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

Justin Walker
Justin Walker
Nov 29, 2017

Learn what workplace bullying is and how you can create frameworks to prevent it.

Workplace bullying is a common problem in the U.S., and many companies and organizations inadvertently perpetuate a bullying culture by failing to take a proactive approach to anti-bullying policies, or lacking a framework and process for victimized parties to follow to report a problem.

Bullying in the workplace can create a hostile working environment that not only has a direct impact on the victim themselves, but can also hamper creativity, reduce productivity, create a toxic company culture, and place the company at risk of litigation for failing to address the issue.

However, knowing how to deal with bullying, encourage reporting and identifying when a problem is occurring can be a challenge for even the most conscientious of employers – and so in this article, we will 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?

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators.” This conduct itself may be designed to threaten, intimidate or humiliate – or interfere with the target’s ability to do their work.

The forms that such bullying takes are highly variable, but they may involve behaviors such as these:

  • Intimidatory or derogatory comments pertaining to the individual, their work or their ability to perform their work
  • Attempts to sabotage or negatively impact the target’s work, or to prevent them from being able to carry out their work
  • 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
  • Attempts to incite others to victimize the target or join in the bullying

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

When a person is targeted by a bully, the behavior is likely to be repetitive rather than a one-off occurrence, and will potentially escalate over time. The intent behind the behavior is to bully and intimidate, and the inherent power disparity between the bully and their victim means that the target of the bully may feel powerless to seek redress or defend themselves, or feel that they cannot prevent or end the behavior.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 61 percent of workplace bullies are bosses – those already in a position of power over the victim. However, a position of seniority is by no means a litmus test for bullying, and it is entirely possible for both peers and those in junior positions to the victim to be bullies too.

Workplace bullying facts and figures in the U.S.

Everyone knows that workplace bullying is bad, but a large number of companies and bosses mistakenly believe that bullying is simply not an issue within their company or under their watch, so they don’t pay the issue much mind. However, the facts don’t support this view. A 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute indicated that 27 percent of respondents had experienced workplace bullying at some point, and 72 percent were aware of at least one workplace bullying incident.

A 2017 survey also found that 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying, and 81 percent of employers are perceived as doing nothing or being resistant to acting on reports of bullying. Seventy-one percent of respondents felt that employer reactions or responses to reports of workplace bullying were harmful to the victim, and 29 percent said that they did not report bullying, indicating a lack of confidence in the company’s ability or willingness to resolve the problem without causing further harm.

According to the same survey, respondent statistics indicate that 70 percent of bullies are men, and 60 percent of victims are women. Eighty percent of female bullies target other women. Finally, when it comes to resolving workplace bullying, 65 percent of respondents who had been victims lost or left their jobs in order to escape the situation, and 40 percent of victims suffered stress-related health problems as a result of their treatment.

Examples of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can be discreet, hard to define and challenging to explain to another party, which means that 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 obviously be widely recognized as bullying, but many manifestations of workplace bullying are far subtler. Here are a few basic examples of workplace bullying:

  • During a meeting, a target 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, which discourages the target from speaking up and getting their point across.
  • A line manager tells a supervisor to give a set task and deadline to a certain 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 other people to do the same.
  • A bully may physically intimidate 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 target intends to seek recourse or report the behavior, they may pre-emptively approach their line 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 target for reporting the problem. 

Suggestions to stop bullying in your company

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 some steps to take to prevent workplace bullying:

  • Acknowledge that workplace bullying is an issue for companies of all types and sizes, and recognize that it can and may happen within your own organization.
  • Have a clear anti-bullying policy in place that employees of all levels are aware of, which outlines the company’s stance on bullying and commitment to preventing it.
  • Train and educate employees on the nature of workplace bullying and how to recognize it – whether as a victim, bully, witness or observer.
  • 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.
  • Establish an open-door policy that encourages employees to speak up in a safe, supportive environment without judgment or penalty.
  • 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, and never disregard a complaint simply because the accused always seems pleasant and helpful to you personally.
  • 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.

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

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, contact your local employment attorney.


Image Credit:

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Justin Walker
Justin Walker
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.