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Updated Jan 17, 2024

Workplace Bullying: How to Identify and Handle It

Learn how to spot workplace bullying and stop it in its tracks.

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Written By: Skye SchooleySenior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Table of Contents

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We can all agree bullying is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in the workplace. According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an estimated 48.6 million Americans are bullied at work. The survey found that 30% of workers have direct experience being bullied in the workplace and an additional 19% have witnessed it.

Learning how to effectively identify and handle bullying at work is the first step toward a more inclusive and safer workplace.

Workplace bullying infographic

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of someone in the workplace; it can be verbal, nonverbal, physical or psychological. Workplace bullying may be perpetrated by a single person or a group, and it may occur one-on-one or in front of others, such as clients, teammates or customers. Although anyone can commit workplace bullying, it is most often a top-down issue, with 65% of bullies being bosses. There are countless reasons why someone may bully another at work, but the driving factor is often the bully’s personality.

Although roughly half of U.S. workers have some form of experience with workplace bullying, the consequences to the perpetrators remain minimal. For example, 60% of American employers still react negatively when bullying is reported, and most instances of bullying end only when the target quits, gets fired, is constructively discharged or transfers. This leaves a lot of room for improvement when it comes to eradicating bullying in the workplace. [Related: What Is Considered Wrongful Termination?]

Workplace bullying in a virtual world

Even though many employees have moved to a remote or hybrid work arrangement in recent years, bullying can still be a problem for your business. Workplace bullying may happen not only in a physical office, but also in a virtual workspace. In fact, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that virtual bullying is more common than in-person bullying. The bullying rate for remote workers is more than 43%, with most virtual bullying occurring during online meetings.

Workplace bullying outside of work

If bullying occurs between two or more of your employees, it can be considered workplace bullying – even if that bullying technically takes place outside of work. For example, one scenario to look out for is on social media. If co-workers are connected on social platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, a bully may choose to use one of those outlets to antagonize their victim. Bullying can also happen outside the office at company social events, like happy hours, team-building exercises and company parties. In addition to bullying an employee during a company social event, excluding someone from an event can also be considered bullying behavior.

Did You Know?Did you know
There are no federal laws that govern bullying specifically. However, if the target is part of a protected group, bullying may be considered harassment and illegal under anti-discrimination laws.

How do you identify workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying can present itself in many forms, so it’s important to be on the lookout for a variety of unacceptable behavior that may occur throughout your workforce. Educate yourself and your team about which types of actions and behaviors are considered workplace bullying.

Here are some negative behaviors to look for when identifying workplace bullying:

  • Intimidating, undermining, or hostile comments or gestures
  • Persistent teasing or humiliation
  • Passive-aggressive comments or insults
  • Constant unfair criticism or blame
  • Taking credit for another employee’s work
  • Isolation or exclusion of another employee
  • Making impossible demands or deadlines
  • Aggressive verbal or nonverbal communication (including digital communication)

Since these actions can occur in a physical or virtual work environment, it’s important to keep open communication with your team to ensure that no one becomes the target of such actions. Workplace bullying may not always be apparent to an outsider or business leader, so encourage employees to speak up about mistreatment as soon as they identify it.

How do you handle workplace bullying?

Workplace aggression is a serious problem that can affect an employee’s mental health, destroy their livelihoods and significantly change lives. Part of the issue is that many employers don’t handle bullying instances properly. The Workplace Bullying Institute reported that employers tend to encourage, defend, rationalize, discount and deny bullying. As an employer or manager, you have a responsibility to stop workplace bullying in its tracks. One of the best ways to do this is to implement a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying.

Here are several steps you can use to handle and reduce bullying in your workplace:

  • Educate employees on what classifies as acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior.
  • Require employees to take anti-bullying and anti-harassment training. 
  • Identify and control potential risks.
  • Conduct exit interviews, ask questions, and communicate with your team to gain insider knowledge about possible issues.
  • Recognize changes in employee relationships (positive and negative).
  • Engage with poor-performing employees to root out potential unseen abuse.
  • Implement reporting and response procedures, including an open-door communications policy.
  • Encourage honest and open reporting.
  • Act promptly when reports surface or if aggression is identified.
  • Treat all matters seriously.
  • Maintain confidentiality and sensitivity.
  • Be neutral to ensure fairness.
  • Keep detailed records of each indiscretion (e.g., the people involved, what was said or done, where and when the abuse occurred).
  • Evaluate your workplace policies at least once a year to ensure they are up to date with any workplace changes. For example, you may need to extend your policies to cover specific virtual behaviors if your employees have moved from an in-office setting to a remote work environment.

Although some instances of bullying may not be federally regulated, most informed Americans support legislation providing protection from workforce aggression. Currently, 31 states have introduced a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which aims to precisely define an “abusive work environment,” providing specific rights for victims and protecting employers that take action against workplace bullies. 

Whether or not bullying is legally regulated in your state, it’s important to take it seriously and handle every matter with care. 

FYIDid you know
Every employee should have a detailed personnel file that includes any bullying offenses or infractions, as well as disciplinary actions taken.

How does bullying impact small businesses?

As a business owner or manager, you should be concerned about workplace bullying for both financial and nonfinancial reasons. For starters, bullying can have a major impact on employee mental health, which can eventually lead to anxiety, depression, burnout, disengagement and poor performance. This negatively impacts the employee as well as your organization.

The costs of turnover, retraining, absenteeism, lost productivity and potential litigation are more reasons for company owners and leaders to be concerned about workplace bullying. Imagine the hit your bottom line might take if one of your top-performing employees becomes the target of workplace bullying and ends up quitting as a result.

The resulting damage to an enterprise’s reputation and its related ability to attract strong talent should always be a key consideration for any growing organization. If bullying continually goes unaddressed and becomes baked into your company culture, it can have a lasting impact on your business and your ability to recruit new staff. Employees and job seekers place high importance on diversity and inclusion as well as company culture, and they won’t want to work for you if you tolerate bullying in the workplace.

Amy Blackburn contributed to the writing and research in this article.

author image
Written By: Skye SchooleySenior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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