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Workplace Bullying: What It Looks Like and How to Stop It

Updated Feb 21, 2023

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Bullying in the workplace can create a hostile environment that directly impacts the victim themselves and the workplace as a whole. It can hamper creativity, reduce productivity, create a toxic company culture, and place your company at risk of litigation for failing to address the issue.

Although workplace bullying is a common problem in the U.S., knowing how to deal with it can be a challenge for even the most conscientious employers. Let’s look at workplace bullying in more detail, including how it is defined, how to recognize it, and what steps you should take to stop it.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of one or more employees by one or more perpetrators in their organization. The conduct itself may be designed to threaten, intimidate or humiliate the employee, and/or interfere with their ability to do their work.

The forms in which bullying occurs vary, but may include the following: 

  • Intimidation: Intimidatory or derogatory comments pertaining to the individual, their work or their ability to perform their job.
  • Sabotage: Attempts to sabotage or negatively impact the target’s work, or to prevent them from being able to carry out their work.
  • Gossip: The spread of rumors or gossip designed to have a negative impact on the target, or cause others to call their capability, professionalism and skills into question.
  • Incitement: Attempts to incite others to victimize the target or join the bullying.

Workplace bullying is usually verbal rather than physical, but this list is far from comprehensive.

FYIDid you know

Although many companies and bosses mistakenly believe that bullying is not an issue within their company, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 39% of employed Americans are bullied at work, and another 22% have witnessed it.

What does workplace bullying look like?

Workplace bullying can be discreet, hard to define and challenging to explain to others, which means many victims feel powerless to take action. Being pinned into a corner by an angry boss shouting and jabbing a finger into one’s face would be widely recognized as bullying, but many manifestations of workplace bullying by a toxic employee are far subtler.

Here are a few basic examples of workplace bullying:

  • During a meeting, the victim is continually interrupted by another party who speaks over them, mocks or belittles their contributions, or makes exaggerated facial expressions such as rolling their eyes. These behaviors discourage the victim from speaking up and getting their point across.
  • A manager tells a supervisor to give a set task and deadline to a particular subordinate; the supervisor deliberately holds off on doing this until such a time as the target will be incapable of completing the work to standard and within the deadline, getting them into trouble or causing the boss to question their capability or work ethic.
  • An aggressor makes jokes and negative comments about another worker either in their presence or in their absence, and encourages others to do the same.
  • A bully physically intimidates a target without touching them, such as by deliberately standing over them, invading their space or disrespecting their privacy.

If a bully is afraid that the victim intends to seek recourse or report the behavior, they may preemptively approach their manager to tell a false backstory about the situation. This sets the victim up as an incompetent or disgruntled employee who is trying to cover their back by making a report, in an attempt to ensure that the boss disregards or even penalizes the actual victim for reporting the problem. 

Did You Know?Did you know

The Workplace Bullying Institute found bosses and superiors to be the most common workplace bullies (65%), although perpetrators can also be peers (21%) or subordinates (14%) to the victim.

How can employers stop workplace bullying?

To stamp out workplace bullying in your organization and create a culture of zero tolerance for bullying, it is vital to take a proactive approach to the issue, and not simply assume that bullying isn’t happening because you haven’t received any reports or witnessed it firsthand.

Here are four steps employers can take to curb workplace bullying:

1. Acknowledging the issue

First, acknowledge that workplace bullying is an issue for companies of all types and sizes, and recognize that it can happen within your own organization. No business is immune to workplace bullying.

2. Creating policies

Once you’ve acknowledged that bullying is a reality, create a clear anti-bullying policy that outlines your company’s stance on bullying and commitment to preventing it. Set up a framework that employees at any level can use to report bullying in terms of a chain of command, including details of when and how to bypass the chain and where to go if the bully in question is the victim’s manager or direct superior.

As part of your policy creation, you can also establish an open-door policy that encourages employees to speak up in a safe, supportive environment without judgment or penalty.

FYIDid you know

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 43% of remote workers are bullied – so be sure to include policies around remote workplace conduct as well.

3. Training and education

Your policies are useless if no one knows about them. Educating your employees can play a significant role in workplace bullying prevention. Here are a few topics to cover with your employees:

  • What workplace bullying is
  • How to recognize workplace bullying as a victim, bully or witness
  • Understanding unconscious bias
  • Your company policies regarding workplace bullying
  • Your company policies regarding diversity and inclusion
  • How to report workplace bullying
  • Consequences for violating your workplace policies

Add your anti-bullying policies to your employee handbook, and have employees sign their acknowledgment. This will help ensure every employee understands your stance on bullying.

4. Responding to incidents

Have a plan and framework to follow for reported or witnessed bullying incidents, including a database to log and record complaints and a policy on how to proceed. Take all allegations of bullying seriously, and do not attempt to justify or downplay reports or complaints. Remember that the face and personality an employee presents to the boss may be very different from the one a victim or target sees. Never disregard a complaint simply because the accused always seems pleasant and helpful to you personally.

Ensuring that your company acknowledges and deals with workplace bullying if and when it arises can boost productivity, increase employee retention rates and reduce absenteeism – as well as protect the company against potentially costly litigation.

Contact your local employment attorney if you want advice on a specific issue related to employment law or are having problems resolving an incident of workplace bullying and require legal advice. [Read related: Employee Rights You’re Violating Right Now]

How can employees stop workplace bullying?

Employers aren’t the only ones who can stop bullying in the workplace. In fact, it’s often up to managers and employees to do the heavy lifting in terms of identifying and reporting bullying in the first place. 

Employees and managers can help stop workplace bullying by actively participating in anti-bullying training sessions, understanding how to recognize workplace bullying, and appropriately reporting and responding to bullying incidents.

Since employees and managers are the ones interacting with each other on a daily basis, they can prevent workplace bullying by modeling ethical and respectful behavior themselves. This can encourage others to emulate their good behavior.

Skye Schooley contributed to the reporting and writing of this article.

Justin Walker
Community Member
Justin Walker of Walker Law is a top-tier employment law and business litigation attorney located in downtown San Diego. His knowledge, expertise and commitment to every case are what set Justin apart from the crowd.
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