are so readily available to management.

    2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      Nobody said workshop, though. They could have planned to talk to Mark for strategies the manager could use, they could have wanted Mark to facilitate between the bully and their target (not that that would be a great idea, either), they might have wanted Mark to talk to the bully.

        1. Lydia*

          That’s it. I’m starting a business called The Commonsense Consultant. I’ll go in, tell management what should be painfully obvious, and take their money.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            A fair number of consultants will openly state that they go in and talk to the frontlines people, who know most of the things that need to be fixed, and then they tell that to the top people who are like “for $50,000 this must be true.”

            1. MigraineMonth*

              So true. If you paid $50,000 for it, it must be valuable! More valuable than all this feedback we’re getting from front-line staff for free.

              1. Consultants*

                A good consultant will be perfectly happy to acknowledge that what you’re paying for, really, is the logo on the report.

      1. Claire*

        They did. The first sentence of the letter is “The research department at my workplace has a bully and I was recently asked to look into workshops to address it.”

      2. Cordelia*

        yes they did, OP said she was asked to look into workshops and that’s why she contacted Mark, to facilitate. The first of your suggestions sounds like management coaching – maybe needed, as management don’t seem to be doing their jobs properly – the second is mediation – definitely inappropriate, it’s not the victim(s) who need to change – and the third is just abdication of responsibility by the management

      3. Properlike*

        OP, you need an “anti-shitty-manager consultant.” Dollars to donuts, Mark’s a self-proclaimed “expert” in that, too.

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      Because unfortunately there are places like where I work that seem to be allergic to directly telling people to cut it out.

      Instead we bring in consultants to talk about people communicate differently and treat the entire situation like a personality conflict instead of what it actually is.

      1. Lydia*

        “Well, maybe if we have a workshop, Joe the Bully We All Know About, will recognize himself and change his ways.”

      2. MigraineMonth*

        “Yes, it’s a problem that Joe keeps punching people, but what have you done to make your face less punchable?”

          1. TurnedMeIntoANewt*

            Teachers and school admins take the same approach. The managers witnessed/experienced this as a kid and carried with them.

    4. A Simple Narwhal*

      Agreed! I had to reread to make sure that it said the office had a problem with one person being a bully, not an overall culture of bullying. It does not seem like a consultant is needed to address the behavior of one person.

      Plus if letters here are any indication, the person in question almost never recognizes themselves as the problem when a whole group is addressed. So there’s a good chance that even a good anti-bullying workshop would be worthless the fix this issue.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        the person in question almost never recognizes themselves as the problem when a whole group is addressed

        Management often doesn’t either, unfortunately.

      2. Michelle Smith*

        To fix the issue, yes. They should just fire the bully.

        But there is value in having training for the people who aren’t the problem. The value is how to identify and prevent future issues. It’s why we have workplace violence training and sexual harassment training where I work, despite those being obviously fireable offenses. It’s good to tell people: this is the line of what is and is not acceptable, if you see someone cross the line this is how you report it, and this is how you should handle it if it’s happening to someone else rather than to you personally.

    5. Sara without an H*

      Why is a consultant being brought in for this? Because management is afraid to manage.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        They could bring in a second consultant to discuss what went down with the first consultant.

        Meanwhile the bully is carrying on like their bullying has no negative consequences for them, and is absolutely correct in that assessment. What are they going to do, hire a third consultant to consult about the first two?

    6. Beth*

      This was my first thought too. You have one (1) problem employee–why does that mean hiring a consultant to run a workshop for the entire organization? Odds are pretty good that [Bully] either won’t recognize that the workshop is targeted at them or won’t change their behavior based on such a widely-targeted approach. A workshop is useful for a broad culture problem; an individual troublemaker should be handled individually.

      OP, you didn’t bully anyone by telling your friend that Ann isn’t treating their conversations as private info. You haven’t been gossiping maliciously, you didn’t backstab anyone, and you didn’t betray confidentiality. (Did you even have a reason to think your meeting with Mark was under strict confidentiality and couldn’t be discussed even with people who were already involved in the issue? That’s not a baseline assumption of most human communication, so unless he specifically asked you to keep everything discussed confidential and you agreed, he’s really out of line here!) But your biggest problem right now isn’t this consultant. It’s not even your workplace bully. It’s your manager who won’t stand up for their employees, won’t address problems when they arise, and won’t listen when you have a clear red-flags interaction with a contractor he’s considering hiring.

      1. 1LFTW*

        That’s not a baseline assumption of most human communication, so unless he specifically asked you to keep everything discussed confidential and you agreed, he’s really out of line here!

        I noticed that too. Mark is carrying on like he’s LW’s confessor, or like she’s his, and that’s incredibly weird.

    7. Letter Writer*

      LW here. There is more context about the environment that this is happening in that may make certain things, like the decision to hold an anti-bullying workshop for all staff, make more sense. However, it felt too revealing to disclose in a letter that would be publicly posted and I didn’t think it had much bearing on the specific issue that I am having with Mark.

      That being said, I agree that the original bully is an issue that should have been dealt with a long time ago. Me and Emma have been pushing for this. The workshop at least felt like something was happening, and I thought maybe it would open management’s eyes to the seriousness of the issue.

  2. Hills to Die on*

    This is just a dumpster fire and I would be tempted to avoid all of these people except Emma.

    1. Stay-at-Homesteader*

      Yeah my eyes glazed over about halfway through this letter and my brain just stopped taking in more information. I had to stop and force myself to pay attention because the level of drama in this situation and the mental contortions the poor OP is being forced to do because of it is the kind of thing that just causes me to shut down.

      Kudos to Alison for cutting through the crap. OP, I hope you have luck in detangling this mess – it is not one of your own making!

      1. Double A*

        Yeah I could barely follow this because the drama is so complicated and also petty. This is a situation where the LW is so deep in it it makes sense to them, but from an outside perspective this is incomprehensible banana crackers. And to be clear, I don’t think the LW is petty; I think they’re deeply ensconced in dysfunction. They’re trying to navigate the situation like a normal person when everyone else is being deeply weird.

        To be honest, I think leaving is the best option. Start job hunting LW.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        This situation sounds like a Gordian Knot and requires a very specific type of detangling.

    2. JustMyImagination*

      I’d avoid Emma, too, to be honest. If I were in Emma’s position and LW told me that Ann was betraying my confidence. I’m not escalating the drama by confronting Ann. I’m taking note of it and adjusting the information I tell Ann.

      1. ferrina*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t be Emma’s biggest fan after this. Of course, Mark’s behavior far eclipses hers.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*


        LW: “Emma, you may want to be careful around Ann, Ann leaks information to Mark”
        Emma: (immediately tells Ann)
        Ann: (in a complete and shocking plot twist, leaks information to Mark)

        I am at a complete failure to understand why Emma did this.

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            I bet you’re onto something. Bully is sucking up all the problem-identifying oxygen. But if they retired to an underwater volcano lair tomorrow, things would still suck.

        1. AngryOctopus*

          It might be more of
          Emma: Immediately goes to Ann and says “why would you tell Mark X?????”
          but since the outcome is the same, it doesn’t matter. But I can for sure hear the distant hum of a swarm of bees in this situation, and it’s getting closer.

          1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

            Yeah, I have to assume this was Emma going back to Ann in a negative fashion…and potentially Ann going to Mark equally as negatively (“Mark, you promised not to bring up what I told you about Bully! Emma is terrified Bully will make things worse if it gets back to him!”).

        2. 1LFTW*

          She *may* have thought Ann should know that Mark was being unprofessional by sharing what she’d said to him about the bully. But even so, the fact that there was anything to say in the first place indicates that Ann also lacks discretion, so if I were Emma I’d have kept my mouth shut.

          This whole thing reminded me of middle school drama about who said what to whom about who. It was exhausting back then, and it’s exhausting now.

      3. learnedthehardway*

        Agreed. Emma lacks discretion, because it is clearly she who disclosed the name of the workplace bully to Ann, who in turn, passed on the name to Mark.

        Mark is definitely trying to deflect from the fact that he had knowledge/information he wasn’t supposed to have, yet. He’s gaslighting the OP to say she mentioned the name, when she clearly didn’t.

        I’d follow this up hard with the OP’s manager – this Mark guy is bad news, and he’s going to cause more problems than he solves.

      4. B*

        Also, Emma appears to have turned this tidbit of internal information into (1) a business opportunity for her friend’s (questionably qualified…) relative, and (2) a more public topic of gossip.

        Everyone involved here has bad judgment.

  3. NotBatman*

    The idea that people bully others because of low self-esteem is unscientific and untrue. I’m concerned Mark holds that belief so strongly, if by nothing else in his behavior.

    1. Venus*

      Although it would be tempting to respond “So you have low self-esteem? Or are you a bully for a different reason?”

    2. Warrior Princess Xena*

      I’m more concerned that Mark is focusing in so hard on the causes of bullying. That might be appropriate for a teacher who’s got to figure out if they need to do intervention work, or for a therapist, but it’s not important at work. At work, bullying or abusive behavior is unacceptable and it’s the boss’s job to get it to stop.

      1. Antilles*

        That part was pretty weird to me. Who cares about the cause? It legitimately doesn’t matter why the bully is acting the way he does, the answer in a workplace is still the exact same:

        We hired a professional adult and expect you to act accordingly, which includes treating your colleagues with appropriate professional decorum. Your actions such as X and Y are not satisfying that standard. Either fix your behavior immediately or start packing boxes.

        1. NotBatman*

          Exactly! Therapy has no place in a work setting; an anti-bullying intervention should focus on the desired outcome, not on speculating about possible causes deep within the psyche of someone the consultant barely knows.

  4. Cynan*

    This may be tangential, but I am really, really not a fan of using the word “bullying” to describe adult behavior. (I don’t even love it for kids, to be honest, but it’s way too mild for adults.) I wonder if your boss’s approach would be different if the underlying behavior were described as abuse or harassment instead of bullying.

    1. Jane Bingley*

      I came here to say this too. Frankly, I don’t even like it in the context of children’s behaviour. It’s important to name what’s actually going on – is someone lying or gaslighting colleagues? Is someone gossiping about others or doing reputation all damage? Is there physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or harassment?

      Bullying is a vague term and has childish implications for many. “Bob is a bully” isn’t super clear. “Bob is controlling and intimidates people who don’t obey his commands” is clearly a fireable offense.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        That’s pretty much how I feel too. Bullying is used to mean so much from this group is becoming a clique and others are being excluded to somebody physically or sexually assaulting others and while all of it is a problem, there are different solutions.

        Plus it is easy for people like Mark to weaponise words like “bullying” because it is so vague. Obviously, people can lie even if they have to describe the behaviour more specifically, but “it’s bullying because you upset me and your intent doesn’t matter” can cover a lot, from very valid complaints to stuff like this.

      2. Zap R.*

        Agreed. It’s why it drives me crazy when homophobia and racism among kids gets classified as “bullying.” It minimizes the behaviour and removes it from any larger context.

      3. tangerineRose*

        In school, when I got tripped in the hall a couple of times, I think that could reasonably be considered bullying. (I was as shy kid, so I guess some kids found me easy to pick on.)

    2. witch*

      Yeah, this is way all dramatic than it honestly needs to be despite the seriousness of the situation at large. If there is a bully, singularly, their manager needs to outline to them the behaviors they need to knock off and then make sure they’ve stopped.

      That’s it. So unless there’s a larger issue than one single discipline issue here I think the way your workplace is handling this is off.

      1. tangerineRose*

        It depends on the bullying. If the bully is hitting people, call the police and fire the bully now!

    3. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      To be fair, we don’t know the details of the behaviour. Sometimes “bullying” is the right word; sometimes the behaviour in question extends to abuse or harassment.

      But I do agree that those are sometimes better words which convey the severity of the situation.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I think @Jane Bingley had a good point about it being vague in any case. Is it gossip? Is it screaming tantrums? Is it the silent treatment? Is it cliquish behavior? Is it everyone leaving on a beer run and leaving the same person to provide coverage every time?

    4. Earlk*

      I think there can distinct difference between bullying and harassment and abuse amongst colleagues and based on an earlier letter today I don’t think bullying should really be called mild regardless of the age of the people involved.

    5. Stormfly*

      In my country in western Europe, bullying is the technical term for this sort of behaviour, and is what it’s referred to as in legislation. Harrassment only refers to when the behaviour is related to a protected class (e.g. sexual harrassment, discriminatory behaviour based on religion or race).
      Abuse is normally used as a technical term for types of crime, such as domestic abuse or child abuse.
      I don’t think there’s really a word that fits better than bullying. It needs to cover a pretty wide range of behaviour, so no word is going to feel right for all situations.

      1. Sal*

        Super interesting! I’m in the US (and a lawyer) so harassment and other words like assault etc. have some of the “super serious” valence and connotation stripped off of them. I’m not a fan of “bullying” because of its breadth and its connotations, as described above, and I’m very interested to learn that it’s a legal term of art in W. Europe!

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Yeah, the legal definition of assault really does not match the colloquial one. Outside of a courtroom, describing “I thought he would hit me” as assault would be confusing.

      2. Mim*

        Similarly, our school district’s bullying policy is specific and broad. In that context I think it makes sense — they are addressing a broad category of harmful interpersonal behaviors that require investigation. Obviously, the urgency, scope, and repercussions will depend a lot on the details, but it makes a lot more sense to group all of those things together under the term “bullying” for the purposes of having a cohesive plan that doesn’t leave anyone involved confused about which set of policies we are following for this specific thing. Also, these things are never standalone incidents, and tend to involve more than one type of bullying over a long period of time.

        Unfortunately, as a parent whose kid has been the target of a lot of bullying, I truly appreciate that the school system is set up to just call it all one thing. It would be a complete mess otherwise. It’s already hard enough to deal with as-is, when the incidents vary so much in type.

    6. Gyne*

      Yeah, I think it both inadequately describes really horrific behavior and is so, so overused in a lot of adult contexts.

      But I’m also reading “The Body Keeps the Score” now and one thing that strikes me is that all the victims in the book are the villians in some else’s story – trauma causes a lot of collateral damage and keeps getting propagated by traumatized people inflicting pain on those around them. It takes a lot of real, focused work to break the cycle.

    7. tg33*

      Where I am, the term “bullying” is quite tightly defined. If it is used in legislation in the US, it should be defined there too.

    8. I AM a Lawyer*

      In California, it’s called abusive conduct, which I think works. It’s distinguished from the legal definition of harassment, which can be similar behavior, but is specifically linked to protected classifications.

  5. Caramel & Cheddar*

    Huge yes to the last paragraph, which was my very first question when I started reading this letter.

  6. L-squared*

    I won’t lie, I do find this kind of amusing. Mainly because at this point, we have diluted the meaning of bullying so much that this type of thing was bound to happen eventually. When we started saying everything was bullying, intent doesn’t matter, feelings being more important than actual actions, etc, then there was a point where it was going to get to the point of parody, and I think we have now reached it.

    Its also quite the game of telephone, which also doesn’t surprise me when its not clear what happened. Something happened with OP and Mark. OP told Emma, who told Ann, who told Mark. Yeah, when someone hears something third hand, you can’t expect it to be the exact same thing.

    To be clear, I don’t think OP bullied Mark, nor do I think Mark bullied OP. But this whole thing just sounds pretty ridiculous.

      1. L-squared*

        Gaslighting – Yet another word that gets thrown around way too much. Gaslighting has a specific definition, this isn’t it. Sites like this one and reddit use it to describe things that are annoying, but don’t rise to that level

        1. zuzu*

          Except Mark is trying to gaslight OP by denying that he named Ann as the source of the information about the bully’s identity. He even said it in front of *two* people, and he’s denying it, and trying to tell OP she’s bullying him/breaking confidentiality for claiming he did! That’s practically textbook gaslighting. The folks on Reddit who overuse it just use it for people who disagree with them.

          1. Heather*

            Is that really gaslighting? just saying “that didn’t happen the way you remember it” is different from subtly manipulating someone into thinking they can’t trust their own memory. if Mark had e.g. altered notes OP took about their conversation that would be one thing. saying “no you’re wrong” isn’t gaslighting.

            1. Irish Teacher*

              It seems like he is subtly manipulating her into thinking she can’t trust her own memory though. She says “a part of me still thinks maybe I am just trying to justify my behavior and that there is something I am missing here,” which implies to me that she is starting to doubt her own memory and to question if she has forgotten something that would change who is in the right here.

              Maybe he isn’t doing that deliberately. She does mention trauma that could be causing this, but the effect of it is to make her doubt her own memory.

            2. theletter*

              I would say that saying ‘that didn’t happen the way you remember,’ when it is what actually happened, is a way of manipulating someone into thinking they can’t trust their own memory.

              1. JM60*

                That depends on intent. If you sincerely believe that someone is wrong, then correcting them is almost certainly not gaslighting (even if you happen to be wrong). If you intentionally mis-correct someone, then that’s likely gaslighting.

                However, intent doesn’t matter according to Mark (which I disagree with).

                1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

                  Given how incredibly fallible and malleable human memory is, the Vehm diagram of lying, unintentionally mistaken, legitimately believing true something that is factually wrong, and gaslighting must look like a Jeremy Bearimy.

            3. zuzu*

              I think it is, though:

              1. “When Mark met with me and my manager, he started by saying, “Ann told me that [Bully] is the problem in your department.”

              2. After the meeting, I told Emma what Mark said and that she may want to be careful about what she shares with Ann.

              3. Emma confronted Ann, who then talked to Mark.

              4. Mark denied to Ann that he brought up the bully’s name at all, saying I was the one who named them.

              5. He then came to our office several days later to address the situation with me and my manager. Mark said that I made an assumption about how he and Ann learned about the bully because neither of them attributed it to Emma at any time. He said I broke confidentiality based on that assumption and he can no longer trust me. He said this was an act of bullying against him. He used the terms “spreading gossip” and “backstabbing.”

              #4 is really the key step here. What he’s doing is trying to make OP doubt her own memory of how this thing went down in order to deflect blame from Ann, I guess. Mark claims he wasn’t the one who told OP and her manager the name, and in fact Mark didn’t know the name AT ALL until OP brought it up herself, and THAT was the way Mark learned who the bully was! Of *course* he had to tell Ann at that point, and then we move into #5: OP is just being unprofessional, breaking confidentiality and spreading rumors and gossip to cover her tracks and throwing poor Emma and Ann under the bus because of an assumption she, OP, made.

              Smells like gas to me.

              1. zuzu*

                Oh, and he wanted to deflect blame from himself as well. He didn’t want Ann blamed for divulging to him, and he didn’t want himself blamed for divulging to OP and her manager.

            4. Beth*

              He’s lying about what happened in an attempt to convince OP that her memory of events is wrong and untrustworthy. That’s pretty textbook gaslighting. Quibbling over the exact format of the lie (e.g. written notes vs verbal record) or whether it’s subtle enough to count as gaslighting (how would you even describe a standard line for what manipulation is ‘subtle enough’?) doesn’t seem useful to me.

              1. Boof*

                I think the problem is gaslighting originally indicated a very specific intent and pattern, whereas this is one incident and it is possible Mark actually just doesn’t remember accurately. I get hella frustrated when my spouse starts saying I am gaslighting them because I remember a situation differently then they do. It really shuts down any attempts at mutual understanding/teamwork and puts me in defensive mode tediously going through our memories and walking through whatever he said/she said went down and then 2 hrs later finally we can agree that maybe no one’s randomly attacking anyone and we’re in a reactive spiral and ffff I hate it. *cough* uh, so, yeah, I have kind of come to loathe the term gaslighting except when it’s pretty clearly part of an intentional abusive pattern – here i think it is entirely possible mark just is getting defensive and not recalling things correctly (that doesn’t make mark’s behavior ok just I wouldn’t call it gaslighting – he sounds like a terrible consultant and why is he even involved in any of this anyway)

                1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

                  I do agree it is about a PATTERN. Anyone can misremember or experience a moment differently and stand pretty firm in it without being sinister. If you have ever had the “I told you this”/”No you didn’t” argument with a close friend, family member, or partner you know the reality could be:

                  a) You told me, but I have legitimately forgotten the conversation
                  b) You told me, but I wasn’t really listening
                  c) You physically told me, but I had my earphones in and figured if it was super important you would mention it again
                  d) You thought you told me, but you actually told Dave
                  e) You sent it in the group text, but I’m not on that group text!
                  f) You sent it in the group text and I muted it when you were all discussing the finale of Ted Lasso before I had seen it and forgot to unmute it
                  g) You meant to tell me, but that was the day Sally lost her job and you had to have an impromptu bar crawl to cheer her up
                  h) The words you used to tell me the thing I did not interpret to mean what you actually were telling me
                  i) I really wasn’t clear what you were telling me when you told me but I decided to just assume this is what you mean
                  j) No, that word you use does not actually mean that and so you quite literally told me the opposite of the thing you claim to have told me
                  k) You never told me, you know that, but we are too far into this fight for anyone to cede any ground and you will totally admit this tomorrow
                  l) You told me, I know that, but we are too far into this fight for anyone to cede any ground and I will totally admit this tomorrow
                  m) None of the above

                  …that list went on, but as you can tell, I agree that treating gaslighting as the default reason for two people having completely different recollections of events is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded room. Don’t see a fire, but there is some smokiness, and weird electrical burning smell? Yup, that is a pattern, let that yell loose! Hell, if you think it’s probably not a fire, but you aren’t sure and you’re worried, go ahead and pull a fire alarm and calmly direct people to an exit. But if all you are doing is catching a stray whiff of someone’s smoked turkey sandwich and you start screaming “FIRE!” all you are doing is causing a stampede because “well, I smelled smoke so technically it could have been a fire.”

          2. cabbagepants*

            The word for this behavior is “disagreeing” or “lying,” depending on whether Mark really believes his own version of events.

              1. Boof*

                Gaslighting is deliberately lying or messing with a person’s environment in order to make a person disbelieve their memory so they are easier to manipulate. Not all lying is gaslighting.

                1. Dek*

                  That’s why I said it’s a specific kind of lying. I was referring to Mark’s behavior, where the above comment says that it’s either “disagreeing” or it’s lying.” If Mark is lying, then in this case, he is gaslighting her, because he is lying to make her doubt her recall (and adding a lot of psuedo-psychobabble to emphasize that the problem is her, and she’s lying)

                2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

                  I think Dek is trying to say that all gaslighting is lying, but not all lying is gaslighting.

            1. JM60*

              It essentially depends on intent. If he was intentionally wrong when correcting the OP, then he’s gaslighting. Otherwise, it’s not gaslighting.

              But Mark ironically thinks intent doesn’t matter.

              1. Boof*

                Exactly! I think that’s a big problem with the word gaslighting is it implies a certain level of intent that is almost impossible to know unless the abuser fesses up for some reason (or, i suppose, if they are engaging in the more classic gaslighting of altering the environment to trigger crazymaking and you catch it on video etc etc – like clearly hiding someone’s keys then acting all concerned about whether they are ok when they can’t find their keys etc)

        2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

          This is gaslighting. Gaslighting is telling someone something didn’t happen. Here Mark is denying he said the bully’s name. But he did. Then he made it all that OP behaved a certain way when she did not.

          1. Heather*

            no it isn’t! that’s just lying. gaslighting is manipulating someone into doubting their perception and memories. you can lie to my face all you want but it’s not going to make me misremember something that happened to me. if you e.g. deepfake a recording or change notes I took about the meeting that is gaslighting.

            1. theletter*

              you might find it easy to trust your own memory, but there are a lot of people who do have memory issues and are very susceptible these kinds of lies. It’s entirely possible to gaslight someone just by emphatically denying their side of the story until they succumb to pressure.

              1. cabbagepants*

                But gaslighting isn’t just taking actions that result in someone questioning their own memory. Gaslighting is a deliberate and systematic pattern of behavior with the intention of deceiving.

                If someone says “chocolate tastes better than vanilla” and that causes you to doubt your own preference for vanilla, that doesn’t mean that that person gaslit you.

            2. Irish Teacher*

              While I agree that just denying something happened isn’t gaslighting, I don’t think one needs to go to the extent of things like changing notes for it to be gaslighting. I think in most real cases (as opposed to TV situations where I suspect stuff like the deepfakes are more common), it’s done more psychologically, like repeatedly telling somebody, “you’re so sensitive. You know, deep down, I’d never do that, don’t you? You’re just imagining things because of your anxieties. You should really seek therapy, you know.”

              When you are constantly faced with somebody who seems to remember things completely differently to you and sounds 100% serious and even concerned about you that you are remembering things so inaccurately, it would be easy to start doubting yourself. After all, one of the two of you is completely out of touch with reality.

              And that seems like what Mark is sort of trying to do by insisting she should reflect and think about why she is behaving like this.

              I do think gaslighting is becoming a bit of a buzzword that can be overused, but in this case, I think it is valid. It really seems like Mark is making the LW question reality. No, he hasn’t doctored any information but it seems like he is sounding so plausible and using his reputation as an expert to make her feel, “well, if an expert on bullying thinks I bullied him, I must have done something, even if I can’t remember having done so.”

              1. Heather*

                I agree that in the case of a close relationship with someone you already trust, them persistently and insidiously insisting on a false narrative like that might “classify” (for lack of a better term). But this guy Mark directly contradicting LW to their face the first time they work together is obviously a “him” problem. LW has absolutely no reason to believe he’s operating in good faith, so in my opinion calling this gaslighting is misusing the term.

                1. Beth*

                  It’s pretty clear that part of the reason OP is questioning herself here is that she DOES have reason to believe he’s operating in good faith: he’s a well-known expert on bullying in her area. Wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of person who should know whether her behavior is bullying or not? Who should be calling out something real and important when he tells her that her defensiveness is leading her to misremember what happened? OP even tells us that’s part of why she’s struggling here: “It doesn’t help that Mark is an expert with decades of experience helping organizations deal with workplace bullying so I want to defer to his expertise, but something in me is resisting it.”

                  It’s absolutely true that someone with strong confidence in their own memory and social skills could see through that manipulation. But that’s not the standard for whether it counts as gaslighting–with any manipulation strategy, there are always some people who aren’t susceptible to it. Gaslighting is about using manipulation (lying, using his position of power/expertise as a pressure point, etc) to convince someone that their mind is unreliable and they can’t trust their own memory. That’s exactly what’s happening here.

            3. Elizabeth West*

              Isn’t telling you you don’t remember something when you clearly heard it manipulation, though?

              Case in point, the original Gaslight movie, from where the term comes:

              “I know you never lie to me. I believe you. You’re not lying. It’s worse than lying. You’ve forgotten.” – Charles Boyer to Ingrid Bergman

              “But you did not hear me say that, because I never said that. You’re bullying me.” – Mark the Jerk to OP

              They’re both manipulating the person they’re talking to.

              1. Heather*

                But if that’s all Charles Boyer’s character did there would be no movie. the whole point is that he changes the physical environment to make her doubt her own perception and memories. Just lying to someone’s face isn’t anywhere near that level of manipulation, and LW can easily brush him off as being dramatic (maybe he’s trying to drum up more business!) and move on.

                1. Expelliarmus*

                  That’s all he needed to do in that situation, but just because one does not need to change the physical environment to support their lies doesn’t mean that they are automatically not gaslighters.

                2. Anna*

                  I mean – look, I do agree that gaslighting as a word gets misused/overused sometimes. And I understand why anybody whose dealt with the “if people have two different memories of an event, one of them must Be Gaslighting (as opposed to, you know, a side effect of the fact human memory is not super accurate” variety of misusing the term gaslighting would have a strong reaction – that is indeed a definition of the term that leads to wildly unhealthy behavior.

                  But, I’m gonna be real: I’ve had enough friends need serious therapy for dealing with the aftermath of loved ones playing “Oh no, of course I wasn’t just screaming at you / didn’t throw your stuff against the wall five minutes ago. Do you need to adjust your meds or something?” games. That it gets my hackles up when I see people claim that the fact it’s verbal means it’s easy to dismiss or be unimpacted.

                  Honestly. . . ya, repeated instances of that type of flagrant lying to people’s faces can really mess with your head. For a lot of people it’s hard to convince themselves they have a full grip on reality when someone is calmly sitting in front of them saying that easily verifiable things right in front of them can’t be true. The intent is the same, and the impact is often the same too.

                  Look, whether or not you want to call what’s going on in *this letter* gaslighting or not (I think DARVO is more accurate to what he’s doing, frankly), whatever. But at the very least it’s pretty clear this isn’t just a basic “he misremembered something” issue. A normal response if he misremembered or thought his behavior was being misrepresented would be to say “hey, I could’ve sworn you had already mentioned the bully’s name to me before I said that. And fwiw I got that info from [blank], not Emily.” And probably wouldn’t involve him telling different stories to people about whether he said the name or where he got the info.

                  But “not only is this thing you say I did not true, but you must’ve made it up to hurt me, you’re violating confidentiality I never told you existed, and now we’re going to talk about your internal motivations instead of any of the *very reasonable reasons* you might have felt compelled to escalate if you were worried Anne was leaking data that wasn’t Hera to give”? Is not that.

                  (Again, I think DARVO is more accurate a description of behavior here: whether or not he actually thinks he gave the bully’s name is irrelevant to the fact he’s deflecting the convo from “are there privacy concerns with Emily talking to Anne if she’s going to give all that info to you, likely through a filter” to “I’m sad you told me I did something wrong, reflect on what you’ve done.”)

            4. MigraineMonth*

              Memory is just so susceptible to change, though, that it’s easy to introduce doubt and inaccuracies. Every time we recall a memory, we actually rewrite it. That’s why eyewitness accounts are so fragile.

              Ask “Did the burglar have facial hair?” and bam, the burglar now has a mustache in the original memory. “Which of these men in the lineup is the burglar?” and bam, the original memory is rewritten with one of the faces in the lineup.

            5. Anna*

              Not to derail too much on this – but if you’re using the play as the source of what gaslight means, the “lying to people’s faces” is much closer to what happened in that play than deepfakes or note changing?

              Like, it centers around him telling her the dimming lights and noises are her hallucinating, to her face. A large part of the premise and why it has cultural significance is because of how disorienting it is to have someone calmly deny what’s easily verifiable with your senses. It doesn’t work on you, great. It does work on a lot of other people, and the intent is the same as changing someone’s notes and the like.

              Some adaptions add more stuff to intensify the issue + make it more dramatic, but the core crux of the issue, “deliberate lying to convince someone they’re insane,” remains the same.

              Tbh the “no it’s only gaslighting if it gets to the level of physically altering an environment” comes across to me similarly as “no it’s only physical abuse if they’re near ending up in the hospital.” Gaslighting combined with physical manipulations might be more intense, and more likely to work – but verbal gaslighting is still gaslighting, the intent is the same, and it still can cause a lot of damage.

              1. Boof*

                IDK lots of people lie for lots of reasons; and I suppose language can change meaning, but it’s hard for me to get over the original reference in the name, which was a very severe and pervasive and intentional form of lying. No one is arguing that it isn’t a lie, or DARVO, or otherwise very inappropriate behavior. But it’d be equally weird to me for, say, “oh they’re Shining you!” (referencing the eventually murderous husband in the movie) for every type of inappropriate physical act (like throwing things, blocking exits, etc) to become a common lexicon. Doesn’t mean those aren’t intimidating or wrong, just the reference seems a lot more severe than the current situation.

          2. JM60*

            Gaslighting is telling someone something didn’t happen.

            No, that’s not sufficient to be gaslighting! If someone sincerely believes that something didn’t happen, then informing you of that isn’t gaslighting (even if they’re sincerely mistaken). Just because someone is correcting you doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting you.

            If they know that something happened, and they lie to you about it not happening (which I suspect Mark did), then that’s gaslighting.

        3. Another Math Teacher*

          It most definitely fits multiple definitions of gaslighting. (There is not “a” definition.)

          Three of these:

          1. Projecting their bad behavior onto you
          2. Making your (supposed) behavior responsible for their poor behavior
          3. Telling you what is objectively true is not what happened

          Veteran of MANY a gaslighter here, reading a book about it right now. Realizing I probably don’t need to read the book.

          1. Ferret*

            Neither of the first two mean any definition I have ever seen of gaslighting and they represent a broadening of the term that I think is extremely unhelpful. Gaslighting is a form of abuse, that doesn’t mean that all abuse is gaslighting.

            No3 in your list is closer to the definition but I believe the actual term should be reserved for when the lying is known deliberately in order to make them doubt themselves (as per the origin). A child lying about stealing the last cookie when they are covered in crumbs is not gaslighting you, an anti-vaxxer going on about microchips in your blood is not either although they are clearly awful in other ways

          2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

            Ferret is right. The first 2 are more motives and broader behavior patterns. Like they can be projecting their bad behavior onto you or making your behavior responsible for their poor behavior VIA gaslighting, but that doesn’t make those things gaslighting. The gaslighting is the 3rd part.

            I’ve workshopped this definition:

            When an party engages in a pattern of deliberate behavior that asserts, advocates, or implies that 1) the target’s perception of reality, or specific aspect thereof, is fundamentally different from objective reality and/or 2) that, de facto, the party’s perception of reality, or specific aspect thereof, more accurately represents objective reality than the target’s.

            Crucial in this definition for me is the fact it doesn’t matter why it is happening, it does require intent. And also that it needn’t achieve the manipulation objectives…there is no “attempted gaslighting”, it is just “gaslighting that doesn’t work.”

        4. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

          Claiming someone said something they did not and trying to make them feel that perfectly normal behaviours are the result of emotional issues (like low self worth) is absolutely gaslighting.

        5. Expelliarmus*

          Mark is trying to make OP think she said something that she didn’t say. He’s either wildly misremembering or gaslighting.

          1. Expelliarmus*

            I agree with your general statement that “bullying” and “gaslighting” have such diluted meanings, though.

        6. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          It does get thrown around too much, but when the person does this: “He told me intent doesn’t matter and to stop being defensive and instead reflect on my actions to understand the underlying feelings that caused me to act like I did. He said in his experience it was usually feelings of powerlessness or worthlessness.”

          that’s textbook gaslighting.

        7. MCMonkeyBean*

          Gaslighting is overused, but it is definitely the correct term for what is happening here. This is a pretty classic case of it.

        8. Boof*

          In contemplating this further, perhaps there is effect and intent – we can seldom truly know someone’s intent (unless they confess about it) – and effect. When someone lies it’s hard to know if their intent is specifically to drive the person crazy, or if it’s just to dodge some sort of blame. We can know the effect on the person being lied to, if it makes them question their judgment. So I suppose all lying that makes someone really doubt themselves is, in a sense, gaslighting. Problem I have with it is that just about all lying does that; makes me doubt what I think happened happened.
          I’m thinking about a relative I live with who had secret alcohol problem; they were occasionally acting weird. They had a few falls. Once, I actually found a glass of alcohol and went around curious who left it out, since I accidentally drank some of it thinking it was water (I think it was gin or vodka or something that pretty effectively hides alcohol smells; IDK too much of this stuff and yes I am gross assuming it was my husband’s leftover glass and ok to sip from). I asked them + an exchange student who was staying and everyone denied it. Finally the truth came out when there was a medical crisis (due to the alcohol) and we went through their closet to move stuff them, thinking they were telling us we “didn’t have to” because they didn’t want to be a bother.
          Let me tell you, it sure was crazymaking on my part; I thought maybe they had dementia, I thought maybe for some reason this exchange student was drinking in our house even though that didn’t fit with what I knew of them at all (but I also had no idea the relative would ever lie to my face?? Seriously think very sweet grandma who helps out a ton with the family and never seemed to show any interest in alcohol etc etc). It really damaged my trust in them. But I 100% believe they were not lying to me because they wanted to make me crazy, they were lying because they were ashamed, and would stop when a problem happened for a while, but then start up again after months or a year went by (these problems happened on and off over several years before coming to a head). So, IDK, I wouldn’t call it gaslighting by intent, even if the effect was the same as being gaslit.
          Soooooo I guess that’s it. No conclusions; I still don’t love the term.

      2. cabbagepants*

        I don’t see where Mark is deliberately and systematically feeding LW false information that leads them to question what they know to be true.

        I see Mark being a drama llama.

          1. cabbagepants*

            Please be a joke about how the Internet has diluted the meaning of gaslighting until it just means lying.

            1. Heather*

              that’s exactly it! everyone is using gaslighting now to mean either lying or insisting on a different sequence of events. that’s just called lying or pushing back! gaslighting is really subtle and insidious and it’s being misused here.

                1. Lydia*

                  It’s really crappy for you to question my knowledge of it and experience of it. Thanks for not doing that.

            2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              He’s not simply lying, he’s trying to make OP second-guess themselves. He’s trying to get OP to agree that something they witnessed happening, didn’t, and to admit that they’d made it up because of their internal feelings of worthlessness or whatever. And he’s doing it from a position of power (such as it is) as anti-bullying consultant brought in to combat bullying (whatever it all means).

              “Nah I didn’t do it” would be lying. This is messing with OP’s head.

              1. cabbagepants*

                People are allowed to disagree with each other and speak in support of their version of events without its being psychological manipulation. Good grief.

                1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

                  Exactly, and that is not what Mark is doing.

                  Also how does one disagree on whether they said something they said in front of two people? Either they said it or they don’t. We can disagree on whether impressionists are the best artists in history ever, but how are we going to disagree on whether I am typing this comment right now or not? it is right here. If I tell you I didn’t post it and for you to do some self-searching to figure out why you’re making it up that I did, that’d be… weird to say the least? not me “speaking in support of my version of events”. There is no “my version of events”.

            3. Lydia*

              Please don’t tell someone who has experienced gaslighting that they do not, in fact, recognize gaslighting. It makes you look like a shitty person.

              1. Boof*

                How exactly are commenters supposed to know you have first hand experience of gaslighting yourself, and are speaking from personal experience and your personal feelings on the topic, and not the OP’s letter, situation, and general utility of calling something like what Marc is doing gaslighting?

          2. Ferret*

            gaslighting is not a synonym for lying and it dilutes the impact and effectiveness of the term when you insist that it is

        1. Gyne*

          I agree. Let’s take LW at their word that Mark lied and said he didn’t bring up the Bully’s name first in the meeting. LW’s manager was there too, so it seems pretty straightforward to confirm with the manager their memory of who said what at the meeting.

          It’s also possible that two people simply have different memories of an event…

          1. Lydia*

            This is not that. By doing it in front of other people, Mark is intentionally asking the OP to question if that’s what happened or not.

            1. Gyne*

              I find it interesting that BOTH conversations happened in front of a 3rd party, though, and the manager didn’t refute Mark’s version of events… sort of does call OP’s perceptions into question. Is this the same manager who isn’t managing the bully, though? If so, they’re already proven to be ineffective, so maybe they were equally as weak in the Mark Confrontation. Or does the bully have a different manager? Is OP’s manager an ally or the root cause of the problem?

              This whole situation is so warped though, I hope the LW reads this and leaves ASAP for greener pastures. LW, none of this is normal. Your entire department sounds toxic and dysfunctional and it doesn’t have to be that way.

              1. Salsa Verde*

                That’s what I keep coming back to – there was a third party (OP’s boss), seems like they could easily clear all this up!

              2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

                I mean, it is possible the manager doesn’t remember who said “Dan” first and really didn’t think it is a big deal either way– like, so Mark knows Dan is the problem, we they never going to tell the bullying consultant who the office bully was?

                The fact Manager is trying to say Mark choose his words poorly reads to me like they don’t want to deal with this sub-issue over something that they just don’t see as important.

        2. Iris Eyes*

          He’s not just lying or questioning a version of events though, he is actively ascribing a reason to WHY the OP is an unreliable source, that’s what raises it to the level of probably gaslighting. Its the whole presenting himself as an unbiased and therefor more reliable source and the OP as an emotionally motivated (read “crazy”) source. Its the diagnosis at the end that really pushes it into flashing red warning lights territory.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      No one has said “everything is bullying.”

      Intent does matter but it isn’t the only thing that matters, and we aren’t always the best, most impartial, most insightful judge of our own intentions.

      The law doesn’t always consider intent (like if a man and a woman are paid differently for the same work) because the intent isn’t really relevant there, and makes it too easy to make excuses for unequal treatment.

      Feelings aren’t more important than actual actions, but people’s feelings do matter. This letter is about actual actions so I don’t know why you think that’s part of the problem here.

      This situation isn’t caused by any of the above. It’s caused by Mark accusing the LW of things they didn’t do and projecting reasons on to that instead of listening.

      Sounds a lot like you have a bee in your bonnet about certain issues so you’re taking this letter as evidence to support your worldview.

      1. L-squared*

        Yes, no one has said “everything is bullying”. Its called hyperbole. I assume you understand that, just as I understand you don’t really think I have a bonnet filled with bees.

        But the definition of bullying has been expanded so far, that very minor things are now things people are calling bullying.

        1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

          It is called exaggerating things you don’t like in order to make them sound unreasonable. You know that if you say “we call XXX bullying and I don’t think we should”, you might sound bad. Like you are making excuses for specific behaviours that other people sound unreasonable. So you exaggerate and say that people call “everything” bullying.

          Also, none of that is relevant to the letter because you don’t know what the bully in question did so you should take the LW’s at their word that they’re a bully. You do know what Mark did and many people understand the issue with his behaviour, even if, for some reason, you want to turn it into a ramble about how we call too many things “bullying” and prioritise feelings over actions. Even though nobody in this letter has done any such thing.

      2. Anon for this*

        Interestingly, in my own (ultimately unresolved, although I was able to remove myself personally from the situation) bullying situation that I had to spend far too much time last year trying to resolve in a more systemic fashion, the thing that I was told by management was “intent is *all* that matters, and he *means well* even though he’s being an unprofessional sexist ass, also actually incompetent at the job we’ve hired him to do” (okay, I added that last part). “And as long as he’s *trying to do good* then we have to let him keep doing what he’s doing.” Yeah, I need a new job.

        In case it’s not clear though, Mark’s reaction is DARVO and absurd. I just find it interesting because I got exactly the opposite reaction.

    2. Tracy Flick*

      Well, yeah, Mark did bully the LW. Bullying is when someone feels hostile towards someone else on a personal level – as in, towards them as a person – so they attempt to leverage social structures to create negative consequences at a social level.

      It’s different from harassment in that instead of attacking someone personally (for example, invading their space or sending them threatening letters) the bully enlists other people in the community to engage in collective acts of cruelty.

      The goal is to make the victim the enemy of everyone in the community, so that the entire community is an unsafe place for the victim.

      Obviously, bullying often includes harassment, and vice versa, but harassment within the context of bullying is often intended to reinforce the victim’s inferior/vulnerable social status, to the victim and to the community. Less sending a victim obscene messages, more writing obscene graffiti on the victim’s locker so that everyone can see it.

      That’s what Mark did. He clearly feels personal animus towards the LW, so he utilized his social capital to use social structures (anti-bullying workshop, HR, etc.) to damage the LW’s reputation and humiliate the LW.

      He was hoping that everyone would turn against the LW, and that the LW would lose access to a number of social resources and feel unsafe in related contexts. It might not work, because Mark is unhinged, but that is his strategy.

    3. Dek*

      “we have diluted the meaning of bullying so much that this type of thing was bound to happen eventually”

      I really don’t think this is true at all.

        1. Bess*

          Bullying has been rife in several workplaces I’ve been a part of and unfortunately it’s pretty pernicious and tough to stamp out.

          Usually it’s brushed aside and people with toxic behaviors aren’t told it’s part of their job to get along with and respect others, and actually respectful and professional people are told to adjust to and accept inappropriate and demoralizing behavior.

          I don’t think that a program to address bullying has somehow caused the snake to eat its tail in the way you are suggesting. By taking bullying seriously, we’ve somehow caused more bullying? That’s a bit of a ridiculous statement and often a sign of discomfort and deflection.

          The problem is that Mark is one of those manipulative people who is drawn to a social/psychological specialist role that is utterly inappropriate for him. You can probably think of a therapist or an HR staff member who you could say the same about. Some people gravitate toward these roles due to feeding on drama and conflict.

          You should reread the LW’s letter and see how effective behavior like Mark’s is. After making his own professional errors, to deflect, he accused LW of the same things and convinced her enough that she wrote in about it. You can see in the letter she’s believing on one level that she’s done something wrong, but fighting with her own instincts that her conduct was professional and fine.

          Your conclusion that LW is to blame for this by taking bullying seriously, and that by extension “society” is to blame by taking bullying seriously, doesn’t seem to have a basis in what the LW spells out.

        2. Dek*

          Oh, ok. So what you’re saying is that people with bad faith takes have diluted the meaning then.

    1. Kagan MacTane*

      That movie is a work of fiction. I’m not aware that it’s based on any kind of research.

      1. Laura Charles*

        The movie is based on a non-fiction work of sociology, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman. 100% based on research.

      2. Tom Servo's sister*

        Mean Girls was based, in part, on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, a non-fiction book.

  7. Snarkus Aurelius*

    This whole letter reminds me of my high school.

    My school had a peer conflict resolution program. Peers would get “training” and then offer to resolve conflicts among students. (The real purpose was to beef up college applications.)

    A friend of mine turned to that program, at the school counselor’s suggestion, to address a bully that had been really awful…only to be matched with the bully in question.

    Much like this letter, only the people with the power to discipline can really do anything. The reason my school and your boss prefer to outsource what they should do themselves is do they can avoid dealing with the bully.

    1. Heidi*

      I was also reminded of high school, where the Students Against Drunk Driving were frequently driving drunk.

      I’m curious about what happened to the original bully in this situation. Are they just blithely clueless that all this drama has happened because of them? I’m also really unclear as to who is bound by confidentiality in this scenario.

    2. narya*

      My MIDDLE school had the same thing! To be clear, these were kids who were between 11-13 years old! Who’s bright idea was it outsource “conflict resolution” to children, instead of stepping up and doing their jobs as both adults & employers of the school? Those ridiculous meetings never solved anything and only fueled the bullying behavior.

      I got pulled into one of those meetings because a kid who sat next to me in one of my classes enjoyed starting arguments & causing general disruption. Not necessarily bullying, but you know, instead of the OBVIOUS answer, which was just allowing me to sit somewhere else, we got thrown into a meeting together, mediated by other children. Of course it didn’t solve anything! I’d completely forgotten about all that until I read this letter, lol.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        Ugh, this reminds me of the lecturer I had when studying to be a teacher who told us that if a child was being bullied (and by child here, it meant teenager, aged 12-18; we weren’t training to teach preschoolers), the correct response was to make the bully and the victim sit across from each other with their knees touching and get the victim to tell the bully who it made them feel (yeah, just tell the bully exactly what upsets you so they know exactly what will work for the future) and get the bully to apologise.

        The only thing I could see that achieving is ensuring that no kid ever reports it if they are being bullied.

        At least they didn’t suggest we should let the students mediate it themselves, but the idea that if somebody is being bullied, just get them to sit down and make up, seems similar to what this company is thinking.

        1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

          That;s right up there with what I was always told when I was bullied — oh just stay away from the person. So MY activities have to be curtailed because someone else can’t treat people decently? Meanwhile THEY get to do whatever they want. Might as well become a bully then.

      2. Lady_Lessa*

        The current terminology for that practice is “restorative justice”
        Unfortunately, something similar is around certain evangelical circle in talking about forgiveness.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          While I’m sure it is sometimes done badly, that does not at all describe restorative justice circles I’m familiar with.

          My city has a restorative justice program for young offenders who have committed minor crimes (e.g. vandalism, petty theft) as a jail diversion program. In order to qualify for the program, the offender must admit to the crime and show remorse for the harm caused.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      My kids’ elementary school had a Bully Buster Box, like a suggestion or a ballot box, that kids were encouraged to drop anonymous notes in reporting bullies. Didn’t have to specify what the bully did that constituted bullying. Didn’t have to sign your name. Just a note with another kid’s name on it and that kid would then be hauled into the counselor’s office, parents called and so on. To no one’s shock, bullies used it to “report” their victims. I mean, the box was perfect for it.

      Also, my workplace had an actual bully. Like “people were afraid to come into work because of him” kind of bully. He ended up being fired. It was not easy and took a couple of years, but he was fired as it should be. Bringing a consultant in wouldn’t have accomplished anything.

      1. learnedthehardway*

        The level of critical thinking at your kids’ school is very concerning. Honestly, what kind of teacher / principal cannot think that tactic through to its logical conclusion??!

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          The guidance counselor at that school was… a character. As was the principal at the time. They didn’t like me, I didn’t like them, I was happy to see the end of it when the youngest kid left that school and moved to middle (which was an oasis of sanity in comparison).

          I did call the counselor when I first learned of the box and asked her a lot of questions about how she thought it was going to work vs how it was actually working. She even had the decency to sound embarrassed for a change. Don’t remember if she took the box down or not.

  8. ZSD*

    Mark is completely off his rocker, and the manager should have terminated his contract immediately when he went off on the LW.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Yep. WHY is this person even being allowed to continue? He is now part of the problem rather than solution.

      OP you have nothing to be ashamed of. This guy got exactly what he wanted — you doubting yourself rather than focusing on the real issue which is how HE came across in the first meeting and then LIED about it. After all, if he can get everyone believing YOU were in the wrong, then they won’t terminate his services.

      Just ugh. If you MUST bring in someone, find someone with NO connection to anyone there.

      1. The Rafters*

        Eons and several jobs ago, we had several & the director loved them (because they were all yes men). When the entire place imploded, he couldn’t figure out why.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Every time I have an employee I can’t fire, I hire a consultant, and bam! Brand new employee I can’t fire!

    2. Orange You Glad*

      Yep. He came in with an opinion already formed based on second-hand gossip from someone not employed there or involved in the issue. LW was correct to flag the issue for Emma since it is concerning that an outside party would come in already privy to your internal dispute. There is also no reason that the consultant’s comments about who they thought was the bully should have been kept confidential or assumed to be confidential, if anything they engaged in behavior and spreading information that should have been kept within the company. I wouldn’t engage any further with this person.

  9. I should really pick a name*

    This is just a weird situation.

    1. Why arrange a workshop to deal with one problem employee?
    2. If you’re bringing in someone on a topic as sensitive as bullying, a relative of an employee seems like a strange choice to me.

    1. Cynan*

      I don’t think Ann is an employee; she’s a close friend of an employee who has also done some contract work for the company. Still not ideal, but in a small town, it may be hard to find anyone who doesn’t have some connection.

      1. I should really pick a name*

        Ann has done remote contract work. So not an employee, but still a little close to the situation.

        1. Cynan*

          Indeed, but it’s quite possible that Mark is the only anti-bullying “expert” in their small town, or that the other options are also just one or two degrees of separation from the employer (especially if it’s a relatively large employer).

          1. Another Math Teacher*

            We are in the age of Zoom. No longer must a small town rely on its questionably “qualified” local experts!

            1. MigraineMonth*

              Based on his conduct, I think the town should be grateful it has only one expert bully! Whoops, I mean bullying expert. (Or do I?)

    2. Dust Bunny*

      the issues, which have been going on for years without action from management.

      Complacent, clueless, or avoidant management.

      Mark, a well-known anti-bullying facilitator in our small town,

      Lack of choice, or lack of willingness/awareness to find anything other than what is close at hand.

        1. Heather*

          Ha! I’m amazed that a small town even has “a well known anti-bullying facilitator”…what’s happening in this town?

          1. FrogPenRibbets*

            Thank you, this was my question! I’m now imagining some Dukes of Hazard small town or whatever that movie with Patrick Swayze where he came in to fight the local bully and run a bar.

            But yeah OP… fire this contractor (clearly there’s cause for a contract out) and find someone else. Or better yet, don’t find another another one and just fire the bully that you employ that is prompting this weird training.

          2. Dawn*

            Someone rather clever – if devoid of morals – one day said, “I bet I can make money off of this if I tell everyone I’m an Anti-Bullying Facilitator”

  10. Irish Teacher*

    Like Alison, I find it really odd that your boss is bringing in an anti-bullying expert to deal with one specific bully. If she knows that the person is a bully, she should be dealing with them, possibly firing them or putting them on a PIP, if that is within her control.

    I will also say that in my experience, that there is a certain type of bully who tends to be attracted to careers like this and Mark sounds like that type. Not saying they have more bullies in general than any other type of career but there is a certain type that sees themselves as the judge of all conflicts, including the ones they are involved in. We saw it a while back too with the psychologist/social worker/can’t remember her exact role boss who used her knowledge of psychology to suggest that the LW was showing signs of pathology/trust issues, etc, whenever she raised valid concerns.

  11. Gemstones*

    This sounds like a mess, but why was it wrong for Mark to say, “Ann told me that [Bully] is the problem in your department”? That is the whole reason he was brought in, right? It does seem weird to me to bring in a consultant when the issue is one guy, though…is he supposed to pretend that it’s a department/company-wide problem?

    1. L-squared*

      Right. Like, for better or worse, he was hired not because of a pattern, but for one person. I don’t see the issue with naming the problem, then figuring out how to address it.

    2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      Ann was not involved in bringing in Mark as an expert/consultant, so she shouldn’t have been giving him information–she should have allowed the LW to do that. E.g., it’s possible that they wouldn’t have wanted to identify the bully but just given Mark the situation and asked his advice. This is especially true if Mark knows the bully in other contexts, which seems likely if Ann told him who it was, because that info would be meaningless if it was no one Mark knew.

      1. Pink Candyfloss*

        Exactly. Ann is not involved in this situation and should not have given any input to Mark about it, nor should he have asked her about it, if that’s the way the information changed hands.

    3. Pink Candyfloss*

      Because Mark is coming into the situation with a bias he shouldn’t already have if he is to evaluate the situation dispassionately and get to the root of the problems.

      1. Gyne*

        I think it’s better to disclose a possible bias up front than to hide it. Stating his baseline information from Emma -> Anne -> Mark potentially allowed OP and their manager to confirm or correct the information.

        I’m not clear on what the question Mark was brought in to solve? if there is only one problematic employee, were they looking for outside confirmation that this is true? and then advice for what to do about it?

    4. Silver Robin*

      Because Mark was not supposed to know that information. Anne should definitely not have been naming names about specific employees to an outside consultant before the initial meeting. Once Mark comes in, HR and management can share the specifics of the problem, but it probably came off disconcerting that Mark new details that the relevant parties had not actually decided to disclose yet.

      1. Silver Robin*

        Not intended to add to a chorus – looks like folks already responded while I was writing!

      2. Hiring Mgr*

        I don’t think Ann even works there though? I wouldn’t think she has any obligation for secrecy… Plus if her good friend has been dealing with this for *years* with no action, I don’t blame them for venting

        1. Silver Robin*

          Anne is a contractor, so she does work for the org even if not as directly as Emma does. Unclear if Anne knew Mark was going to get asked to come in (oh they called you? probably about X!), or if she was just gossiping at a family gathering (you would not believe the bullying going on with…). Either way though, not great.

          Mark is the worst here, for sure, but Anne is not a trustworthy recipient of venting since she clearly spreads it beyond that.

          (also, for the sake of clarity, wider culture issues, bigotry, labor violations, and similar should be discussed! Out loud! Publicly! But that is also what Glassdoor and unions are for. Individuals gossiping about other individuals results in messy situations like OPs.)

    5. Myrin*

      Yeah, Mark sounds deeply unpleasant and pretty incompetent in his profession on top of it, but I don’t quite get this as his original offence. It’s probably a more aggressive approach than the one he should take but I don’t really see the difference between him starting off this way and him asking a person who he already knows views Bully as the problem “So, what’s the problem here?” and the other person predictably saying “Bully is the problem”.

    6. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      Perhaps they would confirm the identity of the bully, perhaps they wouldn’t, but that’s something the organisation would surely want to officially brief him on. He shouldn’t have just heard it from Ann, and he shouldn’t be repeating what he’s heard from Ann.

    7. ferrina*

      Professional moderator here.
      You normally start by asking the person hiring you to describe the problem. It helps level-set to understand where that individual is coming from.

      In this case, there’s the added layer of confidentiality and discretion. A moderator who works in conflict resolution/anti-bullying needs to be discrete about their clients. I might say I’ve worked for Client, but I wouldn’t say “they had a major bullying problem, and I fixed it.” If I want clients to be able to honest about their problems, discretion is key. Mark is already being indiscrete in the first meeting. He’s sharing gossip he heard from Ann, who doesn’t even work for that department and it sounds like hasn’t worked with Bully. Yes, that can be a valuable source of information, but I don’t turn around and repeat that back to someone. I ask questions and wait until it’s confirmed. If Mark is already showing a lack of discretion in the first meeting where he’s trying to win their business, I’d be worried about how he’d act later.

      (and in case you are wondering, yes, there are ways to get the client to talk about their bully without Mark needing to bring it up. It’s literally part of the job to get people to be comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their honest concerns)

      1. learnedthehardway*

        Agreed. In fact, in Mark’s shoes, I would have done my diagnostic process, and only afterward would have surfaced the issue that it was getting out in the community that a bully is being tolerated. I would have done this to point out that a) there’s a reputational issue to the company and b) failing to deal with issues internally may create liability – eg. the bully may claim they are being slandered.

        I wouldn’t have disclosed that I knew who the bully was, though. Merely that I had been informed by someone close to the organization that there was a problem.

      2. Dona Florinda*

        Also, it bothers me that Mark just parroted what he heard from an unofficial source, since he was not told by OP (or her boss directly), it was more of case of OP told Emma who told Ann who told Mark…

    8. bamcheeks*

      I am not clear on whether Mark did actually know the bully’s name or not– he seems to be simultaneously denying he knows it and acknowledging that he and Ann did know it. I

      But I’m also unclear on what LW and their manager’s roles are, and how they relate to the bully’s. If this is the first official conversation Mark has had with the organisation, then he should not be letting anyone suspect that he has knowledge of the situation through any backdoor channels. On the other hand, if he’s already spoken to someone in HR who has said, “the problem is Fergus, we have multiple documented complaints about him, but none of the managers in the department are able to take action and that’s what we need you to address” then that’s a slightly different situation.

    1. Jojo*

      It’s like a using the language of therapy to control and gaslight people, but in this case it’s the language of anti-bullying to bully. Mark is full of bees, and those bees are all bullies.

  12. Irish Teacher*

    Mark is weaponising language of conflict here, such as “intent doesn’t matter” and “bullying”. He is using it all in one direction and is failing to reflect on his own actions. Quite frankly, one cannot be the judge of an argument one is involved in. He cannot be the one to determine whether you or he is in the wrong in this situation and telling you to reflect on your actions is not something somebody involved can say. He is one of the parties to this issue and quite frankly, he is the one who has behaved poorly, so he cannot be the arbitrator.

    I honestly suspect he may be right about the feelings of powerlessness, but on his part, not yours. I think it’s distinctly possible he knows he should not have spoked about the bully as he did, mentioning them by name and is trying to put the blame on you, possibly due to his feelings of powerless to undo what he just did.

    I doubt he really believes you lashed out at him to feel better about yourself. It is far more likely that he is trying to find something to blame you for to “turn the argument around” to feel better about himself because he knows he is really the one in the wrong.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      YES. There is a term for this that I can’t remember right now. But its one where abusers — or bullies in this case – turn the words against the victim. I can’t remember if it was a letter here or I saw it on the place that shall not be named (mostly because it has no name now just a letter) where someone was doing this and everyone called it out.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        DARVO: denies responsibility, attacks, reverses victim and offender. He probably had the acronym written on his hand.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Translation: “I f-ed up and now I’m gonna lose this contract and look like a fool. Better blame somebody else.”

    3. penny dreadful analyzer*

      “intent doesn’t matter” is an internet bastardization of the concept “intent isn’t magic,” and frankly its invocation should be taken as a sign that the person invoking it has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about

      1. Cat Tree*

        Exactly. Intent matters because it helps you get to the root of the problem. It isn’t magic and it doesn’t absolve the person of their actions. Being careless or thoughtless isn’t an excuse. But someone who hurts another out of carelessness instead of malicious intent is a lot more likely to stop doing it when made aware of it.

      2. Irish Teacher*

        Yup and it also depends on what is being discussed. When it comes to things that contribute to inequality, intent often doesn’t matter. Whether a company is only promoting men because the boss hates women and thinks only men should be in positions of power or whether he just has an impression in his head of what makes a “leader” and that is influenced by media portrayals of men in power or whether it is more that the company has certain requirements for leadership that men are more likely to be socialised to show…in any case, the effect is similar and needs to be addressed.

        But with bullying, intent most emphatically does matter. In fact, it is often intent that makes it bullying and that is what makes bullying so insidious, that part of the issue is the intent behind it which it’s easy for the victim to question if they are imagining.

  13. ferrina*

    I have run anti-bullying workshops, and I was yelling “No! No! NO!” at my computer.

    1. Mark should not have brought the bullies name up (Never assume you know the dynamics!).

    2. There is no assumption of confidentiality on the client side in a vendor scoping meeting (which is what this sounds like it was?). Saying “this is what we talked about to the vendor” is a ridiculously normal conversation to have with a colleague.

    3. HE CAME TO YOUR OFFICE TO CHIDE YOU?!?!?!?!?! What the what?! I’ve had a couple people talk smack about my consulting behind my back, and I just shrug it off and move on. A lone unhappy client talking to their colleague is a normal part of the business. Instead, he escalated the conflict by confronting you! That is the exact opposite of what should have happened!

    4. He accused you of bullying, backstabbing and gossiping. No, that’s not what happened. You had legitimate concerns, you made your coworker aware of these concerns, and you opted to not bring these up with Mark (which was a reasonable reaction if you’d decided not to work with him- who on earth proactively reaches out to a vendor they aren’t going to work with to tell them they suck?). You did something really normal, and Mark attacked you for this. In the business, we call this DARVO- Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s a tactic used by abusers and not-nice people. Literally the opposite of what an anti-bullying expert should do.

    5. HE GASLIT YOU. He claimed he didn’t say what he said and that you said something you didn’t say. He didn’t leave space for different recollections (which happen)- it was his (incorrect) way or no way. He painted you so thoroughly as the bad guy that you walked away thinking that your very, very normal responses were indicators of you being a terrible person. I didn’t think I’d need to say this today, but gaslighting is bad and a trained anti-bullying expert should easily be able to not gaslight. It’s honestly bare minimum.

    Mark is not a good person. He may be a bullying expert, but he is not an anti-bullying expert.

    1. Learning Consultant*

      As a learning and development consultant (not specifically in relation to bullying) for 17 years, I would never ever confront a client in this way. It’s completely inappropriate, and I don’t understand why he wasn’t immediately fired as a consultant. If the client has an issue with you, you always apologize and figure out how to work with them differently/ better, even when you think they are wrong.

      On the one occasion I did develop training related to bullying it was because there was a culture of acceptance for it as a behavior that needed to change. Training was one piece of a much larger initiative, and the training was about: the neuroscience behind emotion (required for discussion about emotions with a research organization), how emotion can get in the way of collaboration, building trust and respect, and engaging in conflict productively. We never tried to define bullying specifically or create black and white rules about behavior because there was just too much nuance. We did get into how to escalate unproductive conflict for investigation and action by HR. Training for an issue with a single individual is crazy, and training will do nothing if the manager refuses to address the behavior. In fact training the manager(s) on how to manage makes more sense than training the employee group.

  14. Pink Candyfloss*

    OP, Mark is gaslighting you to cover his own mistake. You know what was said and who said it. Time to sever ties with this “expert”.

  15. surprisedcannuk*

    What makes him an expert on bullying? You might want to google his name and maybe check his social media if it’s public. He might be not have any qualifications or holds strange views. I know some people may be uncomfortable looking into someone online presence, but for certain roles or jobs it doesn’t hurt.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      Huh, I’ve always thought looking into someone’s online presence is a normal part of selecting/hiring someone. I’m not saying you should dig into their middle school chat history or throw out every candidate with a mug shot, but looking up someone’s employment history, publications, research and public social media would all be expected in my field.

  16. NCC1701G*

    I had to read this one a few times to understand it (well sort of understand it). I think LW needs to consider that she does not know what Ann told Mark and what Emma told Ann. If I had to guess what Ann said to Mark and what the LW said to Mark do not align hence why Mark said what he did about spreading gossip etc. Very weird. I think the LW though needs to consider that she wasn’t present for all the conversations with the parties involved that she has named.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      AND? She was present for the conversation where Mark named the bully. Which he then denied doing. She was present where she told Emma to be careful what she said to Ann which is a NORMAL THING TO DO. Then Mark accused her of spreading gossip.

      OP knows her own actions and interactions with Mark. Even if there was a different recollection of things the way Mark handled it is terrible. You don’t attack someone and accuse them of backstabbing because their recollection differs from yours. He was covering his OWN lie.

      1. NCC1701G*

        I read this to mean that Mark named the LW as the bully:

        When Mark met with me and my manager, he started by saying, “Ann told me that [Bully] is the problem in your department.” I was instantly uncomfortable and unsure why Mark chose to say this. Neither my manager nor I addressed this statement with Mark at the time.

        Mark, LW and the manager are not the research department I don’t think, and Mark used the words “your department.” That would make the gossip part make more sense.

          1. NCC1701G*

            I thought the same thing, but why would she feel weird about Mark naming the person she contacted him in the first place about. I don’t know… I could be wrong though…

            1. ferrina*

              There’s a thread further up that goes into why it was bad practice for Mark to name the bully. See the thread from commenter: Gemstones

            2. Silver Robin*

              Because OP never mentioned that name to Mark directly and Mark should not be using info he found out informally without getting it through formal channels first. Ferrina has a couple of great comments explaining this above.

            3. Hlao-roo*

              I think the weird feelings come from:

              (1) Mark is comfortable in his assumption of who/what the problem is (presumably before the LW and manager explained their views of the situation)

              (2) Mark is comfortable stating that he got his information from Ann (his sister)

              The commenter ferrina posted above at 11:27 am with some explanation of how a professional moderator should approach these situations. Mark’s comment was not in line with that professional approach, so it makes sense to me that the LW felt weird about it.

            4. Myrin*

              There’s another thread above (started by user Gemstones) talking about exactly that, with some really good explanations by folks in that very profession.

              Upon first reading I, too, found it weird that OP was so taken aback by Mark coming right out and naming the bully, but I think it comes down to two factors: a person in his role needing to come in starting from a neutral perspective AND the fact that he knew the bully’s name at all meaning that Ann, a complete outsider to the department in question, blabbed to him about something her friend Emma told her.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Okay, but she simply asked for people to a bit more aware of confidentiality, and everyone went straight for the gossip and drama award.

    3. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      I don’t think LW needs to consider that at all! I don’t think it impacts the main issue here which is the way Mark, brought in as a professional facilitator, handled the entire situation and behaved towards the LW.

  17. HonorBox*

    As @L-squared noted, the term bullying has become almost a catch-all term used for any sort of negative behavior directed toward someone. Bullying exists to be sure and is a problem to be sure. But I’ve heard the term used widely in situations that don’t involve bullying. While Webster defines it a little more broadly, bullying is more like repeated behavior rather than just someone being a jerk to someone else once. If a so-called expert suggested that this interaction between him and LW was bullying, I’m not sure I’d trust him to find a resolution to an employee actually bullying someone. And to accuse LW of backstabbing is wildly overstating the warning to Emma.

  18. Stormfly*

    His wording reminds me of the abuse of ‘therapy speak’ that the Jonah Hill scandal highlighted. Even if OPs behaviour could be classed as bullying, the way he jumped to diagnosing it being the result of these deep seated issues is extremely unethical and immature behaviour. If you had a one hour long session with a licenced therapist and they were already jumping to a firm diagnosis of you, it would be pretty suspect, never mind this scenario.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      That’s what I was thinking of. I mentioned it above. Therapy speak. Where you turn it back on the victim by using buzzwords.

      1. Another Math Teacher*

        Also cult-speak. “Your (boundary breach warning sign) emotions are invalid, and you must learn to ignore them because only then can you be BetterHuman.”

  19. DrSalty*

    Alison’s last comment is spot on. Why can’t you just fire the bully instead of dumping a bunch of money into an anti-bullying consultant?

  20. Ex-prof*

    During #MeToo I saw an extremely high-profile man all over social media extolling #MeToo and scolding men who harrassed women. I personally knew this dude to have groped women without their consent.

    Mark is following the same M.O. If you’re accusing, you’re not the accused! So start accusing!

    Mark’s taken it a step further, though, in figuring out how to get paid for it.

    1. Anna*

      Haaaaaaa, I once had to deal with someone who was the first point of contact of a local volunteer sexual assault prevention group. . . who themselves sexually assaulted people in the community they were supposed to be serving. (They got caught, thankfully.)

      Basically yes, there is a specific breed of asshole who has learned that “say the right social justice words about why Behavior Is Bad” = “no one will accuse you of doing The Bad Thing.” It’s the worst.

  21. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I also get the sense that Mark (the ‘well-known anti-bullying facilitator in our small town’) behaves this way because it’s good for his bottom line.

    I don’t know how you even achieve that kind of local notoriety/fame without finding bullying under every rock, accusing the victims, etc.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      My take on this is that he knows the clientele; OP’s company hate tackling bullies and they love to shove all the responsibility on the victim, or concerned bystander. If the bullying consultant falls in line with what the company actually wants, of course he’s going to bully the squeaky wheel. What else is he going to do? Question why he’s even there when all they have to do is tell (bully) that (bullying behaviour) is unacceptable, and then brace themselves for an unreasonable person’s reaction to correction? Nah, just go after the reasonable, invested person who will instantly question themselves for offending someone and collect your payment afterwards.

    2. Panhandlerann*

      Yep. Given it’s a small town, he thinks he needs to drum up more business for himself and chooses this horrible way to do it.

  22. Checkert*

    One of the first things that stood out to me (before, you know, the overall total insanity even hit) was a consultant coming in with a ‘target’ in mind. Unless they were brought in literally to just counsel and handle that individual, any consultant worth their weight should be coming in looking more broadly at the situation/culture and approaching it from that angle. Sure, it might be that once they have met with folks and analyzed the situation that the end result would still be identifying that individual as the primary issue, it’s a hot take and could even be entirely wrong to come in with a specific person in mind and proudly announce that.

  23. bamcheeks*

    I am super confused and I have a lot more questions before I’d make any kind of determination of what happened here. To begin with, I was kind of confused who thought “a workshop” was the best action to take when the problem was a specific bully, and I wondered whether you’ve got a Missing Stair problem where everyone knows who the bully is but you’ve established a department-wide taboo against actually naming them in any official context, and Mark was trying to make that visible. But the bit where there is no agreement who named the bully (even though your manager was there?), that Mark and Ann seem to have known the name of the bully even if they say Emma wasn’t the one who told them, and the fact that Mark thinks you were bullying him even though you don’t have any institutional power to wield against him has me baffled.

    If your relationship with your manager is generally good, I would speak to them first and get their take on what has happened, and what they want you to do next. If you don’t feel confident doing that, then I would say that you have more of a Manager Problem than you do a Mark Problem. It’s wild to me that your manager just seems to be standing by whilst all this goes down; that they think the solution to there being a named, specific bully is a “workshop” and not performance management for the bully; that they haven’t spoken to you directly in the light of all Mark’s accusations to clarify what their take was and whether they have any concerns; or even just to check in and see how you are feeling after getting that accusation.

    Really, your manager’s take on all this is the only one that matters, and that’s where you should start. And if you don’t trust your manager to give you a sensible take on all this, THAT’S your problem.

    1. Salsa Verde*

      This was my thought – when Mark came back and denied naming the bully, why didn’t OP’s manager speak up? OP said the manager was there, just ask a neutral third party – who is right, Mark or OP?

      And then the manager stood there and let an outside non-employee berate and denigrate OP? WTF?

      This sentence is VERY concerning:
      My manager thinks Mark just chose his words poorly, but I think he believes I lashed out
      at him to feel better about myself.
      So OP thinks that her manager…believes Mark?
      That is something that needs to be figured out before any of this moves forward – does OP’s manager believe Mark? If so, just throw out this whole situation because that is the biggest problem of all – not only won’t the manager fire the bully, but the manager is not backing OP up at all.

      OP, I also struggle with trusting my gut and your doubts sound so familiar to me, but please know, this is not you, you are not in the wrong, your actions were correct here.

      1. Expelliarmus*

        I read it as “I think he [Mark] believes I lashed out at him to feel better about myself”.

  24. Frances*

    “why is your boss bringing in a bullying consultant in the first place, rather than just shutting down the bully with the authority she has as their manager?” – All I can think of is that maybe this is taking place in academia, which can be a really weird place at times. It could be that the boss doesn’t have the authority or political capital to shut it down or ban the bully. Maybe I missed something though in OP’s letter.

    1. Expelliarmus*

      So the boss doesn’t have the authority or political capital to shut it down or ban the bully… but an outside, paid consultant does? If that’s the case, the authority is really hollow then.

      1. Picket*

        That’s what I don’t understand! What was the consultant (not just Mark, any consultant) supposed to be doing here? They can’t actually fire anyone themselves. It sounds like management specifically didn’t want the consultant to address this problem on a one-on-one basis, so okay, there’s a company-wide workshop or presentation or something. What was the outcome supposed to be? Was the bully supposed to watch the presentation and be like, “Oh no, I’m doing all the stuff they’re saying is bad. That means I shouldn’t be doing it. I’d better stop immediately!” Problem solved, and then everyone claps for the consultant?

        Just a bizarre set of circumstances and decisions all around.

      2. Frances*

        Yes, that is exactly what I was thinking might be the case. Academia is weird and small. And the egos can be huge. And upper administration’s main concern is often all about getting in the grant money. They don’t care so much about how staff are treated (graduate students especially are subject to abuse – bullying, sexual harassment, having their research stolen, etc.). So a mid-level manager might not have any pull to deal with real personnel problems if the bully is tenured or some sort of rainmaker. The outside consultant might be a CYA move. Or a step that the boss is taking before they bring it up with their superiors again about how they really have to deal with the bully – which in this case, they now have another bully (Mark) to deal with :)

    2. Ex_Academic*

      I have seen this exact dynamic happen countless times in academia (unfortuntately). Research in academia feels like a workplace but it’s often lacking the mechanisms of managerial oversight because of either tenure (if the bully is a prof) or student rights (if the bully is a student).

      Both tenured profs and students have supervisors, and are accountable to a university’s policies against harassment, but the only formal way to bring about disciplinary action is usually to make a number of serious complaints that reference the university’s policies to an adjudication body. Often those complaints do not result in serious disciplinary action, but consume time and cause trauma for all involved.

      If “bullying” here means behaving aggressively, selfishly, and unprofessionally to peers and supervisees, that usually doesn’t meet the threshold of harassment policies (and is often tacitly rewarded in academic culture).

      Because there’s usually few mechanisms for oversight, people on the receiving end of an abusive colleague or professor in academia often come to rely on one another to share information & keep one another safe. It can look like drama, but sharing information and thinking carefully about who you can and can’t trust with the truth of whatever’s really happening is a common way people in abusive workplaces protect themselves.

    3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I thought academia too, but Research could also be in industry. The bully might be the top subject matter expert in their field, hence why the org won’t just fire them — the organization relies on their work too much and would rather try to find a way to “work with” them. Could a single workshop do it? Probably not… but I like to think that people are capable of change with ongoing education and leadership. We don’t have any details about the bully’s role in the department, their specific behavior, or who is their target (everyone, one specific person, a particular demographic gender/race/religion/age?).

      For this OP, I wouldn’t engage in the weeds of Mark’s criticisms, or who said what. or even if he’s wrong or right. He’s the wrong guy for the job because he said this: “he can no longer trust me” well, the OP works there and Mark doesn’t, end of contract, right? You might not be able to get rid of the bully in Research, but you can end the consulting contract with the vendor who audaciously indicates that he can’t work effectively with his client.

  25. JustKnope*

    OP, the fact that you’re feeling unsure and second-guessing yourself and your intuition is definitely a normal outcome when someone is gaslighting you. (Which as others have pointed out, Mark definitely is.) Your confusion is totally understandable when you’re in the middle of this mess. Looking at this from an outsiders’ perspective, Mark is not someone you can trust, and hopefully that can help you internally calibrate next time you’re faced with interacting with him.

  26. ONFM*

    So I’m going to go fully (justifiably?) paranoid here and tell you that I had a very similar experience when I made a discrimination complaint to HR about an employee who was not going to be fired no matter what. My org’s leadership had decided that he was more valuable than I was, and so I was the problem. The actual situation did not matter (and was never investigated); I was “coached” on my defensiveness, my RBF, and my relationships with other employees, all without the facilitator actually speaking to my coworkers. I was subjected to about 90 minutes of increasingly personal attacks (the facilitator made assertions about my friendships and my marriage, if you can believe it) until I finally refused to engage any further and left. I put in writing that I was no longer willing to meet with this facilitator, and HR informed me they considered the complaint closed at my request, since the subject of my complaint was “fully willing” to cooperate with her recommendations and continued coaching. That was followed up with an email from the facilitator telling me I was a hopeless case, since she could “just tell” that I was incapable of following her advice.

    So, all that to say…does the bully have pull? High ranking allies? Family ties to the leadership? In my experience, this doesn’t bode well for your future.

    1. Expelliarmus*

      So if I understand correctly, you’re saying that maybe the leadership (above OP’s boss, who hired Mark) of OP’s company doesn’t want to get rid of the bully and so told Mark to protect said bully, resulting in this mess? Hmm I could see that being possible, but it’s far from the only likely scenario, of course.

    2. Sage*

      My case with bullying was less severe than yours, but it went in the same direction: I was made the problem while HR shielded the bullies from consequences. At the same time, I was offered some coaching “to grow a thicker skin” because according to them, the problem was that I was “too weak” and the wrong gender. At least it helped me to see that trying to be understood was fruitless, and that I needed to get out.

  27. KeinName*

    I have a gut feeling about this that you should try to extricate yourself from all of this. What seemed to have gone down there seems like trolling and might only be solved by not engaging. Like we learnt in the trainings against hate speech: it’s hard to counter with sensible arguments, it just makes you spend energy and those who do not adhere by reason always come out on top.
    I might be exaggerating but it feels like you might personally be best served by having someone else take over this anti-bullying project and trying on another level to get someone else to get rid of this expert.

  28. Sage*

    Mark’s behaviour reminds me on the cases of police agents who get into domestic violence police unit while being abusers themselves.

  29. Trek*

    Two things
    1)Mark stated his feelings matter not OPs. His breach of confidentiality and subsequent behavior also doesn’t matter but OP should do soul searching to discover her hidden agenda.
    2) People can be an expert in a field and still he an idiot. Mark sounds like the coworker who is always offended and never wrong and found a job that feeds those needs beautifully.

    Mark isn’t trust worthy. keep your interactions short, one word answers when possible, never meet with him alone. When he goes off about something, respond with: Clearly we see this differently and walk away. He isn’t going to solve anything.

  30. Lissa Evans*

    This whole thing never should have happened as the bully’s boss should have shut down her behavior instead of hiring a consultant to do a workshop about bullying. I sure hope they sit down, think this through, and start making better choices.

  31. Hiring Mgr*

    Has Mark actually been hired for this yet, or are these just initial meetings to scope it out? He may be a well-known anti bullying guy but there must be other/better options – even if they’re not right in your town.

  32. Aquamarine*

    Even if the manager were right about this, “I was not expecting to be accused of bullying and backstabbing…. My manager thinks Mark just chose his words poorly,” that would still point to Mark being a bad choice for this job!

    Mark was feeling the heat when confronted about gossiping with Ann, so he manipulated his way out of it by going on the attack. What a jerk.

  33. a raging ball of distinction*

    “I reached out to Mark, a well-known anti-bullying facilitator in our small town”
    …the ONLY anti-bullying facilitator in your small town?
    …the only anti-bullying facilitator in a town small enough that everyone knows everyone else’s business?
    It’s admirable that your instinct was to hire the person geographically closest to you. I grew up in a small town. You don’t have to tell anyone why Mark “wasn’t right for your organization” (and probably your boss or even her boss should be the one to deliver that message to him) but please do cast a wider net. I have to wonder how much consulting Mark does for businesses outside your small town…

    1. different seudonym*


      Reverse Victim and Offender

      Darvo is the most precise term for this %-#@, and dude is deliberately behaving abusively. Commenter above who describes being pushed out by a similar consultant may be on to something.

    2. ina*

      Thank you for introducing this term to me. I looked it up and I feel like I have some closure for an experience that left me feeling like OP (outside the workplace though/with a former friend). Maybe not closure per se, but the knowledge that this is something that happens enough as a pattern that is can be named and it is being rightfully classified as abuse!

  34. Unkempt Flatware*

    This is something that would happen to me. I didn’t have good examples of emotional intelligence as a child so if someone told me I was a bully who backstabbed and broke confidence, I would believe it and be very ashamed of myself. The way OP wrote about this makes me think they may be similar in that way. It is not immediately clear to me when I’ve been treated terribly, gaslit, lied to, etc. Mark is a punk who I assume enjoys doing this and leaving fear in his wake.

  35. Risha*

    Tbh, I think you may be best dusting off your resume and seeing what else is out there. I know people tend to suggest finding a new job for various workplace issues, and I also understand it ain’t easy to just up and get a new job. But at this point, it may be the best course of action (at least IMO). Here are the reasons why I’m saying this-

    Your manager sucks at managing people who are bullying other coworkers. You were asked to look into workshops (!) to address the bullying instead of your manager doing her job. Is it even in your role to do this, or were you sorta voluntold? Emma, who is supposed to be your friend as well as your coworker, told Ann what you said, instead of keeping it to herself (and not trusting Ann moving forward). Finally, your manager did not defend you against Mark, who is a consultant, not an employee. I’m sure there’s even more that I missed.

    To me, all of this is way too much drama for a job where everyone is supposed to be an adult. I would not even put up with that much drama in my personal life, so no way would I be up for it at work. Work should not be that way and if you are able to get out of there, do so quickly.

    1. ferrina*

      yeah, this is pretty zany. This is too zany for these to be the only bees in the building….

  36. Zarniwoop*

    “It doesn’t help that Mark is an expert with decades of experience helping organizations deal with workplace bullying ”
    Has anyone checked if this is actually true?
    Not just that he’s been consulting for decades, but that customers found his services useful.

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      I didn’t believe that bit, just because we haven’t been talking about workplace bullying for decades, yet.

  37. Emily*

    OP, I am so sorry you are going through this. You are not the problem here, but the bully, Mark, and your boss (especially your boss!) definitely are. I’ve seen multiple commenters say that the bully should be fired, but I am guessing that is not something you have the power to do, and is therefore not actionable advice for you. Like Alison said, the issue is here that your boss has decided to hire a bullying consultant, rather than address the behavior of the bully directly. I don’t know how much sway you have with your boss, but I do hope you can have a conversation similar to the script Alison provided.

  38. mordreder*

    “I have requested another meeting to try to resolve this”

    In addition to what Alison said, I’d personally make a *very* limited number of attempts (between 0 and 1) to resolve this if your employer does keep Mark on. In my experience, genuine resolution of conflict (as opposed to one person just capitulating) is something that typically happens between two reasonable people. Mark does not seem reasonable, and there’s legitimate downside to seeking out any more interaction with him than is absolutely necessary.

  39. Dek*

    “He told me intent doesn’t matter and to stop being defensive and instead reflect on my actions to understand the underlying feelings that caused me to act like I did.”

    I…wait, so intent doesn’t matter…so reflect on why you did the thing?

    Isn’t that…intent?

    This dude sounds like a nightmare. I feel like I would’ve checked out from his opening statement, because even if he HAS been told that by someone else, that doesn’t seem like a helpful way to bring it up.

  40. Nom*

    I once had a personal coach that I was connected to through my organization (she was coaching a group of people at my org) who spread rumors about me, took what I shared with her out of context and shared it with my boss, and was just all around a toxic person to deal with. Thankfully I was able to cut ties with her pretty cleanly but it was such a perplexing situation.

  41. higheredadmin*

    This right here is why Alison always says that if someone refers to their workplace as “a family”, it is a huge red flag and time to run screaming. None of the people involved are behaving like they are in a professional workplace.

  42. Turtlewings*

    My sister is an elementary school teacher, and always says you have to be very careful with bullying accusations, because if Kid A is bullying Kid B, Kid A is by far the most likely student to claim they’re being bullied—usually by Kid B.

    1. Margaretmary*

      This reminds me of one time a student I taught, who was utterly incapable of getting on with anybody, staff or student and could “start a fight in an empty room” came into my class complaining about how he’s been suspended because another kid had reported him for doing something to him (can’t remember the details) and how the kid who reported him is “just a bully.” My jaw literally dropped. This was a kid who once accidentally hit me because he was trying to hit another kid and I stepped in to stop them and who would scribble over other kids’ work and was, quite frankly, the biggest bully in the school.

      But apparently, reporting him for bullying was bullying him.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah, you start off by separating them (so you can easily see who goes to whom) and weirdly Kid A, the very kid who claimed bullying was happening, can’t keep away themselves away from Kid B, who is silent but looks stressed at every point of contact and relieved whenever separated. It’s classic.

  43. New Senior Mgr*

    This makes dealing with the standing assistant look like a dream. Just to put it all in perspective. But seriously, I would speak with my manager, show her Alison’s take on this, and reconsider Mark’s um… help.

  44. Aeryn Sun*

    This reads like someone who learned a handful of therapy buzzwords and decided that was enough to declare themselves an expert.

  45. FlufferNutter*

    “He told me intent doesn’t matter”. That statement tells you everything you need to know about the Marks of the world. Hope you can keep him away from your company. What a con artist.

  46. ina*

    It seems like a wild conflict of interest and just silly to have the outside consultant be a relative/friend of someone in the organization – especially HR! You lose any channel or avenue for recourse along with any objectivity this person should bring to the situation.

    My unproductive and unprofessional opinion? Sic your departmental bully on his outside bully…let nature decide who will win in the battle of bullies. *sigh*

  47. Kella*

    Potential language to use to report Mark’s behavior while cutting through all the drama:

    “I shared a concern I had regarding Mark’s work with Emma. When Mark found out about this, he confronted me. He made no attempt to problem-solve or learn more about the issue and instead he escalated straight to “I can no longer trust you.” He accused me of spreading gossip, backstabbing, and breaking confidentially– his words, not mine. He also told me I was a bully. I attempted to apologize but he wasn’t satisfied. Anything that I said to address his points was immediately dismissed and called “being defensive.” He even speculated to me that my actions were motivated by powerlessness and worthlessness.”

  48. Woah*

    Honestly, sometimes I think “consultants” is a code word for “people who can’t work anywhere else” just due to the experiences I’ve had with a variety of them! A debt management consultant in foreclosure on multiple properties (which wasn’t told to us as an inspirational story when the job hired him, we found out via the newspaper notice of public auction…), a equity and diversity consultant who really, really hated Jews and denied the existence of Black American Jews, and an “operations enhancement” consultant who tried to literally violate a federal contract because “I think its better this way.”

    I know there are skilled consultants out there. But there’s also a cesspool of people who have taken their worst traits/weakest personal areas and tried to tackle those demons by monetizing them. It isn’t going well for them or the people who hire them. Mark seems like one of them.

  49. Non non non all the way home*

    One of the biggest bullies I know is a Canadian “bullying expert” who adores Donald Trump and unfortunately has been hired by a number of organizations to train their employees about bullying. How on earth is this happening?

  50. Mat*

    Aaaaand tenderqueer discourse reaches the workplace. For what it’s worth, this man sounds like a total a-hole. Feel free to pop in that internal box in your head.

  51. Introvert Teacher*

    Yep! Former elementary teacher here. over the years, we have had anti-bullying presentations done schoolwide and let me tell you — not one was helpful, and one in particular was a cringey and horrible experience. A theater group came and tried to teach the students a super wordy and complex rap song about bullying. Everyone gave their best effort repeating the lyrics but just ended up mumbling the words. They invited kid volunteers to the stage to perform the rap. Ironically the very kids who were being bullies ended up running to the stage and, thrilled at having an audience, proceeded to “perform” the rap in a way that obviously made fun of the whole experience. Bullying continued unhindered, the bullies learned nothing, admin did nothing. Never put a bandaid on a hemorrhage… bullying workshops look like taking action, but they are a waste of time. It’s like yelling at the whole group for the actions of one, or preaching to the choir. Everyone else already gets it — do they think the bully will listen to a presentation and say, “Hmm, interesting points! Maybe I should stop being a jerk!” The only meaningful way to stop bad behavior is enforcing a consequence for it, which management and HR must do.

  52. Mycelia R Kool*

    Mark demonstrated DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. it is a common tactic used by bullies. I would not trust Mark at all, me personally.

  53. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

    Slightly concerned that an anti-bullying consultant immediately pulled DARVO on you…

    1. Sneaky Squirrel*

      Mark’s reaction towards OP was NOT appropriate. OP doesn’t indicate that she said anything about Mark personally. So the term ‘backstabbing’ is wildly inappropriate in this context. OP told her colleague (Emma) that Mark brought up information that she knew came from the colleague and asked the colleague to stop speaking of the situation, presumably so that OP could work with Mark in a more professional capacity.

      And Mark is providing a service to LW that LW’s company is paying for. If Mark had a concern that confidentiality was being breached, he should have addressed this professionally. Either way, I’d question what confidentiality the company is obligated to keep because the company can really decide to handle the problem how they want, or they can even choose not use Mark. He is obligated to keep their confidence because he is providing them a service, but not the other way around.

    2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      I’m not sure where you are getting any of this. What indicates narcissism or that the LW is angry she didn’t get her way? It seems like she is confused at why talking with Emma and saying “Hey, Mark knew Bully’s name and I wonder if Ann, his relative, told him” was such a monstrous thing. If Mark is hired, his interpretation of the situation could have consequences for Emma, she deserves to know. There is no anti-bullying consultant/random employee confidentiality.

  54. Sneaky Squirrel*

    There is so much to unfold here.

    1. Mark brought up gossip he obtained from outside of the company to this discussion. His contract is with LW and he should be trying to understand the situation through LW’s perspective. Instead, he formed judgements of the situation which may not even be true to what his client is trying to solve. In hindsight, it probably would have served LW to bring that up as a concern right away, but I get it, he’s just trying to understand all the info he’s been given we’re expecting Mark to otherwise act professionally.

    2. Mark accuses the client of breaching confidentiality. What confidentiality does he think LW is required to keep? Mark has an obligation to be discrete and handle his clients confidentially, but LW and their team can choose to handle their company’s problem the way they best see fit as long as it doesn’t breach some formalized contract. In any case, even if there was a reasonable expectation of LW to keep confidentiality, telling another employee to stop sharing gossip with people outside of the company is appropriate.

    3. Mark’s response to this ‘confidentiality breach’ is wildly inappropriate. You do not accuse a client of gossiping and backstabbing. Also, seriously, backstabbing? Backstabbing is a rather personal behavior. Mark is showing he can’t act professionally.

    4. What is management doing? Management passed the buck to LW to run a workshop; but it sounds like this situation has a particularly bully who needs to be spoken to directly and LW doesnt seem to deal with that bully directly. Management also is dismissing LW’s concerns about Mark which comes off to me as not putting your staff’s concerns first. Management doesn’t seem very invested in taking care of their employees.

    5. Emma needs to pick better friends because her friends dont know how to keep their mouths shut.

Comments are closed.